I admit, I put up a pretty harsh title. But believe me, I did not pull it out of nowhere. I've recently been analyzing different education systems for a school project, and I have concluded that the american school system (under which I am currently studying) is becoming useless. Why? Because it fails to teach us to think critically, independently, freely. I admit it's a paradox that I'm in the system that I make these claims of, and yet I am doing my best to think critically. Allow me to explain.
Okay, first off, let me start with AP classes. I'm using the phrase "AP Class" as referring to a class at an advanced stage and with students looking to take the AP test, just for clarity. So how are these classes failiures? Well, what do we do in an AP class? I spent an entire year in AP Enlish Literature reading specific books and in each looking for the same elements. Why? Because all of these books were on the list of commonly used for AP tests, and because those factors that I was looking for were the ones that AP tests asked. What my teacher was doing was what you call "teaching to the test", or in other words, teaching specifically the things on the test so that we students would do well on said test.
Do I have a problem with this? Absolutely. Why? Because apart from doing well on the test and having read a few more books I gained nothing out of an entire year of enlgish class. I did not learn anything about any devices that were not in the AP test. I did not read any other books. I did not learn about the authors, or how to write literature, or how to identify literature. Nobody taught me how to create arguments in favor or against what the author was saying. I was given a list of facts to regurgitate on a test, and once I completed that I was left high and dry. Too many schools and teachers nowadays are "teaching to the test", because it's perfectly acceptable, especially in AP classes. While this works in classes like math where the is only logic and formulas, it doesn't work for english, for history, for language.
And speaking of those three classes, just like I used the first for my first point, I will use the other two for my next two points.
Bear with me on the second one, because I am about to quote Hitler to you. So before you throw those rocks you just picked up, consider this: even the wrongest person can be right. That was horrifying language, but you get my point. Just because Most of what someone says and does is wrong, that doesn't mean that everything is. Now, as I was saying, in his book Mein Kampf (fascinating book, I'd recommend it for a lot of food for thought, though I hope you end up disagreeing with him) Hitler says that
"The teaching of universal history in what are called the middle schools is still very unsatisfactory. Few teachers realize that the purpose of teaching history is not the memorizing of some dates and facts, that the student is not interested in knowing the exact date of a battle or the birthday of some marshal or other, and not at all – or at least only very insignificantly – interested in knowing when the crown of his fathers was placed on the brow of some monarch. These are certainly not looked upon as important matters. To study history means to search for and discover the forces that are the causes of those results which appear before our eyes as historical events."
Now think for a moment. Is your history class focused on
- Learning facts and Dates to write back down on a test or
- Understanding our past and why it happened?
What is the problem with 1. ? Well, it is largely useless to us to know when Abraham Lincoln was shot. What is much more interesting, and will allow you to understand and learn from history is knowing why Abraham Lincoln was shot. You can understand what caused the civial war. You can trace the long chain of events that allowed Hitler to come to power (and by the way, it was as much the fault of the allies as of the germans). History is a class that should be taught so we can use it as precedent. To know what is happening. What is likely to result. What mistakes not to make. But like history, too many classes nowadays are about the what not the why. School is supposed to give us an education that lets us become independent, clear-thinking, and intelligent humans. Instead it has largely been turned into an institution dedicated to burying us in mostly useless facts and then testing us to see how much of it we remember.
What do I think we should do?
Please follow me to exhibit 3: my language class. Because I believe that my spanish teacher did it right. Why? Because she did not teach to the test. AP Spanish was there to teach us the spanish language, and my teacher did. She taught us grammar, and tenses, and verb usage, and spelling, and understanding thoughts and idioms... the llist oges on and on. What about the AP test? Well, about one month before the test, we stopped general education, and focused on the test and its aspects, so that we were well prepared when the time came. And we did better for it.
Why? Because not only did we have preparation for the test - we knew how to speak spanish. Our sentences came off fluidly, because not only did we know what to write, we knew how to write it correctly. Here is the paradox: the fact that we did not focus on the test allowed us to learn the information that let us do better on the test. Not only that, but we could still use our knowledge afterwards, every time spoke and speak spanish.
Now let me explain. I am not completely opposed to focusing on ideals that will pop up in the test. But I am against spending the entire year on that material. That does not end up being useful. It ends up being a waste of time. Also, I do realize that doing this is easier done for some classes than others. There are practical applications for each, for example, in math it does not matter too much if you teach to the test or not, your focus will only shift slightly.
But perhaps the tests are flawed too. Yes, I am sure that it is useful to know when the french revolution was, but is it not much more important to know what happened in France that such a revolution ever took place? Should we be thinking about when something happened so we can be smart in a museum, or should we know why something happened so that we can avoid making other's mistakes?
Anyways, there is what I was going to say. Thank you for bearing with me, and I would be delighted to hear thoughts or questions.
Originally published on February 16, 2013.