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Metrics: The Tool With Which We Kill Ourselves

October 16, 2011

Lord Kelvin once said, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.”

The idea behind this statement is simple and beautiful. If I can measure the strength of a piece of steel and describe it in terms of quantifiable measures like strength and ductility, then I have a clear picture of whether adding an extra atom or two of carbon helps me towards getting to my goal: pushing those numbers up as far as I possibly can. Fantastic. This is great for observing and quantifying the natural world!

Metrics are just a tool, though. Like a hammer they can be used to build a house or wreck it. Using metrics wisely requires that we define what we are measuring accurately. Think about this: what are the units of happiness? Name a single psychologist or neuroscientist out there who can answer this and I will eat my nonexistent hat. (Seriously, they mess with my hair.) Sure, it is entirely possible to name the correlates of happiness, or even causes of happiness in specific instances, but to measure happiness in quantifiable units is nearly impossible and perhaps even irresponsible to attempt with our current knowledge of the human brain. Intelligence is another quantity that falls in this prickly area, and yet our government and school districts are still trying to assess it using means that are just as incomplete and irresponsible as those hypothetical happiness measures. I am, of course, referring to standardized testing.

There are two main appeals behind standardized testing: ease and a feeling of ‘fairness.’ While they may in fact be easy to disseminate and administer, they cripple creativity and variety in our learning ecosystem. Take the following experience of a parent visiting her child in class, at one of the best-rated charter schools in the nation.

Our younger daughter spent 20 minutes writing down her spelling words as many times as possible to memorize them. There was no discussion about what made the words similar, no discussion of roots of the language and, most horrifying, it was clear that many of the children, my daughter included, were proud to spell words that they can’t use in a sentence. The spelling of these words will be forgotten before the next test.

The next assignment involved no more brain power than the first. Children were given articles from a magazine. The articles were fascinating, lava, endangered bears, life at the Great Barrier Reef. The children were tasked with finding text features from the magazine. They found a headline, a by-line, a map, a caption and a photograph. Not once were they asked to actually read the stories or discuss how a particular text feature made the story more interesting or emphasized or illustrated an important part of the story. Not once did they talk about why or how magazine articles can help them learn about their world or what they found interesting.

This is the kind of meaningless, rote learning that we are supposed to be getting away from! Of course it is important to know how to spell a word, but it is boundlessly more important to be able to use the word, to analyze the word, and to understand the word. This anecdote from Richard Feynman fits this perfectly:

All the kids were playing in the field, and one kid said to me ‘See that bird? What kind of a bird is that?’ And I said ‘I haven’t the slightest idea about what kind of bird that is.’ He says ‘It’s a brown-throated thrush’ or something, ‘Your father doesn’t tell you anything!’ But it was the opposite, my father had taught me, looking at the bird he said, ‘Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Portugeuse it’s a bom da peida, in Italian it’s chutto lapittida, he says in Chinese it’s chung-long-tah, in Japanese a katano tekeda, et cetera. Now you know all the languages you want to know the name of the bird in, and when you’re finished with all that you will know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the bird.

Beautiful. We can’t forget this. There is a difference between knowing what something is called and having a deep understanding of it.

The Many Flavors of Intelligence

I had the great pleasure of seeing that ol’ firecracker Temple Grandin speak recently. Her talk centered around the idea that there are many more kinds of minds out there than what we teach to now. She describes herself as a visual thinker: “Think of a steeple, I’ll give you a moment. Now see, when I ask people about what they see in their head, they give me this very vague, generic steeple.” (The steeple appearing on her slide looking uncomfortably similar to the one in my head…) “Now for me I think of all kinds of specific steeples, almost like a movie reel. Notre Dame. Got it. Saint Mary’s. There it is. Saint Peter’s? I can give you that.” Her thoughts rushing by were mirrored on the screen.

While the dichotomy that she draws is pretty extreme, the idea that there are different ways of thinking and learning is nothing radical. Research is badly needed on the viability of education tailored to different learning styles, and the controversy continues on exactly how much the learning style influences what the student gets out of the class. However, the picture is clear when it comes to the superiority of peer-observed evaluation of teaching methods and student responses over standardized testing.

That fact is this: we can’t test for everything. This doesn’t just apply to people “on the spectrum,” it applies to all learners! Ultimately, the best judge of a child’s progress is the teacher, and also the person best equipped to challenge and push the student forward. Because of our desire to standardize and create uniform metrics so that education is “fair” for everyone or that people are not “left behind”, we are snuffing out the beautiful variety of thinking styles available to us. Perhaps we wouldn’t have a Temple Grandin today if she was subjected to the humiliation of a standardized exam that completely ignored her unique talents.

Winning the Future

President Obama’s recently coined slogan for education is “winning the future.” As stupid as the wording is, the intention is clear: America has to remain a leader in the global marketplace in the future. Like their website describes: “To win the future, we have to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world, tapping the creativity and imagination of our people.” Let’s carve out the key words: innovate, educate, creativity, imagination. Do standardized testing practices push us towards these goals? Do they push our young learners towards being thinkers, creators, and doers – or simply knowers?

The traits we need to be looking for an nurturing in our young learners are exactly the ones that standardized testing cannot account for:

  • Creativity
  • Communication and collaborative ability
  • Intellectual flexibility

In an article by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U, she spoke with Vivek Wadhwa, a renowned tech-industry scholar (with appointments at Berkeley, Duke, and Harvard – I think I’m getting woozy from all those credentials.) Wadhwa has some strong opinions on how other countries educate people at the university level: “The irony is that in India it takes engineers two to three years to recover from the damage of the education system,” says Wadhwa, who believes that engineers require real-world experience and training before they can excel at complex work such as R&D. “They’re used to rote memorization.”

Standardized testing is a threat that could disassemble our educational future from the bottom-up. Let’s not allow that to happen.

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From → Food for Thought

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