Standardized Tests vs. Intuition

This post is about education, but you’ll need to bear with me as i begin with a lenghty digression. I’ve been reading Steve Jobs biography. In it I’m meeting an intuitive genius who had deep interpersonal challenges. A man who valued artists and creativity. A man who could be cruel, but also a man who loved deeply. It’s compelling reading.

A fascinating aspect of his personality is how convinced and passionate Steve was about trusting his intuition. Intuition trumped engineering concerns and conventional wisdom. Apple has often been derided by its critics for a preoccupation with what appeared to some to be a preference for style over substance. The Macintosh has generally been powered by slower processors than competitor’s hardware. Often Apple made trade-offs that mystified the ubergeeks and techno-nerds that favor awesome tech specs over intuitive design and simplicity. What made the ubergeek’s device cool was sheer power and raw speed. Steve favored other qualities.

As technology has become more embedded in the lives of the non-geeks there’s been a slight shift in how we have come to collectively understand computers and other devices. John Gruber of Daring Fireball observes:

Spec-based reviews of computers and gadgets are inherently flawed, a relic of an era that’s already gone. Movie reviews are about what the movie is like to watch. Is it enjoyable, is it entertaining, does it look and sound good? Imagine a movie review based on specs, where you gave points for how long it was, whether the photography is in focus, deduct points for continuity errors in the story, and then out comes a number like “7.5/10”, with little to know mention about, you know, whether the movie was effective as a piece of art.

I wouldn’t argue that specs are “meaningless”. It’s just that they’re an implementation detail. Specs are something the device makers worry about insofar as how they affect the experience of using the device. Just like how focal length and lens aperture are something the cinematographer worries about insofar as how they affect what the viewer will see on screen. — Daring Fireball, 14 Nov, 2011

The way we look at education today is distorted by a similar flawed vision. Our national preoccupation with standardized testing and a myopic pursuit of only the subjects which can be reduced to objective standards is robbing our kids. Especially kids who are already suffering from educational inequity. We’ve reduced the art of teaching and learning to a specification driven process that places little or no value on intuition. Children are not seen as individuals with unique skills and qualities to be cultivated, but as vessels to be filled with data.

Under No Child Gets Ahead (NCLB), we measure school effectiveness by how well the teacher prepares a student to retrieve stored data for the purpose of succeeding on a standardized test. Intuition should tell us that this process isn’t likely to produce inspiration. As Gruber observes in his comment about film reviews, we can’t reduce art and experiential concepts to a bullet list of statistics and specifications. Similarly, we shouldn’t reduce education to just a fact based, objective system. Knowledge and wisdom require more than facts — students need to learn to think critically, creatively, and intuitively.

Students who learn in schools that serve socioeconomically advantaged communities have always had access to the opportunity to learn this way. Sure, these students succeed on standardized tests, but that isn’t the great differentiating value of the life they lead.

Data from charter schools is beginning to show that success on standardized tests may indeed help to get students from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities get into college. But the data also shows that those students drop out of college at an alarming rate. Many of us have believed (intuitively) that standardized testing and data driven education isn’t the full answer to the question of how to teach our children. Closing the achievement gap is not going to happen if we remain preoccupied with standardized testing.

Education is an art. I’ve always felt that it’s absurd to give children grades in school. It takes the art out of teaching and learning and turns it into a competition. We need to develop education policies and strategies that foster and celebrate creativity and reduce our preoccupation on grades and tests. Critics may wonder how we can measure our effectiveness and hold educators accountable without objective standards. But I wonder how effective education can ever be if we are preoccupied with test results and devalue children’s creativity, intuition, and critical perspective.

I don’t have an answer, but my intuition tells me we are marching down the wrong path today. I intend to spend the rest of my life looking for solutions.

Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. — Plato

Monday November 14, 2011 — Mark —