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A Lesson in Teaching to the Test, From E.B. White

Wednesday, March 07, 2012 - 03:11 PM

In a recent quixotic attempt to broaden our kids’ horizons beyond Hogwarts during evening story hour, we turned to E.B. White, whose crystal-clear style, arrow-straight moral compass and trenchant sense of the ironic, coupled with great storytelling gifts, make him a superb choice for both children and adults.

New Yorkers in particular have found again and again that his writings have anticipated the talk of the day, so we should have predicted that his perspective would illuminate current debates over the importance of quantifying student progress and teacher performance. White’s wonderful book about a mute swan given voice by a trumpet stolen for him by his father, "The Trumpet of the Swan,'' contains the following passage that in a few paragraphs beautifully evokes the elementary-school classroom of yesteryear – and, we should all hope, of tomorrow. (The episode is at the close of the chapter entitled “School Days.”)

The fifth-graders were having a lesson in arithmetic, and their teacher, Miss Annie Snug, greeted Sam with a question.

“Sam, if a man can walk three miles in one hour, how many miles can he walk in four hours?”

“It would depend on how tired he got after the first hour,” replied Sam.

The other pupils roared. Miss Snug rapped for order.

“Sam is quite right,” she said. “I never looked at the problem that way before. I always supposed that man could walk twelve miles in four hours, but Sam may be right: the man may not feel quite so spunky after the first hour. He may drag his feet. He may slow up.”

Albert Bigelow raised his hand. “My father knew a man who tried to walk twelve miles, and he died of heart failure,” said Albert.

“Goodness!” said the teacher. “I suppose that could happen too.”

“Anything can happen in four hours,” said Sam. “A man might develop a blister on his heel. Or he might find some berries growing along the road and stop to pick them. That would slow him up even if he wasn’t tired or didn’t have a blister.”

“It would indeed,” agreed the teacher. “Well, children, I think we have all learned a great deal about arithmetic this morning, thanks to Sam Beaver. And now here’s a problem for one of the girls in the room. If you are feeding a baby from a bottle, and you give the baby eight ounces of milk in one feeding, how many ounces of milk would the baby drink in two feedings?"

Linda Staples raised her hand.

“About fifteen ounces,” she said.

“Why is that?” asked Miss Snug. “Why wouldn’t the baby drink sixteen ounces?”

“Because he spills a little each time,” said Linda. “It runs out of the corners of his mouth and gets on his mother’s apron.”

By this time the class was howling so loudly the arithmetic lesson had to be abandoned. But everyone had learned how careful you have to be when dealing with figures.

In light of current controversies around testing and teacher evaluation, let’s do a little thought experiment. How would Miss Snug have handled this lesson if it were occurring just before a round of standardized testing? Would she not have had to interrupt the children’s speculations and instructed them that actual circumstances in word problems must be completely disregarded, because the point is to arrive at the answer the test designers have in mind? After all, how could test designers anticipate the lines of thought that spontaneously erupted in her classroom? Real life, and real thought, are too complicated to be foreseen – and so need to be put aside at testing time.

Our city officials don’t seem to be particularly bothered by that. In a recent press conference, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said, “This business of teaching to the test is exactly what we should do, as long as the test reflects what we want them to learn.”

It’s a good thing he qualified his statement. We say we are concerned about education because our adult citizens need to be flexible thinkers, ready to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of the global marketplace. But making standardized tests the center of our curriculums tells children the most important thing they need to learn in school is how to arrive at predetermined answers on the tests. A teacher in Mayor Bloomberg’s test-driven schools would not be encouraged to announce with satisfaction that “we have learned a great deal” after a lesson in which the children have decided that 8+8=15 and 4x3 is too difficult to solve conclusively.

So in fact the test doesn’t reflect at all what kids should learn in school. What they really need to master is the kind of imaginative, adaptive thinking Miss Snug encourages in the passage from "The Trumpet of the Swan" – skills that cannot be assessed in any way other than actually knowing the children.

This little episode captures what volumes of education research have shown: we are born curious, and the best education models do not proceed on the basis of “what we want them to learn,” as Mr. Bloomberg correctly describes the goal of test-oriented education, but on the assumption that our job is to foster children’s ability ultimately to shape a world different from what we leave to them. We provide the scaffolding; they design the building. And thus it is we who stand to learn from children, if only we can suppress our anxiety about their futures long enough to refrain from stifling them.

In testing children, in evaluating teachers, it is time for us all to learn “how careful you have to be when dealing with figures.”

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