Designed to raise children, not test scores

Published by Lori Pickert on February 7, 2010 at 02:36 PM

Our current educational approach — and the testing that is driving it — is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike.

In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.

What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run. Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.

Along the way, teachers should spend time each day having sustained conversations with small groups of children. Such conversations give children a chance to support their views with evidence, change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more.

Our success depends on embracing a curriculum focused on essential skills like reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation and collaboration — a curriculum designed to raise children, rather than test scores.

— Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College, New York Times Op-Ed column Playing to Learn


Comment by sarah :: greenclogs on February 7, 2010 at 03:41 PM

I read this article when it was published and was both thrilled to read it and dismayed to know that it wouldn't have any real effect in stopping the moving train of "testing testing testing." At least it confirmed the approaches that we use at home.

Yesterday I met up with some friends at the farmer's market who all homeschool. We were sitting there chatting, when a teacher from my kids' old school came up and said hello. It turned out that the other families had also gone to the same school (older children), which is the only public school in Phoenix, a city of 5 million people, that claims to deliver a progressive education. We had all left to home school because they couldn't deliver what they promised in the environment of district pressured testing.

There is no school in Phoenix, public or private, that educates children with genuine child development principles in mind(other than the less than stellar Waldorf charter school that still has to use state standards and testing). We can't even *pay* for a progressive education in this city, and that's just sad. You either deal with what's here or you break off on your own.

Thankfully, we've found a community of people who feels the same way about education as we do and we work together and on our own to give our children the foundation they need to succeed in their chosen paths. Why is that so out of the ordinary?

Comment by Karen on February 7, 2010 at 06:09 PM

What a beautiful post, you've written what is in my heart!

Comment by Amber Lee on February 7, 2010 at 08:54 PM

I love your blog! As a mother to a one year old we are just beginning our journey into loving to learn, and your blog gives me lots of faith that we are starting her off right!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 8, 2010 at 02:01 PM

sarah, you should check out some of the responses to this op-ed by people like the core knowledge blog. well, unless stress is bad for the baby. ;^) it cracks me up that they keep arguing that we need *more* of the same rote learning/testing when it isn't even doing the job as it is. interesting logic. and i usually wonder if they aren't talking about *other people's kids* when they say this is how it needs to be -- and their own kids are in private schools doing projects. maybe i'm just cynical...

why *is* it so out of the ordinary? or at least against the mainstream? i don't know. if parents rose up like a tidal wave and demanded schools change, they would. but .. they won't. and

thank you, karen!

thank you, amber!

Comment by sarah :: greenclogs on February 8, 2010 at 04:16 PM

Parents are too afraid to rise up - afraid that they're wrong, afraid that their kid will fail, afraid to trust themselves and their kids in the face of "experts".

I don't know that I can go back and read the comments - I'm not ready to go into labor yet! I also have a very difficult time understanding how more of what's not working will magically start to work.

At least here, kids still aren't doing projects, except at a couple of schools, and even then the project work is extra - not part of the core curriculum. Phoenix is on the cutting edge of "do more of what doesn't work."

Comment by Shannon on February 8, 2010 at 07:08 PM

This is just a great article. I am deeply dismayed at the push for children to "learn" yougner and younger. Right now, the children in my care have taken the house apart and are playing library. Their conversations with each other and to me or preparing them for reading and writing and learning in a way that is much more effective then if I sat them down to "learn to read or write". They are three and will go to preschool soon. Oh I hope it's a preschool of play. I know everyone says it, but when you have time check out some of my posts on early childhood!

Comment by Cristina on February 8, 2010 at 10:05 PM

How do you always know what I'm thinking about? :o)

This has been on my mind since my latest read about video gaming. (I reviewed the book "Don't Bother Me, Mom--I'm learning" on my blog) In it, the author talks about what he sees as a flaw of testing, the fact that technology is usually banned from classes, especially during tests. He got me thinking about how testing really IS all about memorization. We are rewarding children for having a good memory in a completely artificial environment.

We should really be teaching kids how to be effective researchers. It reminds me of something I once told my son. He wanted to ask me a question because I "know everything." I explained to him that I don't know everything, but I do know how to find answers.

We need to teach kids to find answers instead of parroting them!

Peace and Laughter!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 9, 2010 at 02:33 PM

sarah, i'll summarize it for you -

project- and inquiry-based learning doesn't work because

1. poor kids don't have enough knowledge to work with (but .. project- and inquiry-based learning done correctly create tons of knowledge)

2. the only kids who do well with it are from families with educated parents who are involved with their kids (i guess that's why it's a natural fit for homeschoolers!)

