High Stakes Testing and Critical Thinking: Is Balance Possible?

desks

Note: This post was part of a larger conversation between nine educators on C.M. Rubin’s Global Search For Education Blog on The Huffington Post.

 Can teachers balance high stakes test prep with critical thinking?

Let me first say that I don’t have a magical answer; anyone who says he does is trying to sell something. Let me also say that, for this post, I’m going to set aside the (utterly imperative) question of whether or not schools should engage in high stakes testing, and instead focus on how teachers—within our current reality—can balance test prep alongside deep, critical learning.

Like many, I’ve struggled with this balance, particularly while teaching in South Korea where “high stakes” takes on a whole new meaning: Though Korea boasts some of the world’s highest test scores, this comes at the expense of untenable student stress, staggering rates of teen suicide, and an education system largely geared toward cramming for tests. Fortunately, my employer understood that critical thinking can actually boost test scores, and we engaged students in collaborative learning, tackling real world issues through interactive “critical thinking projects.” Students worked hard, improved their English, and actually had some fun in the process.

And oh yeah: They passed exams, often with flying colors.

As a high school English teacher in the U.S., I’ve seen a school-as-test-prep mentality increasingly Continue reading

Are Language Learners a Disadvantage in the Classroom?

Language Learner Pic

At a recent forum, I listened to three regional secretaries of education discuss their states’ different approaches to education. While each took a variety of stances on big educational issues like standardized testing, charter schools, and “Race to the Top” funding, they all agreed on one thing – that having more English Language Learners (ELLs) in their states has created challenges. 

Someone had asked a well-intentioned question about how each state addresses the needs of its ELLs, but what followed was a general tirade about all the difficulties schools were now having because of “these kids’” increased presence in the classroom. The discussion was off-putting – not because meeting the needs of linguistically diverse students isn’t challenging – but because no one thought to ask about the advantages of having ELLs in schools. 

Think about it – we wouldn’t discuss other forms of diversity this way, with a laundry list of negatives. An influx of racial diversity, for example, can also bring complex challenges, but school leaders embrace these changes as an asset to their schools (as they should). They wouldn’t be caught dead making comments about how hard it is having “these kids” come into “their” schools.

So why is it ok to talk about ELLs this way?

Time ran out during the forum discussion, but I was curious how other educators would answer questions about linguistic diversity as an asset. So I asked a group of high school teachers I work with, and we came up with an extensive list of answers. Continue reading

Whose Canon is it Anyway? (Part II)

shakespeare copyLast week, I posted about questioning the literary canon, and got some fabulous responses. This week, we’ll look at two more arguments for/against the canon. As a refresher, the “Top 4” arguments were:

1. These texts are part of our literary heritage. 

2. Great literature must stand the “test of time.” 

3. Some books are truly just better than others.

4. The themes of great works transcend time and culture.

Most taught high school books

Source: The Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature

We discussed the first two arguments last week. Now it’s onto numbers 3 & 4!

3. Some books are truly just better than others. Arthur Krystal discusses embracing a plurality of texts in a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education called, “What do we lose if we lose the canon?” 

“While there is nothing wrong (and perhaps something even right) in praising those whom previously we shunned, a law of diminishing returns kicks in once we stop making distinctions between the great and the good. It’s one thing to acknowledge the subjective factors of canon-building and another to obfuscate the aesthetic underpinnings of works created by human beings who invest time, skill, talent, and knowledge into making a novel or poem…. Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships, of literature itself than do other books….”

I do agree with his statement; I am in no way advocating that students read only what’s easy and popular at the time. However, while I agree that Continue reading