Schools driven by standardized tests take all joy out of learning

I was in the third grade when Indiana’s standardized math and reading test, the ISTEP, was introduced in public schools. I remember parents expressing fears that these tests would be used to drive what was taught and to rate teachers and schools. I remember school officials swearing up one side and down the other that it would never happen. Yet before I graduated from high school, passing the test became a condition of graduation.

My sons are in public schools. Until a few years ago, when the ISTEP moved from the fall to the spring, they complained loud and long about how the first month of school was just review for the test. They hated the boring repetition of material they already knew well. Teachers and administrators do it because school funding and their own jobs and compensation depend on how well their kids perform on this test. If their school does poorly enough for long enough, the state will even take over the school and run it. Nobody wants that!

Every fear of those parents from 1975 was eventually realized, although it took more than 30 years to reach the bottom of this slope so slippery.

I don’t like what the ISTEP has done to education in Indiana, and wish it would disappear. And I gather that the story is the same nationwide, thanks to No Child Left Behind. It has had the effect of industrializing our schools, by which I mean using statistical analysis as the primary or even sole means of driving improvement. It’s human nature to optimize around what’s being measured, to the exclusion of all other factors that would bring fuller success. My experience has been that this leads to great mediocrity.

James Monroe School
The elementary school I attended

I hear more about homeschooling now than ever. 20 years ago, only kooks and religious fundamentalists taught their children at home, or at least that was the perception. It seemed like they were primarily trying to shield their kids from the big bad world. But now I know everyday families who homeschool.

Many of those homeschoolers use structured lessons, but a growing number of them are turning their backs on that and instead lean on the family’s everyday life experiences and their children’s natural curiosity to drive learning. It’s called unschooling, an axiom of which appears to be that kids hate school because lessons are forced onto them and because they are forced to sit quietly in place for long periods. Unschoolers claim that children naturally love learning and through active play and exploration will learn everything they need to know.

That makes some sense to me. I was a good student and a compliant child, the perfect fit for public school. But even I suffered considerable boredom (and sore bottoms from the hard, wooden chairs) during long lectures on dull subjects such as history. I hated history when I was in school. Plumb this blog’s archives and you’ll see that I now love history, and that love blossomed when I explored the past on my own terms.

I see this in my sons, too. My youngest, aged 14, has has become interested in animation and video production. He wrote, shot with his camcorder, and edited a movie last year, starring plush toys of characters from the Angry Birds video game. And he has made short stop-motion animations by taking successive still photos of posed Lego toys, which he strung together in Windows Movie Maker. He makes short hand-drawn animations in Flipnote Studio on his Nintendo DS and shares them with other kids in a common online space there. For his last birthday, he asked for a Wacom drawing tablet and Flash CS6 so he could make sophisticated animations. He’s struggling to learn those tools, but he’s still trying. All of his trying has been self-motivated and at his own pace.

Schools, of course, have to structure learning and discipline. When you gather hundreds or thousands of children into a building, with one adult to every 20 or 30 children, it’s the only way to avoid total chaos.

My youngest son is reasonably bright but struggles with focus, organization, and attention. So he’s not quite as perfect of a fit for public school as I was. Now, his school has separate up and down staircases. I’ve visited the building; the staircases are wide enough to accommodate children going both directions. And the up staircases are usually not near the down staircases, so children have to go out of their way to use the proper staircase. My boy, who is fiercely independent with little tolerance for nonsense, decided to hell with it and began using whichever staircase was nearest by. Repeated infractions led to letters home and, finally, days of detention. I sat him down and explained: “There are 2,000 students in your building. Frankly, there are enough of you that you could overwhelm the adults. So they have rules that keep order. I agree with you that this one appears to be arbitrary and stupid. However, it is the rule. It is a hoop you need to jump through, and I expect you to jump through it. I expect you will always dislike it. I don’t blame you, actually. You keep right on disliking it, but you keep right on obeying it.”

I’ve had variations on this discussion with him over and over. He resisted learning his math facts in elementary school, declaring the exercise a waste of time. Given that I never learned my addition facts yet graduated from engineering school, I had a hard time arguing with him. And he struggled for several years with doing his homework. When I discovered the problem, he was handing in less than half of it. He said that it felt like needless busywork for him to do work in subjects he had already mastered.

Unschoolers claim that this stuff saps our kids’ innate love of learning and leads either to belligerence (which often gets medicated) or broken spirits (which often gets mistaken for successful compliance).

All of this really resonates with me. I want my sons to be free to explore on their own without being put into tiny spirit-limiting pigeonholes. Yet I hedge.

School No. 7 / Crooked Creek Elementary School
Original entrance arch at my sons’ elementary school

I got into advanced placement classes in high school. In the 10th and 11th grades, my math teacher was Eugene Hudson, and he changed my life. He encouraged me when I started writing computer programs, which led to my rewarding career in software development. I am eternally grateful to him.

