Standards testing keeping us safe from the creative economy

I’m not sure how clearly this post has come together, but I had to get it out so i could get some other work done 🙂 creativity good. how does a standards based approach contribute to this? it doesn’t.

THE question in Education – Why are we educating students

I have annoyed many people in the last five years or so asking the same seemingly simple question… “Why are we educating students?” I’ve asked kids this, I’ve asked teachers, administrators, theorists… I usually get four kinds of responses. 1. That dave guy is just being a smart ass and that’s not a real question. 2. We’re teaching our children so they can learn (a tautology that usually ends with me frothing at the mouth) 3. We educate our students to normativize them to society (teach them the way our society behaves). 4. So they can know things.

The truth is that I really want to know what people think about this question. I think that much of the discord in the educational community is premised on our not having a clear sense of what we are trying to accomplish by locking our children in classrooms for 12 years. Over the last few years I’ve come around to what i think I want Oscar and Josephine to get from the education system in order of importance.

  1. The desire to engage with ideas, combine them and make new ones
  2. The belief that they are allowed to do this
  3. The skills and literacies they need to do it.

I say in order of importance, because with the first can come the second and with the first two the third is pretty much inevitable. Those first two are tricky however, and they are easily confused with ‘knowing things’. I lay NO stock in knowing a particular thing. This is tricky, because I happen to think that knowing a great many things can be very valuable… I’m just not terribly fussed about the knowing of any given thing. It is of no great consequence if Oscar knows the NAME of the not a planet anymore but was a planet of my childhood thing that is really an asteroid and is a great example of how the naming of things is not the same thing as the thing itself thing. Or he might not know the backstory on Pluto, but he might know the name Pluto. If he has either of these things and the three things I”m hoping he will learn, he can get the rest of the story. Keep our friend Pluto in mind as we go forward…

Standards testing
I once had a long debate with an administrator about the value of standards testing, in this case for students. He spoke quite eloquently about how we need measurements, once you reach a certain scale, to be able to tell if our educational policy is working. It’s all fine and good to talk about qualitative assessment when you’re looking at 25 people in a classroom, but its something altogether different when the numbers reach the thousands (let alone millions) that are associated with the bureaucracy of education. I get that. People are trying to do their job well. They are trying to be responsible and accountable (you could say cover their @$$ as well, but either way, they are trying)

The problem lies in what you have to do in order to measure. You cannot easily measure something like creativity, or desire, or interest. This means that we tend to measure specific things. Most standards testing cannot measure for both of the descriptions of pluto described above, and they certainly can’t measure for a deep interest in Neptune, that completely ignored all the other planets, but led to many interesting discoveries about the math of orbits. A responsible teacher, then, needs to prepare a student for the knowing of specific things. The knowing, in fact, of all things. Or, at least, the things that are likely to appear on a test that is standardized by a government administrator who is trying to be accountable to the education system.

This is the difference. The knowing of many things is very productive for creativity. The process of inquiry, of researching, of learning, of being curious leads to the knowing of many things deeply and the awareness of many more things in a superficial way. The knowing of specific things, particularly when we are talking about the memorizing of specific things, is a very different process. It involves repeatedly following the same lines of thinking until they are committed to memory, and in a world where we are thinking of standards testing that means that ALL THE STUDENTS are going over the same things and committing them to memory. Success is measured by the remembering of specific things, a remembering, i will add, that the internet can do for us.

The Creative Economy
So uh… I know that this is a buzzword. But work with me here, and lets take it at face value for a minute. The presumption that i keep hearing about our educational system is “if we don’t have a good education system, we’ll fall behind *enter other country of choice in the news today*“. Lets leave aside all the strange xenophobic nationalism implicit in this kind of talk and think about what it means for education. In the creative economy, ostensibly, the way we would stay ahead would be to innovate, to create, to think of new things and ideas and find ways to bring them to the marketplace in an clever, cost-effective manner.

Creativity, as i understand it, is the combining of things in new ways. It is achieved by being interested in an existing thing, getting to know it better and then finding new ways to combine it with other things. You need, as i described earlier, the curiosity to look into something, the ‘permission’ to poke around it, and the skills to combine it with new things.

