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A couple years back, since I retained most of my knowledge of Biology from my master’s degree, I tried to see if I could get a teaching certification for older public school grading levels (6-12). I eventually had to abandon it close to the end due to traits of my personality not suitable for teaching, but not before I learned a great deal about teachers and teaching in the United States of America in public schools. Don’t listen to any of that hogwash about teaching being an easy job. It’s only easy if a teacher has pretty much “given up” on trying to teach anything, and I haven’t met that teacher in a public school yet, even with tenure. College is another matter…but I won’t get into that.

The basic idea is that the typical layperson who has never taught a class in their life and doesn’t know the slightest thing about the “overhead” involved in teaching a class thinks every problem with every public school everywhere can be fixed just by “trying harder” on the part of the teachers. The student too…but the teachers are expected to be the ones to motivate and/or “crack the whip” on students to get them to learn. (And, to a degree, that’s true, but only effective insofar as a student is willing to respect the teacher’s authority, which is a whole other issue.) This thinking was passed onto government representatives who attempted to enact one of the worst pieces of education legislation ever, the No-Child-Left-Behind Act which is the purest example of government-thought-completely-divorced-from-reality that I have seen in years. Yet people continue to complain that education in the USA stinks…that we’re spending the most but getting relatively little return compared to other countries. (Which, by the way, is an erroneous distinction because all education systems are not created equal and it is, in fact, an “apples-to-oranges” comparison.)

So what’s the problem? There’s no easy answer…and, more importantly, no easy fix. Ideas for reforming education were presented decades ago and are still circulating around with no real “implementation” case that can be observed on a large scale…all for the simple fact that they’re incredibly hard to implement. And no, not because they mean more work for the teachers…but they mean more work for EVERYONE, including the administration and the parents…possibly the school system in general. It would essentially mean everything needs to change. No one wants that. They want to keep as much as they can of the old stuff because it’s “tried and true”…and by “tried and true” that means it’s been done for decades so there’s already systems and “precedents” in place that make it easy to implement instead of requiring a lot of thought and planning. Unfortunately, very little of what is “traditional” can be combined with newer ideas, which is why they remain simply “ideas” and “theories” as opposed to reality.

However, there is one major problem I can point out that is probably the main reason that “modern education” doesn’t seem to meet its objectives…

Educational standards.

Bear with me, because when I first heard that myself, I had the snap judgment that goes with it. “Oh, so you want no standards? You want a free-for-all? You want chaos in the classroom?” In other words, the traditional “straw men”. But the fact is you cannot have a classroom that is responsive to an individual student’s needs and growth and encourages them to learn life-long skills at an early age and have too many rigid, specific standards.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have any standards at all. Just the fact that a standard should be, at best, a guideline and an ideal not to aspire to but to meet. Something that “guides” the classroom in a proper direction. Yet that’s not what our current educational standards are.

Our current educational standards were the “tradeoff” to creating public schools. When the government started providing for education, naturally parents wanted a way to verify their students were getting an education that would prepare them for the workforce as opposed to learning some chore like sewing uniforms for the army. In other words, they wanted a way to “measure” progress in education. What eventually came from that was today’s educational standards…specific things that a parent can look at, see whether or not the student learned how to do it, and then evaluate quantitatively to assess child performance. The last part is critical. Consider the following as a basic example.

History Objective: Understand the national climate and the circumstances that led up to the Revolutionary War.

Now…here’s two different assessments…

“The student’s viewpoint on the historical setting was incomplete. Although he grasped the state of how there were both radicals and loyalists at the time, with the radicals wanting a system where the colonial economy remained independent from Great Britain while the loyalists believed the colonies could not survive without an overarching nation, he failed to account for the background of the aftermath of the French and Indian Wars which gave rise to the push for colonial taxation. He is familiar with the major events (the “Boston Tea Party”, the “Intolerable Acts”, the “Boston Massacre”, etc.), but failed to coherently place how it escalated tensions. However, he produced a very lucid and informative understanding of the importance of the Second Continental Congress having all 13 colonies represented, as opposed to the First, and how the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord eventually helped sway opinions to draft the Declaration of Independence.”

So…did the student learn or didn’t they? From this evaluation, it seems the student didn’t understand the background at first but, as the unit progressed, he eventually began to unite more than just “dates” and “events” into genuine understanding. But how so? It would likely need a larger, more detailed evaluation for that.

