Here I go again, beating the drum for joining the Middle-L listserv. And once more, I’m linking to a Marion Brady article. I’ve also talked about Marion before. Here’s his latest article, at Truthout.org, about this whole “accountability” issue that’s become the central feature of our educational system. He makes the point that today’s standardized tests that supposedly hold us teachers accountable really just test short term memory and “second-hand knowledge.”
We seem to be over a barrel. To maintain educational quality, we need to monitor and measure performance. But learner qualities and capabilities most deserving of being evaluated are far too complex for our crude tests to monitor.
Fortunately, the barrel is of our own making, and can be rolled aside. Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, in his 1916 Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association of England, pointed the way. “The secondhandedness of the learned world,” he said, “is the secret of its mediocrity.” When kids are merely trying to remember something read in a textbook or heard in teacher talk, they’re in the secondhand-knowledge business. When they’re figuring out how to make sense of something complicated and important that can be seen and touched, they’re in the firsthand-knowledge business. Switching from secondhand to firsthand student work changes the game and therefore everything that follows, including the kinds of tests that are necessary.
And he lists some examples of “first-hand knowledge” assignments:
A firsthand-knowledge assignment for a high school social studies class: “How are major decisions about your school’s day-to-day operation made, and what general conclusions and attitudes about decision-making and governing might you carry into adulthood as a consequence?”
A firsthand-knowledge assignment for a high school science class: “What’s happening to the solid waste your school generates, and if the system for dealing with it continues to function as it presently does, what will be the likely consequences for future generations?”
A firsthand-knowledge assignment for a high school humanities class: Graffiti fits dictionary definitions of literature. Reading “between the lines,” what does local graffiti have to say about the interests, concerns, and problems of its creators? Do they differ from yours? How? Why?
Another winner from Mr. Brady. This one needs to be distributed to every teacher you know. Here’s a link to the whole article.