If all of our students are remembering the same things, the things that they learned for their standards test, the collaborative work between those students will only differ insofar as they have lived different lives OUTSIDE of school. In this sense, the education system plays NO part whatsoever in contributing to the creative economy. The things they have learned are known, perhaps deeply, perhaps not, by everyone. Creativity is something that is done despite the way the system is constructed. (many educators, of course, find ways to build this in despite the system)

Conclusion?
The standards based system will keep us safe from the creative economy. A small number of people, mostly privileged, will continue to create despite the teachings of sameness. Students, like so many i’ve seen hit my university classes, will see education as something you can PASS, a process of remembering and delivering key bits of information back to an instructor, soon to be forgotten. This will continue to have no relationship to the real world and A students will continue to graduate out of our school system to a world where they are not graded, and where they are expected to be creative in a space without clear solutions or guidelines. The factory fit very well with a graded education system. I can measure how many times you turn a lever, or how many bolts you add to a car. I cannot grade your creativity, your willingness to question the system as it is, you ability to overcome stagnation… these are the things we are going to need.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

21 thoughts on “Standards testing keeping us safe from the creative economy”

  1. I have thought more about the question, “why do we learn?” or maybe “why do we become educated?” And the only answer that makes sense to me, the only answer that explains economic (“get the credential”) motives as well as personal development (“be all you can be” or “knowledge for the sake of knowledge”) motives, is the answer, “to have a good life,” which in turn is something like, “pursuing one’s own good (which may include altruistic goods) in one’s own way.

    Now this of course is at first blush distinct from the question, “why do we educate.” But is does allow us to distinguish types of motivations for “why we educate.” One set of motivations, and a very important one for me, is the altruistic motivation, of helping (or allowing) people to have a good life.

    But also important is my own pursuit of my own good life. Here there are, for me, a range of lesser motivations, among them including the possibility of earning a living through education, the propagation of knowledge and values that will improve the society in which I live and which supports me, and the possibility that the people I educate will enrich my own life with new discoveries, knowledge and insights.

    Different people weigh these moyivations differently. But I would say that in general a balance is required; education without altruism is exploitation, and education without attention to one’s own definition of a good life is self-depreciation. The skill lies in understanding this balance, and the elements – economic, politicial, social – that make up this balance, and in aligning them to the maximal benefit of educator and student.

  2. >I lay NO stock in knowing a particular thing.

    >Creativity….is achieved by being interested in an existing thing, getting to know it better and then finding new ways to combine it with other things.

    Dave, these statements of yours, are they a little contradictory to your overarching view that creativity should be the product of an educational system? Are you suggesting that in order to be creative, one must know about a thing, but at the same time, you place no value in knowing about a thing?

    1. This is the central point that I was trying to make… and I should really take more time when trying to make these kinds of distinctions.

      The standards system is premised on specific things being remembered. The name of the now not planet is Pluto. It has a weird elliptical orbit. It’s the name of the roman god of the underworld. No matter how you go about it, there has to be a way to identify is someone has remembered a specific something in order to judge the standard. AND, critically, everyone must remember the same something.

      In a creative system, it is definitely valuable to know many things. Without knowledge it can be painfully difficult to be creative for a lack of context and things to combine. But it doesn’t particularly matter what those things are. As long as they are part of a general set of things that can be combined, they can be useful. There is no (well… lets say few) particular, individual thing that you need to know.

      I once had an argument with a very smart person about whether students needed to remember that the Boston Massacre happened in 1781. He claimed it was part of american history and should be remembered. I argued that any of the individual facts of the matter are not necessary, that anyone with part of the story could get the rest of it. Yes, cover it in school, but the specific facts, each individual fact, are not really necessary to remember.

      does that make it clearer?

  3. Thanks, it clarifies the direction your thinking is taking. It appears that you don’t value specific facts nor the testing based upon them, probably because these details are available elsewhere (for connectivists – the internet). In principle, I would agree with this to some extent, but I think that some fact memorization is probably a good thing. It is probably a good thing to remember names: of people, events for example. The smart person you argued with probably placed a high value on the Boston Massacre event. In the same manner, other events/facts are of high value to different people.

    I wonder if, in the process of exposure to facts, a learner does develop:

    1. The desire to engage with ideas, combine them and make new ones
    2. The belief that they are allowed to do this
    3. The skills and literacies they need to do it.

    Do you think this development happens?

