Testing? YES! -- Standardized
Marion Brady, Orlando Sentinel, February 19, 2006
For more articles like this
Remember Richard Feynman? Free spirit? Drummer? Adventurer?
Teller of funny stories? Artist? Expert safe cracker? Writer?
College professor? Translator of Mayan hieroglyphics? Member of
the team that developed the atomic bomb? Major contributor to
the theory of quantum electrodynamics? Winner of the Nobel Prize
in Physics in 1965?
Remember him? Sure you do! He's the one who dropped an O ring
into a glass of ice water to show the other members of the
committee investigating the Challenger explosion that the rings
got brittle and could fail when they were cold.
He died in 1988. "I'd hate to die twice," he said from his
hospital bed. "It's so boring."
Feynman loved teaching. He said it helped him think more
clearly. He also thought he had a moral obligation to explain
very complicated things using the simplest possible language.
What made him a master teacher, however, wasn't just his words,
but his use of what teachers call "hands-on" activities.
Feynman wrote a stack of serious books with titles like
Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics and Einstein's
Relativity, Symmetry and Space-Time. He also, however, wrote
several not-so-serious books of personal experience, and it's
from one of these -- Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! -- that
I want to pull a rather long quote.
He's thinking back to teaching at a university in Brazil, in a
building looking down on a bay. He's remembering handing out
Polaroid strips to students and having to encourage them to
actually use them to look at sunlight reflecting off the water.
He follows that with five additional pages of examples of what
he saw as the major teaching and learning problem in higher
education in Brazil.
". . . I attended a lecture at the engineering school. The
lecture went like this, translated into English: 'Two bodies . .
. are considered equivalent . . . if equal torques . . . will
produce . . . equal acceleration.'
"The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when
the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make
sure they wrote it down all right. Then they wrote down the next
sentence, and on and on. I was the only one who knew the
professor was talking about objects with the same moment of
inertia, and it was hard to figure out.
"I didn't see how they were going to learn anything from that.
Here he was talking about moments of inertia, but there was no
discussion about how hard it is to push a door open when you put
heavy weights on the outside, compared to when you put them near
"After the lecture, I talked to a student: 'You take all those
notes-what do you do with them?'
" 'Oh, we study them,' he says. 'We'll have an exam.'
" 'What will the exam be like?'
" 'Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions.' He looks
at his notebook and says, 'When are two bodies equivalent?'And
the answer is, 'Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal
torques will produce equal acceleration.'
"So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and 'learn'' all
this stuff, and not know anything at all. . . ."
True in Brazil. True in America. True in schools around the
world. Student ability to merely remember and parrot back words
from textbooks or lectures is mistaken for genuine learning.
The main reason why "hands-on" teaching is much rarer than
"talking-heads" teaching is that it's traditional. Teachers tend
to teach as they were taught. And the main reason "talking-head"
teaching continues is standardized testing. (Be clear about
this. Not "testing," but "STANDARDIZED testing.")
Here, in three short sentences, is why No Child Left Behind is
dumbing down America's kids: 1. Teachers always teach to the
test. 2. Under NCLB, the only tests that count are standardized
and machine scored rather than teacher created and scored. 3.
Machines can't evaluate and attach a number to complex thought
processes, so complex thought processes don't get taught.
Feynman, wanting to teach about moments of inertia, would
probably have just brought to class a bag of bricks with a way
to hook it to the top of a door, and told his students to get
started figuring out the forces involved in moving the door
depending on where the bricks were hung.
And he would surely have considered what he learned from quietly
watching and listening to them experiment and talk about the
task a far better indicator of levels of understanding than
anything he could find out from a multiple-choice,
paper-and-pencil, standardized test.
Generations come and go, education-reform fads come and go,
education gurus come and go, critics come and go, but faith in
teacher talk, textbooks and standardized tests goes on forever.
You'd think that how little most adults remember of what they
once heard or read in school, compared to how much they remember
of what teachers made them figure out for themselves, would
lessen public resistance to learning by doing.
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to