Conversations from the Edge

Conversations from the Edge is a series of raw, honest and candid dialogues about education’s shifting learning landscape. Hosted by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson.

Dear Sheryl,

(Note: I’m grumpy and tired after being sick for a week so I apologize for the somewhat random thoughts that follow. Hope you can make sense of it.)

I’ve been thinking about your post from the other day. This weekend, I ran across this 10th Grade Mathematics state assessment from Massachusetts. Forty-two questions that supposedly would identify whether or not a 15-year-old in Boston was “ready” for the world. I figured, what the heck, and I took the test.

Sad to say, based on the result, I should probably be heading back to middle school with Tucker (my 6th grade son) to get a refresher in Mr. Mead’s class.

But here is the thing: not only did I get the majority of the questions wrong, the vast majority of the questions asked me to do things I have never had to do in real life. I’ve never had to figure out the lateral surface area of a cone, nor been asked to give the mode of a series of numbers, nor had to figure out a square root. At least not that I can remember. If I ever did know how to do any of that stuff, and I probably did since I passed the test at some point long ago, it’s now long gone from my memory banks. Somehow, I’ve survived.

Yong Zhao recently linked to an article from a few years ago that indicates that kids in Wisconsin are spending somewhere around 3 million hours taking standardized tests, and that doesn’t include “time spent distributing and collecting materials, taking practice tests, giving instructions, and addressing other logistics of testing.” And I wonder, how much of that time is being spent on stuff that kids are going to forget? And then I wonder how much kids could really learn if they spent that time immersed in the stuff that they want to learn rather than what we want them to?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make sure every child can read and write and do basic math and have a fundamental understanding of history and science and the rest. We should provide every child with the skills and literacies he or she needs to understand the world and continue to learn. And I know that if we are to help kids find their own passions for learning that we need to expose them to many different things, especially when they are young.

But I have to ask, does every child have to pass the same test by the end of 10th grade? Really? Does every child have to read Voltaire and Turgenev and Amy Tan as the Common Core suggests? Our friend Karl Fisch admirably asked this same type of question last fall:

And therein lies the dilemma – is it possible to provide in a systemic way a customized educational experience for all students that both allows and encourages them to pursue their passions, but also exposes them to the wide range of human endeavors that they may have little or no knowledge about and therefore wouldn’t be able to even know if they were passionate about in the first place?

They key word there is obviously “systemic” because we do want every child to have the foundation to continue to learn about whatever he or she wants or needs to learn. But, like Karl, I’m not at all sure that’s even possible. For one thing, there is a real disconnect between what “learning” is and the all-purpose goal of “higher student achievement;” I would argue the two are almost totally unrelated in today’s heightened political rhetoric around schools. And for another, real learning for the most part requires real contexts, not the contrived experiences that schools in general can offer.

To that end, the Common Core doesn’t help. The real impetus for the Common Core has nothing to do with learning in the contexts that we talk about it. Nothing to do with exploration, experience, reflection, creation, sharing, collaboration, or changing the world. Instead, it has everything to do with creating a new “Easy Button” for education, one that will let us compare our kids even more. In a world where we can personalize and individualize in ways like never before, we’ll give students an even more “common” educational experience. That saddens me.

The crux of all of this is that it’s just too hard to do it any other way. It’s too hard to let kids make decisions around their own learning (even though they’re doing it all the time at home) because we won’t be able to track it easily. It’s too hard to let them read books that fuel their passions because we can’t read all those books to see if they are “appropriate” or “effective” or whatever else. And we can’t let kids go really deeply into the things they’re interested in because goodness knows we have too much stuff to cover in the curriculum that they need to pass the test to make that work.

And while I’m sure that there will be some great, inquiry-based, choice-based curriculum that will be developed around the Common Core that will make even me happy, I fear that in general, we just don’t want to work that hard. We’ll go running to those textbook publishers and “approved providers” (who are no doubt salivating at the prospect) who will help us get our students to meet the standards but, in the end, do nothing to expand the opportunities for kids to learn things in ways they will never, ever forget.

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About the author
Will Richardson is co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice and an internationally-respected author, speaker and blogger whose focus is helping educators realize the potential of Web 2.0 technologies in their own personal and professional practice and in their classrooms. Will writes the blog Weblogg-ed and you can follow him on Twitter at @willrich45. Read more about Will here.