  4. There is a definite pendulum at play in education: the tension between the need to KNOW things about our world (which has been central to human existence for many thousands of years) and the need to create, design, problem-solve, and improve the cooperative lot of humanity (which has a similarly long pedigree in humanity).

    Formal, scholarly education must, in my opinion, help develop and nurture BOTH the fact-finding, knowledge gathering side AND the creative, exploratory side. Unfortunately, formal, scholarly education today and even in my youth largely FAILS to adequately address the latter.

    As you’ve pointed out, Dave, facts and history and knowledge are critically important as the primordial soup from which new ideas emerge. You can’t stand on the shoulders of giants if you don’t know the giants are there and available to be climbed upon. The internet HAS changed the game because it essentially gives us access to a giant BRAIN.

    There will always be a role for teachers in every society, but their role HAS to integrate and cannot be isolated. In a hunter-gatherer or agricultural society, I can’t teach you what you need to know from a book – I have to SHOW you – so we have apprenticeships. I can teach you a bit more “by the book” in an industrial society, so a dichotomy starts to really develop between classroom teachers and on-the-job mentors.

    Now we have COMPLETELY compartmentalized fact learning from experiential learning, and thereby sterilized and neutered the process of fact learning. Much of what teachers have traditionally been expected to impart, in a society where information was essential but hard to get, is NOW available 24/7 within the giant’s brain called the internet, to which more and more people have access.

    I actually believe that formal institutionalized education is going to become LESS important in the coming decade. The institution of “school” is NOT changing as rapidly as society, so the value of “school” is declining while the value of education continues to skyrocket. I actually believe that by the time my kids – 4th and 6th grade now – are ready for “higher education,” it may not make financial or practical sense for at least one of them. I believe it MAY make sense to guide them to find balance in their education OUTSIDE of the outdated and antiquated structure which now exists.

  5. @Debbie

    Are you suggesting that the INTERNET is replacing TEACHERS, and they now need to find a new niche, perhaps taking on the role currently filled by experiential MENTORS?

  6. There are two important distinctions I’m not seeing in either the original discussion or the comments. These can be summarized as knowledge about (general knowledge covered in this discussion) and knowledge of (functional knowledge not covered).

    First, Functional Knowledge. All of the instances of knowledge and information used are based upon impractical knowledge. That is, you don’t need to know specifics of Pluto because you don’t DO anything with Pluto. You are free ot know something about it which will lead you to enough that you will ever need to know regarding it. However, for specific function, such as how to use a machine, including a weapon, knowing about is not enough. You must have specific, concrete knowledge of the function of the thing itself.

    Second, second and third order effects of only knowing about and not knowing specifics of. For History, for example, the tendency lately has become to generalize and even rewrite opinion into history, confusing fact (knowledge of) with opinion. This is very dangerous stuff indeed. For example, the Holocaust. Only knowing about general information about the milieu of the time, and politics lends itself to movable and scalable interpretation. Before long that turns to opinion which is discounted. And before long the weight and reality of the event is gone. It is only when we go to the Holocause museum, see the specific artifacts of what real human beings perpetrated upon other real human beings in a specific date and time in history, that we will remember these things actually happend in time and space, regardless of opinion about them, and that concrete reality, apart from any interpretation of it, is what we must remember and never forget.

  7. If teachers only present facts without context or connection, then yes, the internet CAN replace teachers. Of course, GOOD teachers provide context and connection, tying facts into an intricate web of lifelong learning and exploration, integrating facts with the PROCESS of learning and exploring creatively. This can be done in so many ways, but legal and practical limitations tie the hands of teachers and administrators. I am not a “teacher” by vocation (although everyone else in my family had that formal training), but I am an actively engaged parent who considers herself a teacher and volunteers both in my kids’ classrooms and in the school as a whole.

    Dave wonders if simple exposure to facts causes development of “the skills and literacies they need” to “desire to engage with ideas, combine them and make new ones.” I do NOT think that simply exposing learners (old and young alike) to facts causes them to develop these literacies, or we wouldn’t be so concerned as an educational community about ineffective teachers who simply lecture and pass out worksheets.

    I DO think that children are BORN with the desire to learn and assimilate ideas – it’s why ALL kids are little scientists when they are very young. But for many reasons, we as a society have come to rely TOO heavily on the “desks in a row, rote memorization” pattern that, no matter HOW we wish it to be otherwise, has limited effectiveness yet is STILL the norm.

