‘Just teach what is going to be on the test’

The astonishing reach of the CRCT cheating scandal may be opening lots of eyes, but many of us in academia have already been noticing a fundamental and unhealthy change in how many people understand the purpose of education and what is meant by “learning.”

I recently taught a seminar on the infamous Scopes “monkey trial,” which addressed the question of whether public school curricula should follow the consensus of the community or the expertise of instructors.

I asked my students to think about who should determine what is taught and how exactly that determination should be made.

As the conversation developed, one young woman seemed especially impatient, punctuating her irregular eye-rolls with exasperated sighs.

“Why don’t teachers just teach what is going to be on the test?” she finally asked.

The implication couldn’t have been clearer. There is a finite, identifiable body of data that students are supposed to learn. It is the task of the instructor simply to transmit that information.

A generation or two ago, the very worst thing one could say about a teacher was that he or she went blandly “by the book,” assaulted students with facts and figures, and demanded that they “regurgitate” names and dates on tests. It was widely understood that learning should nurture critical thinking, creativity, imagination, analysis and synthesis.

But now, many students want “just the facts,” and they are often baffled by teachers who seem too lazy or recalcitrant to hand them over, who instead haze them with Socratic method, linger on interminable class discussions, and force them to do research apart from consulting Wikipedia.

So how did this happen? Why is the expression “teaching to the test” even a part of everyday vernacular?

I would suggest that a big part of this is the sometimes sincere, but more often cynical desire to hold schools and teachers accountable for what they are accomplishing in the classroom, which has produced a clumsy demand for concrete, mathematically interpretable “data.”

Thus, the new educational lexicon involves “rubrics,” “measurable learning outcomes,” “quantifiable standards of performance” and “numerical targets.” Suddenly, these calculations have become the basis for funding and accrediting and hiring and firing, which turns the whole intellectual process inside out. Curricula are designed to satisfy the numbers, students are conditioned to tick off their rubrics mechanically when they fulfill assignments, and schools are mandated to engage in ongoing “assessment.”

How could a student be immersed in this environment and not conclude that learning is anything other than a process of jumping through a protracted set of strategically placed hoops?

Don’t get me wrong. It is absolutely crucial that we put considerable effort into curricular design and that we hold our teachers and schools accountable. But the simple reality is that the very best of what we accomplish cannot be boiled down to these “learning outcomes,” and I want my own children to gain more from their education than an ability to satisfy rubrics.

I received an email from a former student, now a teacher. “Classes I took with you,” he wrote, “were so instrumental in rewiring the way I saw the world around me.”

He added: “I love what I do, and part of what I do is try to re-create that same learning environment I experienced in your class. To throw it all into question, to push my students to wrestle with the content and come up with their conclusions, and to take seriously every question that every student asks and to answer it sincerely.”

I’d like to see someone try to quantify that.

Jonathan R. Herman of Decatur is director of undergraduate studies in the department of religious studies at Georgia State University.