I come from a long line of teachers. My college degree was in teaching, and my brother and sister are both teachers. Mom majored in ed, too, and taught here and there. Grandma taught. Great-grandma taught, back when a teacher had to be a single woman and she couldn't ride in cars with men other than her brother or father... Both of my in-laws are retired teachers, and their families are similarly peppered with lots and lots of teachers.
And so, when we get together we tend to talk about teaching, especially since Megan and Chuck are teaching now. We got together yesterday for lunch to celebrate Christmas with our dad, and the subject turned (returned) to teaching.
I wanted to put some of my ideas down here... Maybe the right person will come across them, someday. Maybe someone with the power to change things will see what I've written and change things, because things really need to change.
I think the whole problem with education stems from the idea that things must be "fair." For example, Megan was grading ISTEP tests, and a girl had gotten an answer correct, in the written portion of the exam, but had written it in the wrong place. The answer was marked wrong.
I understand the reasoning behind this - if one grader marks it correct, but another marks it incorrect, it's not "fair" so in order to be "fair" all answers must be written on the correct line or they're marked wrong, nevermind whether or not the results are indicative of the child's actual knowledge or ability.
It's right to try to be fair, but there comes a point where being too fair ends up being a disservice to all kids, rather than a service to some.
Hasn't anyone else noticed that our schools have performed inversely with respect to the amount we've relied on standardized tests? In other words, the more and the longer we focus on standardized tests (which are extremely "fair" because all of the answers are either right or wrong), the worse our schools get?
Does it strike anyone else that very few things in life actually have right or wrong answers? That most things worth thinking about come in shades of gray? That we'd be better off teaching our kids how to think, rather than how to memorize, even if one's ability to think is difficult to assess and grade?
Think about it. Facts are everywhere. I can use my cell phone from virtually anywhere to find any fact I'm going to need in a matter of moments. It's virtually useless for me to memorize taxonomy (kingdom, phylum, etc. - which I had to do in Bio 101 in college a few years ago - and now I can't remember a single bit of it), when I can look up whether my cat is a Felis domesticus or not (which I just did, thanks) from anywhere if it comes up. Unless you're planning on making a living by being on Jeopardy, it doesn't much matter. However, teaching kids whether it's more reliable to find that info on wikipedia or on about.com or on Encyclopedia Brittanica's website, teaching them how to think in terms of classifying similar things similarly, maybe giving them a dozen imaginary plants and animals, and having them come up with their own taxonomy for those things based on their characteristics - wouldn't that be more useful to 99% of students (excluding the 1% who are going to go on to be taxonomists, biologists, or maybe veterinarians...)? I think so. But it's harder to make up a dozen creatures/plants and to evaluate a project like that than it is to give a multiple choice (or multiple guess) quiz on the structure of taxonomy, etc. and since taxonomy is part of the state standards at some level, and it's going to be on the ISTEP eventually, the kids have to memorize it, and then promptly forget it a few years later.
We need to let go of this idea of fairness, and allow teachers to subjectively evaluate their students, and to trust them as professionals to give lawmakers and school boards an accurate picture of public education (just as we trust professional doctors to give lawmakers and medical boards an accurate picture of public health) in order for them to do their jobs. Otherwise we end up with generations of kids who are extremely useful for filling in little bubbles with #2 pencils, and not much else.
We need to return to the classical model of education that worked for centuries. We need to teach kids about their culture, through reading the Great Books that Everyone Agrees are Important (Shakespeare et. al.). We need to teach in the Socratic method - through careful questioning and investigation, rather than rote memorization and repetition. We need to teach kids how to THINK instead of how to take tests.
Because since I've been an adult, I've had to think quite a lot, but no one has handed me a #2 pencil and told me to fill in bubbles in a very long time.
We need to teach kids how to write without using text messaging-ese and slang, so that if they ever do have the great good fortune to come up with an original thought, they will then be capable of communicating it to the rest of the world. We need to engage them in a way that makes reading and learning more rewarding than watching TV and playing video games, or surfing the web (and good luck with that).
We need to teach our kids to think scientifically - to look at something, develop a hypothesis, test it, revise the hypothesis based on the results of the test, test it again, revise again, etc. until they come up with a theory that's as close to the truth as we can approximate (remember, gravity is still just a theory...).
We need to teach our kids to be curious. But unfortunately it's hard to grade curiousity, and it's easy to bore them half to death with random facts (many of which are in dispute, anyway, so the schools play it safe by choosing the most boring version possible) which we can then test them on. History, for example, is a necessary pursuit - only when we know our history can we prevent its repetition or something like that, right? Well, I remember studying history in school, and it was BORING. It was usually taught by someone who was much more interested in coaching football than teaching history, and who treated it like a study hall where we read the book aloud to one another and then took quizzes and tests. YAWN. Only as an adult have I realized that there's a lot of good stuff in history - sex and greed and violence, comedy and tragedy, great acts of courage and humanity, coincidences that changed the course of the world... If history had been taught as a fascinating story, rather than a bunch of facts to be memorized, I might have spent less time writing notes to Jenny and more time actually learning.
Most of all, we parents need to realize that until the schools undergo a major sea change, the responsibility for all of this will rest with us, not the teachers.
And we need to go to a full year school curriculum, rather than the archaic agrarian practice of having summers off, so that the teachers don't have to spend the first month and a half of school playing catch up every fall.