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Teaching to the Test Gets an ‘F’

In Issue:

Sir Ken Robinson

Many schools are killing creativity, says Robinson. Photo © Todd Bigelow.

I have a confession to make. When my son was in first grade, I very nearly murdered his teacher.

She had done nothing immoral. But she single-handedly squashed any interest he had in learning.

At the start of the school year, he’d been a bundle of energy, delighting in his classwork and in his new classmates. But slowly that began to change, and my wife and I didn’t know why. His report card at mid-year identified a problem: Where he’d once eagerly participated in classroom activities, now he would just sit at his desk staring into space.

We asked him what was wrong, and he said that he couldn’t bear school any longer, and then he burst into tears. My wife and I made an appointment to talk to his teacher, and in our meeting we quickly discovered the problem.

The teacher told us proudly that she divided the school day into 30-minute segments, each consisting of a series of exercises on a given theme or topic. So far, so good, but I started to get concerned when she told us that each day’s set of exercises was almost exactly the same as the day’s before. One of these tasks was a special penmanship practice. She called it “touch, bump,” and it consisted of forming a series of loops on ruled paper that “touched” the bottom line and “bumped” against the top line. This was done for a solid 30 minutes while the teacher sang “Touch … bump!” to keep all the children in rhythm as they filled sheet after sheet with neat little loops.

Another exercise involved watching a clock tick off five minutes.

“But that must be terribly boring to a 6-year-old,” I said.

“Well, one of the things children need to learn is that much of life is boring,” the teacher replied. “We need to prepare them for adult life, which is not all fun and games.”

It was at this point that my wife thanked the teacher for her time and pulled me out of the room before I did anything I would later come to regret.

This was 25 years ago, and my wife and I were fortunately able to work things in a way that avoided bloodshed. But the bitter memory of a teacher’s attempt to crush those children’s spirits was fresh in my mind when I recently spoke with Sir Ken Robinson, a leading thinker in the field of education and human potential. Robinson is an in-demand speaker and an author, most recently of Finding Your Element. His TEDTalks lecture “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” has been seen by millions. As he says in that talk, young children are inherently creative, but “by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. … We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

As you can imagine, this struck a nerve with me.

We begin our conversation on whether the role of education is to provide vocational training or to teach children to think. He explains that in the 19th century it made economic sense to teach people to do routine things. “At the height of the Industrial Age, when the notion of public education first became widespread, we weren’t interested in building brains, we were buying muscle. We didn’t need ditchdiggers or factory workers to be independent thinkers.”

But today, he says, society’s needs are much more complex. Unfortunately much of education is still vocational. “You try to predict which disciplines are going to be the most needed, and then you direct a lot of attention to those areas. But the path of life in the modern world is not linear.” (Robinson himself was headed for a career as a soccer player when he contracted polio at a young age. His circumstances changed; he fell in love with books and ended up a college professor.)

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