Science or Art?

yam.jpgWhen my grandson runs the 1600 meter race only time determines the winner. It is a feat that is as objective as any measure might possibly be. Unless there is a photo finish or one of the time keepers doesn’t do his/her job properly there is no doubt about the victor. When another grandson performs in a one act play and a panel of judges decide who the best actors were and which troupe gave the finest overall impression, the yardstick is far more subjective. Hundreds of people seeing exactly the same thing will rate it differently depending on the background that they bring to the theater. There will be questions as to the authenticity and fairness of the evaluations, thus leaving the final votes open for criticism. Most of life is more like the later, subject to preferences rather than a set of hard and fast rules.

Each year when the Oscars are awarded I find myself scratching my head in dismay. I truly wonder how it is possible that Casey Affleck won the best acting prize when Denzel Washington was in the same category. I rail at the television and ask no one in particular if he/she was blind. Of course all such determinations are just a matter of opinion rather than fact. So it is with evaluating a teacher, a student or a school.

There are certain guidelines that are universal aspects of a well run classroom but we have not yet even agreed on whether teaching is an art or a science. There are those who maintain that if an individual understands and uses certain best practices, the results will be quite grand. Such beliefs rely on the idea that there is truly a science that leads to being an effective teacher, and there is something to be said for knowledge of pedagogy. Still, after spending decades inside classrooms both as a teacher and an administrator I have learned that there is something quite artistic about the process that elevates an educator to a magical level. Two people using the exact same methods often achieve very different results that can only be explained by noting that one is unimaginative while the other is an artist.

We attempt to measure educational success with numbers found in the scores of students on standardized exams. Of course we intuitively know that hundreds of factors affect the final outcomes of such attempts to quantify the teaching process. The list is so huge that it would be impossible to name all of the possibilities but a few examples might be the health of each student, the amount of rest each has had, the home environment, the presence of testing fears, hunger and so forth. None of these things can be totally controlled by the teacher and when a preponderance of them are affecting the child negatively the test score may be less than stellar. Somehow our society ignores such things in judging the value of our educational system. The numbers are king and yet they only tell a small part of the story and because of this they have a negative impact on everyone in the classroom.

Our present system of testing students at virtually every turn has created a totally unnecessary level of stress. We decide the futures of our children and their teachers even as we understand that those exam scores do not tell the whole story. Study after study has shown that most standardized tests favor middle class white males. For whatever reason all other groups do not do as well. It would be a stretch to assume that this is because the middle class white males are more intelligent. In fact, they are not, but they respond to the questions and answers differently because of their life experiences. The test items that are supposed to be neutral are far from that. They are often subject to interpretations that result in responses deemed to be incorrect. When students are given the opportunity to explain their reasons for selecting certain answers, interesting trends appear, including the fact that the questions are often more subjective than the creators imagined they would be. Given the importance that test scores are given in today’s world, it is quite distressing to realize that the element of subjectivity is often present.

As we learn these things it seems logical that we would begin to admit that our efforts to judge our students by the numbers is still rather ineffective, but in truth we appear to be relying on such evaluative measures even more than ever. The three ring circus created by this situation is disturbing to everyone involved including students, teachers and parents and yet it continues unabated. I suspect it has to do with our human tendency to desire easy answers for complex problems. Once we suggest a solution it is often impossible to rid ourselves of it even when it is obviously a mistake. Other than the realization that Prohibition was a stupid idea, we rarely turn back once we have chosen to pursue a certain path. Sadly I think that we will remain hell bent on using tests to quantify progress until we finally realize the magnitude of the damage that is being done to our educational processes.

The acquisition of knowledge should be an adventure and there are certainly gifted teachers who manage to achieve that even with the specter of testing hovering over their heads. Unfortunately far too many educators struggle under the pressure to perform. They are more like drones laboring away in a massive hive of routine. They use the prescribed methods but don’t quite know how to elevate them beyond the ordinary. They may even reach very satisfactory results but the love of learning is missing and their students feel the loss.

We have turned education into a political football. How we design curriculum and provide resources tends to depend more on which ideology is victorious in elections rather than a reasoned appraisal of student needs. If we test children it should not be to determine how rewards and punishments should be meted out but rather what educational designs are needed for each individual situation. Testing should be a positive experience rather than one that strikes fear and loathing into everyone concerned. It should be much like a physical exam at a doctor’s office, providing information on the educational health of each child and then determining what measures are needed to insure growth. We need to halt the practice of using exams as evaluative clubs to beat our children and teachers down.

I return to this topic again and again because it is so important. As citizens we have the power to demand that something be done to change the present system into one that generates a positive experience rather than a negative one. We have to admit that the way we evaluate is all too often flawed. There is a better way to determine how well our students are doing and what the results mean. If we return to the original intent of such tests we will do everyone a service. They were never meant to grade schools or teachers but rather to determine how much progress a student has made from one school year to the next and then to devise a learning plan that best suits each individual. If we manage to do this, we won’t need vouchers or children moving from one school to another. We will finally begin to do the work of educating as it should be done. We will finally enhance classrooms with both science and art.

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