Sunday, April 28, 2019

Have We Stolen a Generation's Independent Thought?

"Kids these days," the complaint begins. "They cannot think for themselves." The complaint has come across my desk three times this week, voiced by someone in the higher education world complaining about the quality of student arriving in their ivy-covered halls.

It's worth noting that the observation itself has no particular objective, evidence-based support. There's no college student independent thought index we can consult to check for a dip. Just the subjective judgment of some people who work at the college level. So the whole business could simply be the time-honored dismay of an older generation contemplating the younger one.

If we do accept the observation as valid, there are a variety of possible explanations. A study showing that people just stick with their team and don't think about the ideas involved. A political climate in which truth-telling and truth-searching are not currently highly valued. The power of YouTube conspiracy videos. Helicopter parents armed with bazooka-mounted lawnmowers.

But there's another factor to consider, a firmly school-embedded factor that has promoted anti-thought for a generation.

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, the U.S. has used high stakes standardized tests as accountability measures for schools, districts and teachers. This has led to a twisting of public education, as schools have reassigned their resources to focus on preparing students to do well on standardized math and reading tests. Music, arts, history--even recess--have been placed on the back burner because they are not on the test.

Much has been written about the effects of high stakes testing on education, but we should also pay attention to the nature of the tests themselves. They are, for the most part, standardized multiple-choice tests, and as such, they promote a particular view of the world.

Consider the difference between the two following questioning strategies:

Read this poem. What do you think the author's main idea is? Provide some evidence of how particular words and images are an important part of how the author makes their point. You'll be scored on how well you express and support your idea.

Read this poem. Here are four possible statements that could be the author's main idea, but only one is correct. Pick that one. Here are four quotes from the poem that might be the most important evidence of the author's main idea, but only one choice is correct. Pick that one.

The first strategy encourages the student to explore, to think, and to support her own ideas. Her task is to think and to express her thinking. The second strategy tells the student that the questions have already been settled and that somebody already knows the one correct answer. Her task is to figure out what that somebody believes the answer to be. The second is anti-thought. Even though a question like "what's the most important detail" is what many students would consider an opinion question, successfully answering means setting aside their own opinions, their own thoughts, and trying to predict the opinions and thoughts of the test writers.

The second is, of course, a standardized multiple-choice testing strategy. By focusing on that type of questioning for students' entire academic careers, we hammer home that, rather than a world open for exploration and discovery, the world of math and reading is a world where every question already has a known answer and no exploration or thought is needed. Just learn the kind of compliance that keeps you on the path that has been laid down for you.

Test manufacturers can keep making noises about new generation tests, but as long as we stick to the fundamental formula--we will tell you which answers to choose from, and only one is "correct"--we are still deep in the land of anti-thought, the kind of place where the writer of poems can't even answer standardized test questions about her own works. Every test, every question, pushes on students some fundamentally troubling notions about the nature of knowledge and understanding in the world. They also teach students that independent, open-ended, exploratory thought is neither necessary nor desired to navigate the world.

We are teaching students, literally, not to think, but instead to clear their own thoughts and concentrate on following the path followed by the people who wrote the test questions. We are teaching them that every question has just one right answer, that somebody out there already knows it, and that you go to school to learn to say what those people want you to say.  This is not a new issue in education, but we have ramped it up, systematically injected it into every level of K-12 education, and incentivized it like never before. If it has stifled a generation's desire for independent thought, that is no surprise.

Originally posted at Forbes


  1. "We are teaching students, literally, not to think, but instead to clear their own thoughts and concentrate on following the path followed by the people who wrote the test questions."
    First, YES.
    And then, I want to draw attention to that phrase: "following the path." That never-ending emphasis on the "path" ends up devaluing what students are doing. Everything that happens in the classroom has to serve an immediate, pre-mapped purpose. Students aren't reading poems and answering questions about them because poems are worth reading, and it's worth developing the ability to respond to them. They're reading poems because that will sharpen the "critical reading skills" that will get them to grade-level in their forced march to Success.
    I was delighted when my daughter said that her 9th grade class was reading "Ode to a Nightingale." Then it turns out, months later, they were reading it ALL TERM, one verse at a time, then answering a lot of stupid questions about the theme. Keats would be horrified.

  2. You can’t explain it any better than that. All that these expensive “tests” teach is to pick the so called “right” answer.
    Another thing, I love it when college “educators” complain about their students... like it’s not THEIR responsibility to teach them. I taught 7th Graders for 43 years. From what I have observed, most college “educators” would last 43 minutes with a room full of 12-13 year olds.

  3. I was involved in conversation on Facebook about climate change teaching in schools (based on this NPR article One of the commentators from another country expressed shock at the "richest" country in the world had the most uneducated people. Richest country doesn't mean individuals are rich, and in fact, our wealth gap is pretty big. Keeping the masses uneducated and not thinking for themselves is likely a feature and not a bug of the system. It keeps the wealth concentrated in one place and the masses not questioning it, and under the impression that if they just work hard enough, they could be the 1%.