Teaching to the Test Gets an ‘F’

A conversation with Sir Ken Robinson, a leading thinker in the field of education and human potential.

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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.)

I ask Robinson what he thinks of the current reform movement in education, which started out as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under George W. Bush and was later enhanced by Race to the Top under Barack Obama. “Look, it has the best of intentions, which is to close the achievement gap between affluent and poor,” he says. “It’s all very honorable, but it simply hasn’t worked.”

At the core of NCLB is Congress’s mandate for states to give annual math and reading tests throughout grade school and once in high school. The stakes are high. Schools that don’t meet certain standards face sanctions and, in some cases, closure. This creates a vicious cycle: Fearful of low scores, many schools began devoting substantial parts of the curriculum to preparing for the tests. But, for all that rote learning, our kids are no better off, says Robinson. He points to studies showing that on average one-third of those who start in ninth grade don’t complete school within four years. In some regions the results are much poorer—Houston and Chicago, for example, where the non-graduation rate tops 60 percent.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years. If the health service insisted on giving everyone a vaccine and one-third of the patients were dying, wouldn’t it make sense to try another method?” he says, adding “As a result of standardized testing, even many kids in Ivy League universities can barely think around a corner.

“In principle, testing is a logical way to monitor progress,” says Robinson. “In practice, it creates a very dry learning environment. Incidentally, this has been a bonanza for standardized testing companies—they’ve done fantastically well—but teachers are tired and exhausted. They’re demoralized. And the kids are turned off. They’re being simply trained as test-takers. You can’t improve education if you alienate the students. What kind of kid wakes up in the morning excited about raising his school’s average test scores?’’

Our focus on test results has led to the trimming or outright elimination of many of the areas of education that Robinson says are vital to a child’s success. Funding for sports, arts, and music has shriveled or dropped entirely.

So, what can be done about it? “I tell parents: ‘Take control of your own situation. There’s no mandate in No Child Left Behind to shut down arts programs. Get your community engaged and make your demands clear. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you,’” says Robinson.

All this brings to mind my dilemma of 25 years ago, dealing with a teacher who seemed bent on squelching creativity. Robinson asks what we did about the problem, and I tell him my wife and I spoke to the principal, who ordered the teacher to create a more flexible curriculum. Then, the principal went a step further. He started taking our son out of class occasionally. The two of them would go on walks around the school and talk about everything from real turtles to the Teenage Mutant Ninja kind. My son slowly regained his love of school and his interest in learning. (Incidentally his second grade teacher was the opposite of his first grade teacher. She was creative, fun, and nurturing.)

Despite my still simmering rage at the first grade teacher, Robinson argues that boring classrooms and barren curricula are usually not one individual’s fault. “In most cases, we can’t blame the problems on the teacher,” Robinson says. “We need to give them room to do their job. We need to train them properly, and pay them properly.”

He points out that none of the top-performing foreign school systems rely on standardized testing. In Finland, for example, which has one of highest ranked school systems in the world, the emphasis is on creating great teachers. Would-be educators compete for coveted spots in a government-supported training program that comes complete with a living stipend. Those who make it through the program are highly respected, well-paid, and given a large degree of control over their curriculum. “America can change,” says Robinson. “But we need to take education out of the hands of politicians. Politicians are not interested in education. They only want to be able to hold up a report that says ‘Our math scores are higher than Taiwan’s.’”

Over 200 years ago, long before No Child Left Behind, the great English poet William Wordsworth wrote of the loss of children’s insight, curiosity, and creativity:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore; —
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. …

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower. …

In the Internet age, Robinson tells us, it’s up to each one of us to keep that glory alive.

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