Compare it to this:

“French and Indian War Aftermath Quiz – D”

“Colonial Unrest Quiz – C”

“The Second Continental Congress Quiz – A”

“Unit Test – B”

“OVERALL – B-”

This is even less informative as far as details are concerned than the first…but it has an important distinction. It assigns a cold, hard number to the student’s understanding. And, in the end, that’s all that matters to statisticians and government surveys…whether or not the student got a number or value that translates to “understood most of it”, no matter how those two compare.

A lot of you will disagree with me at first, just as I did, but I’ll tell you the basic problem with this situation: grading. Grading is a terrible way to assess things. It would be better if we could get rid of grades all together.

Again, some of you probably have the “straw man” response. “Then how are we supposed to know how students are doing?” First of all…I said no grades. Not “no assessment”. Second…if the reason for retaining the grading system is to inform how a student is doing, then the grading system needs to be scrapped. Depending on the situation, it’s meaningless and getting more meaningless.

Grades are nothing more than teachers attempting to assign a quantitative value to learning. Unless you’re a “trivia master”, there is little to no quantitative aspect to learning, so the system is useless. Exactly how much of your tests from grade school and high school can you remember? Even ones you pulled “all-nighters” for? Not many. Odds are you “information dumped” them and then moved onto the next topic. That’s because grades and “low-level” learning go hand in hand.

“Learning” is not uniform. There are different ways of learning that can tell whether or not you really know your stuff. On the lowest level, “learning” is little more than being a parrot, simply waiting for the right question to be phrased and then spitting out the answer. This is the lowest form of learning because it requires minimal understanding. All the teacher would have to do is rephrase the question slightly and the student would get it wrong because it’s no longer the “right question”. It’s also a level of learning very easy to grade as well as to get high scores on even if you don’t understand anything.

“Higher” levels is where you can apply your knowledge to a completely new situation or evaluate something novel from the perspective of what you learned. It’s the goal of all “true” teaching, and once the student has reached this point, it’s likely the material will stick with them in some form.

Take something basic for example: division. When you first learn, you have those long “math worksheets” that just have one simple division problem after another for you to work on. If you never got past that, what would happen is you would eventually simply memorize the equation and put out an answer without thinking…and when a new instance emerged your thinking would be noticably slower. However, the teacher would start giving out questions with word problems. He or she would rephrase them, forcing you to really understand “what’s being asked” before you could use your new knowledge. Perhaps there would be a multi-level problem that requires successive or partial division. Finally, the teacher might ask the student: “What if you couldn’t have a remainder? How might you divide 1 in three ways?” or “If you divide 8 by 8, you get 1. If you divide 8 by 4, you get 2. If you divide 8 by 2, you get 4. If you divide 8 by 1, you get 8. Suppose we could get a number that was ‘half of 1’. What would be the answer if we divided by 8 by that value? Based on previous answers, can you imagine what would happen if we could divide by 0?” This is where we see if the student “really gets it” or not…if they can answer 16 and “a really, really, really, REALLY big number” for the last two questions.

However, those last two questions are not things that can just be thought of at the drop of a hat. They require the student to not only sit down and think, possibly even swap ideas, but to have the “idea of freedom” to think of an answer. Yet this is uncommon in a math class. Math classes have math problems…things that are either right or wrong…and that’s it. Not things that require a lot of thought and perhaps writing and are more “conceptual” in nature. Why? Simple…they’re hard to grade. The answer to “dividing by 0” is infinity, but a low-grade-level student couldn’t be expected to know that. Yet even if they get the idea that the number is “really big”, that’s a bit step in the right direction. They’ve at least recognized a pattern to division…that so long as the number on the bottom gets smaller and smaller, the answer gets bigger and bigger, which is a general concept important to get early on in division as opposed to knowing: “If I see an 8, a division symbol, and a 2, the answer is 4.” Yet that’s hard to grade and to give a good assessment to, especially if the student doesn’t get it in a “nice time frame” but it only slowly comes to them later. Hence, the teacher will prefer to heavily-bias with “formulaic” types of questions because they’re easier to assess…and also quicker to answer. Just one good “analysis” or “synthesis” question on an exam can easily eat up over half the period in a typical public school.