    To me as a parent, the questions are not academic and distant, but very immediate: what happens in the formal elementary school setting to drive the curiosity and innate desire for knowledge OUT of children? (I watched it happen last year to my current 6th grader) How can I postpone or circumvent that situation for my kids so they can be life-long learners? How do I access and connect my kids to outstanding educators like the ones that comprise the bulk of my online educational community but are sadly lacking in my children’s local formal school setting?

    Even being peripherally engaged with people who are shaking up the educational system of things, I feel a distinct and unsettling dichotomy between what I know is out there and possible and the reality of my kids’ daily world.

  8. Dave, you stirred up some good discussion here. We have been thinking about assessment of academic programs (without squashing the life out of the program or the learner) and how to roll that assessment up to the whole institution, as part of our (http://oai.wsu.edu) accreditation-related charge.

    This thinking is an extension of our earlier ‘Harvesting Gradebook’ work.

    Our take on your question is to make a split between standards and standardized testing. We are asking programs to identify stakeholders and involve those stakeholders in an direct assessment of student work, and simultaneously, involve the stakeholders in a conversation with the program about what is important.

    The role for the institution, and those above who monitor its performance, is to ask if the program is rigorous in assessing itself.

    We’ve attempted to explain vision and methods here: http://communitylearning.wordpress.com/2009/09/21/from-student-feedback-to-university-accreditation/

    I have a specific favor to ask of you and your readers — give us feedback on the rubric we use to measure academic program assessment.

    To provide the feedback, I’ve prepared an online survey. It is linked from the blog post above (see #4 Invite…). Your task is to review an academic program’s report and then rate the program with the rubric (and meta comment on the rubric itself).

    The task will take an hour, thanks in advance for your time
    Nils

  9. Ok, this is totally off the wall. Can you imagine a school “system” where instead of the standard subject like reading, writing, math, science, etc there were instead literacies or ways of knowing.

    For example, it could be based on .. lets say Bloom’s taxonomy (not the best example but the best I can think of right now). You could take a course in basic recall.. What you learned to recall would be up to you, to pass you’d have to prove that you have reached a certain level of recall. Once that was done you could move on.

    My point is that I think we are categorizing learning by subject area when really we ought to be grouping learning in a different way all together. What would education look like if we did that? What would assessment and standards have to look like if we did that?

    Personally I’m a jump to synthesis, INTP type of learner so this of course is missing a bunch of cognitive steps lol

  10. I tend to really agree withe the points that are made about standardized testing. I feel that the standardized tests don’t truly show what students are learning in the classroom and instead show things that they have just memorized at the time to get through the test with an “ok” score. But then I also feel that students should have to learn the standard subjects of math, reading, writing, science and history because it gives them the knowledge that they need to lead a successful life in the world today. I don’t think that the internet could replace teachers at all because I feel that it is more the personal aspect that adds a lot to how students learn in the classroom. I know that personally when I take an online class or am forced to teach myself something through using the internet, I don’t learn as much and definitely don’t get as much information as I need to.

    I think that majority of these posts all have valuable opinions and information in them. It was an interesting post to begin with and good points that have come across and good things to think about when going into the classroom and partaking in education.

  11. Don’t believe that a computer should replace a school – I teach at an online school and for the neediest kids it is the worst place they could be for the most part. For self-motivated children with involved parents it probably isn’t going to hurt, but there are large numbers of the very opposite sort of people out there as well.

    Exploration is this big key word – but studies are showing that our use of this method in some subjects is harming students, rather than helping.

    Another problem as I see it is that colleges of education spend way too much time trying to teach people how to teach rather than making sure they are grounded in the knowledge of their subject. I often feel I was ill prepared in subject knowledge (my school didn’t require me to take course on Shakespeare or Grammar before graduating with a degree in Integrated Language Arts and the way the schedule fell meant that because I missed the class at a certain time it wasn’t avaliable again before I graduated without having to miss *required* classes in Education and therefore extend my graduation and student teaching by another entire year).

    All of that rambling . . . not sure what I wanted to say except there are a variety of problems and there is no one right answer, different things work in different schools but the key is well trained teachers (not those who spent a year learning to design bulletin boards) who feel confident in their ability to instruct and mentor students.

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