The Rules of the Game

How much of what we do in schools do we do because students will do it again later? I hear this all the time in response to my appeals for change. "They'll need it in high school" or "They'll need it in college". Look, there's a certain logic to this. However. let's posit that some of the things we make students do aren't helpful, useful or right yet we still do them "to prepare" kids for what is coming later. Can any reader nod their head yes in agreement? I found myself doing just this a couple of weeks ago. (Note my recent blog post about student choice in summative assessment) I worried that my students would be unprepared for the department created final exam which is full of "what" questions. The fear is real. 

We can look this another way, however. Who would be mean to children with the logic that it is preparing them for people to be mean to them later? Actually, I hear whispers of this in some of the people who mock the "everyone gets a trophy" awards. "Suck it up kids, life sucks", seems to be the mindsets of some critics. By the way, I also argue against giving kids trophies, but for different reasons. Alfie Kohn has largely convinced me that rewards punish in the long run.

I digress. What I really want to write about is that sometimes we are misguided in the game of school. We think we are preparing students for what is coming next. But we aren't. The rules are changing; we don't realize it yet. Tests for recall once made sense in a world in which information wasn't ubiquitous. Way back in 1997, David Shenk wrote, "Information used to be as rare and precious as gold. (It is estimated that one weekday edition of today's New York Times contains more information than the average person in seventeenth-century England was likely to come across in an entire lifetime.)" Process this and now think of the revolution in information technology that has happened the past 19 years. We simply can't expect people to remember everything that they'll need to know in their profession.

I'm thinking of this because Friday night I was listening to a fascinating Fresh Air broadcast on NPR on the impulsive and addictive prone teenage brain. It's worth a listen and I include a link to the entire broadcast. During a fascinating segue midway through the broadcast, my ears prickled when the neuroscientist being interviewed said this:

" Well, it is a different way of learning. And actually in the medical education field - here's an interesting fact - that over the last two or three decades, learning had - it was determined that learning had to be done in a different way. There were just simply too many facts to memorize during medical school... So about 20, 25 years ago in a few schools, including at Harvard, they started to do a different form of learning, which is really teaching students how to access information rather than absorbing, digesting and ingraining that information. And, frankly, that today's modern physician does operate much more in that mode because, of course, there's always this new information coming every month about new treatments, new patterns of practice that you should be employing. You couldn't possibly stay, you know, up to date by memorizing everything. So it's more teaching you how to access information. ...This actually is playing out very - in a very real way in the medical education field, I can tell you that. [So when your doctor has to look something up it doesn't mean] they're a bad doctor. It means that they're probably doing you a huge favor, that they're making sure that there isn't a better drug available that might have just come out or a new test that they can look for that mysterious disease that they still haven't made a diagnosis on."

So, why do Science AP exams still look the way they do? For that matter, why do all the AP exams look the way the do?

Look, I'm a constructivist. I believe our minds need some facts to build a scaffold. Schema theory tells us this. But next time you do something only because you think you are preparing students for things that are going to happen to them later in university, grad school and beyond, maybe you're wrong.

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