Life Without Tests

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This post is part of a series of responses to the ebook Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin.

In his work, Seth Godin criticizes the process of testing, saying it doesn’t inspire passion or a deep desire to know a subject (and of course, can do just the opposite.) Creativity, innovation, and motivation are traits that will set young people apart as they create job opportunities and careers for themselves in our uncertain economic climate. So how does multiple choice testing prepare young people for the world, Godin asks? His answer, of course, is that it doesn’t.

As I read through these sections, I realized, “Hey! I went to a college without tests.” It’s not something I always think about, but tests were not a learning tool that any of my professors chose to use, ever. I never once took a test in college, save for my Wilderness First Responder and CPR course. That’s it. Maybe what’s most interesting about that realization is that as radical as the notion of a test-free campus may seem to some, it’s not even the trait that first comes to my mind when I describe my former school. (I usually describe Hampshire as a school where you design your own course of study and there are no grades.) Not having tests felt so natural that I’ve hardly bothered to remember that it’s supposed to be radical.

I was fortunate in high school that I had passionate, engaged teachers, that I loved to read, and that I can test well. Even when I wasn’t inspired by my teachers, reading an American History textbook was lively for me, full of juicy stories and intrigue. Testing didn’t deter me because I could score well enough, (with a whole lot more struggling in math and science) and I was still engaged in learning. So, at Hampshire, where I continued to have teachers who cared about their subjects and wanted to share stories and ideas, I could focus on just the good stuff. Because there had been enough “good stuff” and engaged learning in high school for me too, even with the tests, there wasn’t a dramatic contrast for me to be thankful that I was finally rid of them. Testing, for me, just sneakily and quietly dropped out the window. And I have never missed it, not once.

So how did our professors know we were learning? I wrote a lot. I wrote paragraph responses, I wrote analytical essays about theory, I wrote literary analysis, I wrote descriptive ethnography that I turned into creative non-fiction narratives. I choreographed dance responses to required dance concert viewings. Friends of mine collaborated with one another to compose and perform music, while others created podcasts of oral histories. Did everyone, including me, who was tested this way learn the most they could have? Maybe, and maybe not. But it was always much more than a, b, c or d and almost always proved to be interesting and innovative.  And those are skills we need.

So what do you think? Does multiple choice testing have a place in our schools, at any level, ever? Is Hampshire unique or have you experienced test-free environments within your particular academic discipline?

Lessons learned from Babies: Pay Attention

My mind is whirring as I think about education, teaching, and human development. Right now I’m reading Seth Godin’s free ebook/manifesto called Stop Stealing Dreams about education reform and I’m inspired to respond as I read through.

I feel very lucky to have had many short, intense job experiences in my young adult life that have been at times enriching, frustrating, mundane, and extraordinary. I have learned from all of them. Many of these jobs have been in education, and today I wanted to share some of my favorite things from working in a classroom with infants and toddlers in the Spring of 2011.

The classroom was Reggio Emilia inspired, which is a teaching approach in early childhood development that emphasizes respect for the child and a child inspired/directed curriculum. I had the opportunity of working as an assistant two afternoons a week with two dedicated and experienced teachers.  In observing them and through my own interactions with the infants and toddlers, here are some of the things that have stayed with me:

Environment as a Teacher. The teachers carefully considered everything they brought into the classroom and would change the environment to occasionally create new learning areas. It was a small space and they didn’t believe there was room for distraction or clutter: everything should have a purpose for the children or for the adults working with them (lotion, handiwipes, etc.) In the corner was an alcove with silky scarves hanging over it.  Some days an old light projector would be placed there so the children could play with light and shadow with the shapes they placed on the screen. In another corner was a small ball pit, on the wall was a “soundscape garden” of forks and other metal objects. These were simple things, but each area and each toy could provoke wonder and awe, which was different from many child care environments I have seen.

Child Inspired Learning. This was my first time working with infants, and my first exposure to the idea that infants have distinct personalities and needs to be considered and encouraged. The teachers were very observant (another Reggio Emilia trait). If a child picked up a string of beads, they would see what she chose to do with it, would she run the cold plastic beads up and down her arms feeling the sensations, or bang it against the wall repeatedly to hear its sound? The soundscape garden was created in response to ways certain children responded to and desired to have more sound experiences. The teachers reminded me that while working with young ones it is easy to feel like it’s very go, go, go, but it’s important sometimes just to sit still, watch, and listen to them to better understand them.

Partnership with Parents and Passion. I was very fortunate to work with teachers who cared so deeply about their work with children, their teaching philosophies, and about the families. The idea of “partnering with families” didn’t seem like rhetoric, but a true desire to let parents know what was happening in the classroom, what teachers observed about the child, and to bring home life into the classroom as well. Parents respected the teachers and would ask them for advice. I admired the professionalism and experience that the teachers brought to work every day.

These lessons continue to influence me in my work with children, and perhaps they’re sneaking into other areas of my life too. A deliberate and intentional living/playing/working environment that encourages the most engaged interactions possible? That sounds like a good idea for adults too.

And what does this all have to do with the ebook Stop Dealing Dreams? The book is encouraging me to think about my experiences as a student and an educator to make better sense of the education I want to see in the world. The examples above are inspirations for me, though they’re part of bigger systems of schooling I’m still trying to make sense of.