3. it's rarely done well because it's harder for teachers to implement (yet teachers hate chalk-and-talk and want more freedom)

4. people do it wrong/poorly (but .. you're not criticizing it done poorly, you're criticizing it across the board)

there was more, but that gives you the idea...

one educator said hey, people are pulling their kids out to homeschool to give them these opportunities! i'll prob quote her essay later. i swear i think she's been reading this blog! ;^)

i think more than anything else parents are afraid of leaving the safety of the group. they figure whatever job schools are doing, at least they're doing it to everybody's kids. they're more comfortable with the devil they, and all their friends and relatives, know.

parents have to have a streak of independence, self-reliance, and self-confidence to make alternative education choices for their children -- and their children will then have a much easier time developing those traits, away from the constant pressure to conform/compete/comply.

shannon, it is really an issue of trust. adults/schools can't trust that children will learn through these kinds of activities, so they start breaking everything down and feeding them bits -- e.g., letter of the week. i talked with so many parents who were unsure and uncomfortable about just letting a group of preschool children learn through play and projects -- they simply didn't believe kids would learn unless they were forced. sad!

cristina, well, there are a series of microphones ... ;^)

testing is all about memorization, because teachers don't have time to speak to their students, observe them, and work with them enough to know that they understand the material -- or even if they do, they still have to prove it on paper!

i know i've told the story before, but one of my son's friends asked what grades he gets and i said well, he always gets As, because we don't move on until we've mastered whatever it is we're doing! grades are ridiculous; testing is a farce. it is what it is, and kids need to learn how it works in case they want to go to college, say, but people keep confusing test outcomes with real understanding/intelligence/ability.

your "i don't know everything, but i do know how to find answers" is exactly what i mean when i talk about being your child's learning mentor! it's very deflating to hang out with someone who knows everything, anyway. kids need the opportunity to become experts at something and teach you something new -- way more fun than always being on the receiving end! ;^)

agree x infinity with teaching kids to find answers instead of parrot them back!


Comment by Kristine on February 10, 2010 at 11:46 AM

Testing and "do more of what doesn't work' (to quote Sarah) is the way we are heading in Australia. The government has just released a website that compares all schools performances in the standardised tests. They are now looking at 'punishing' the poorly performing schools with longer days. I assume this means more of the same - they don't seem to see that what they are currently doing is not working for those children. The rest of the system is now spending god knows how many weeks a year teaching to the test.

Comment by SnippetyGibbet on February 15, 2010 at 02:00 AM

I'm with you, my sister. Now if we could just convince the politicians of that, our schools could possibly get back on course. jan

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 15, 2010 at 04:23 PM

kristine, i’m so surprised. when i was running my reggio-inspired school, i was hugely inspired by the australian new basics project ( their goals seemed to encompass all the things i wish our own public school system would say and do!

jan, do you think it’s the politicians? we used to go ’round and ’round about that — politicians? parents? teachers? teacher unions? administrators? businesses that profit from testing? it’s like a huge spiky porcupine and i can’t figure out where the vulnerable spot is.

Comment by michelle on February 27, 2010 at 07:51 PM

I was thinking of you the other day when I was at my son's school. The lesson was part of a series in an outdoor environment. Previously the kids had been spit into groups and built their own habitats. The day I was there each group was given a small pile of something they perceived as valuable: slate, beans, chalk, etc. I can't remember the instruction. There might not have been any. We all went out and the kids quickly took up bartering. They decided they needed a main street, which they named; some kids made a sign; a garage sale happened; things were stolen. While this was going on the teacher was clipping berry vines. I wandered giving a few suggestions here and there -- totally a mistake. The whole point of the lesson was to see what the kids came up with on their own. At the end of class we reviewed all the amazing things these 1st/2nd graders had done on their own. I learned a lesson that day, too, to stand back. I thought I was good at it, but the teacher was better.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 27, 2010 at 08:01 PM

standing back is definitely a learned skill :)

i’m so glad you thought of me, because it sounds like my kind of thing. ;)

was the teacher clipping berry vines and not paying any attention, or actually watching and listening?

Comment by michelle on February 27, 2010 at 09:26 PM

She was watching and listening. We were all among the berries (including my goat! He gets to tag along at school.) -- it's an area they call the willows. Much ditch digging and water diverting is done there as well.

The next weeks' science class was with another teacher who excited the class with the challenge of saving the road. "We get to save the road!" is what I heard when I got to class. Everyone got a shovel and dug the ditch that keeps the water from washing out the road. After class he did a quick little lesson in sediment in harbors and dams and such. At the end they were so proud for saving the road.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 7, 2010 at 04:06 PM

what a fantastic place! :^)

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