Furthermore, what is the incentive to the student? What is the “payoff”? A letter grade. And, as mentioned before, that letter grade can be obtained simply by knowing how to answer a question, not necessarily understanding why an answer is what it is. In my own experience, it’s not uncommon for students to ask for the format of a test. Obviously, tests that are multiple choice are better than tests that have short answers, which is better than tests that have essay answers. Easier on the teacher too, because a “good, meaty test” could take weeks to grade, and public school systems are geared to keeping students up-to-date and continuously learning new things as fast as possible. Even the government knows well-thought responses are too hard to grade. That’s why all standardized tests are multiple choice. The end result? Students learn how to take tests more than anything. They learn how to “cache” content knowledge just long enough for a test, and then dump it for the next load.

If you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, consider what would happen if you gave the students the following assignment: “Write a one page typed paper on what you think science is.”, and say it’s worth a third of their grade. The students would likely panic. The “good” students would come up to you and ask if it should be five paragraphs, ask if you want examples, ask if you want an overview of history, ask if you want a theory of why we do science or what it accomplishes, etc., etc. In other words…the students are too used to having “structured” assignments with “measureable” goals. They want to know what they’re going to be evaluated on so they can focus and make sure those attributes are good. They don’t want to waste any time writing a “wrong” paper. They want to know what they have to do to be guaranteed a good grade. And one day, if they get into a “good job”, they’ll learn the hard way that the world doesn’t work in such a way that so long as you do A, B, and C, everything will be excellent.

“But can’t you use grades even for ‘deep thought’ questions?” Yes. It’s harder and more time consuming to put a value on that, of course. It also fails to account for a student’s individual progress. If an ESL student went from barely being able to say “hello” to carrying on third-grade conversations within one semester in a fifth grade English class, that’s fantastic. But according to standardized tests and NCLB, the teacher is doing a horrible job. But here’s the rub…

Educational standards keep increasing in number. We keep expecting teachers to teach more and more to students. In a sense…they have to. Human knowledge is exploding, not contracting. Every year, there’s “more to learn”…and it is completely impossible for any school to teach everything, but, as my old professor used to tell me, “You better damn well try.” I defy any non-teacher out there to try and classroom of 20 students, each one a diverse and unique individual, anything worthwhile in 45 minutes in a way the kids remember it…because that’s how long a class period is. Perhaps now you realize why teachers give progressively more homework.

There is no “reasonable” test that can assess anything in 45 minutes, or a quiz that needs only 5. Yet teachers have to give them and have to teach more and more, because let’s be honest. Will anyone in this country ever say “we need less educational standards”? No…they’ll want even more. So a teacher is forced to constantly use “formulaic” assessment with easy answers. They simply won’t have time for anything “meaningful”.

There are a handful of things that are more important than anything else that a child should learn in school. Namely…how to study, how to take good notes, and how to fix a gap in knowledge on their own time. In other words…how to teach yourself something. Because if you become involved in anything science and/or engineering related (like all the people who release those education statistics want you to), you have to know how to TEACH YOURSELF things. The days of Thomas Edison are long gone. There is no scientist or engineering who knows everything. It’s getting to the point where pretty much there won’t even be “specialists” in areas of science and engineering…just “sub-specialties”. Hence, there is no university that can teach you everything, especially if they intend to keep having four-year degrees. People are having to go to graduate school nowadays just to learn what they needed to learn in undergrad. At some point, if a student wants to be successful, they will have to not only learn how to teach themselves whatever they don’t know, but will also have to have a drive for “independent excellence”…saying something is good because they KNOW it’s good, not because it meets certain numbers on a checklist.

Unfortunately, none of this is about to change and is likely to get far worse. The only hope a student has nowadays lies in their teacher, who, if my own experience was any indication, is being counted on to “pick up the slack” in every area. And for 200 or so students a day, each their own individual person, that’s no easy feat. What can a parent of a student do?

One of the best things they can do is encourage their child to take initiative and not “shy away” from a teacher. The teachers I have met were all willing to be helpful and do whatever “extra” was necessary in their power to help a student succeed…but the student has to help them out here. Their minds are in a hundred places, including all their other students, and though they’re trying hard to make sure a student doesn’t “slip through the cracks”…you have to help them out. Also encourage your child to have a good attitude and a desire for learning. I’ll tell you what…that makes a tremendous difference. Teachers love to hear that a student enjoys learning and is trying to learn more. It makes their day all worthwhile and encourages them to ensure your child succeeds.

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