Mr. Hudson also sparked a love of mathematics in me. He did it in a very unconventional way. In my day, Indiana sophomores all studied geometry. It was the geometry of Euclid, the geometry of the plane, and it took all year. Except Mr. Hudson moved quickly through the material, teaching it all to us before Christmas. We were, after all, among the brightest students in the school; he challenged us to keep up. But he knew that all of us were highly focused on maintaining our grade-point averages, so he removed a critical barrier that helped us relax and enjoy the learning journey: he set the grading scale at 70-100 being an A, 60-70 being a B, and on down from there. His class was no easy A; even on that scale, it took effort to earn a good grade from Mr. Hudson.

After we finished the state-mandated curriculum, Mr. Hudson produced stacks of old texts he had saved during his long teaching career. Using them, he began to teach us about non-Euclidian geometries, spherical and hyperbolic. He finished with a week or two to spare, so making it up as he went he extended those principles to teach us the geometry of a teardrop.

I found it all to be utterly fascinating. I had always been pretty good at mathematics and could usually calculate the right answers. But after this, I was in love with mathematics for its own sake, for the pure joy of exploring it. Eugene Hudson transmitted his love for mathematics to us, and it stuck with me. It was the climbing-the-mountain version of learning: we did it just because it was there; wasn’t it glorious? It was! And when I left high school for college, I continued my journey by majoring in mathematics.

Riley High School
My high schol, taken the year I graduated

The problem with letting kids find their own paths is that their limited perceptions offer little sense of the paths available to them. They know only the paths upon which they stumble – and those presented to them.

The things children find on their own must not be discounted or denigrated. My youngest son is interested in video production because he has found a community of kids making videos and uploading them online. It’s fun for him and he wants to be a part. Making and sharing videos may always be just a hobby that brings my boy some satisfaction. Or maybe this could lead to a career in TV or film production. Who knows. Whatever.

But to limit him to just the paths he stumbles upon would be a shame. So much else could yet captivate him were those subjects only introduced to him.

I almost certainly would never have fallen head over heels for mathematics were it not for Eugene Hudson and his buccaneer-teacher ways. His methods freed me to enjoy the ride and soak up all that great human minds had discovered about mathematics.

This, then, is the teacher’s great function: to introduce bodies of knowledge that hopefully will ignite a spark in some child. You can’t predict what those sparks will be. Only a handful in my geometry class were as enraptured as I was. For my other classmates, it might have been organic chemistry, or beat poetry, or local politics that lit their fire, had there been teachers able and willing to step off the state curriculum to teach these things.

Even if there are such teachers today, the current public education system gives them no room to wiggle. Eugene Hudson, who retired many years ago but is still with us, couldn’t do now what he did for me in the early 1980s. The clamps are down tight and curricula are set in stone. Children are shunted down the narrow path of a tightly controlled state minimum.

Schools constrained by tests like ISTEP provide little spark for young learners. It takes education in the wrong direction. No wonder homeschooling and even unschooling are gaining traction.


The discipline of being real

Crooked Creek Baptist Church

All five of my regular readers have, I’m sure, picked up from these writings that I have had some serious stuff happen in my life. I have deliberately not detailed those things here because I decided early on that I wouldn’t use my blog to air or work through my problems. I’ve written a bit about getting back on my feet after my divorce, storm damage, and breathtakingly expensive car repairs. Beyond that I don’t share here most of the difficulties I face, including times when my behavior falls very short of what God wants for me. Blabbing too much about my problems just doesn’t seem wise. But on too many Sunday mornings I walk into church carrying the weight of these troubles and sins. I put on my smile, greet people, and say that all is well – and really, taking the long view of my life, all really is well and I hope not to forget that. But I still carry quite a weight into church some Sundays and pretend it’s not there.

We fall into a trap where we think we have to put on our best face for church. We feel we have to pretend that we are more pure and upright than we really are, because that’s what all of our apparently pure and upright brothers and sisters in Christ expect to see. And so we feel we have to deny our brokenness for at least these few hours.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:23-25, NASB

St. John Lutheran Church

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve heard sermons preached from this passage, it’s always been about why we shouldn’t miss church on Sunday. I want to look at some other things this passage says to us instead. It tells us to think about how to spur each another to love and do good deeds and about how to encourage each other all in the same breath as saying that we should keep coming together as Christians. It does not specifically mention Sunday morning. We meet on Sunday perhaps because of tradition or because of Scripture or because the first-century church did. But that does not limit us to Sunday; we can come together at any other time. The point of this passage is that no matter when Christians come together, we should build each other up.

If you go to church hiding your troubles, shortcomings, and sins, how will anybody know how to build you up? If I don’t know what you need today, I’m limited to offering general encouragement like “keep praying” or “may the Lord bless you.” Moreover, if you need to be built up because of the troubles and shortcomings you are carrying around, it will hinder your worship.

St. Joseph Catholic Church

Let me say this in another way. It is important to learn to share our spiritual struggles with one another. This is being genuine among Christians. It is a useful and powerful part of accessing Jesus’s forgiveness, which lets us worship in full joy.

Clearly, Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins. On that act our forgiveness and acceptance are predicated, and we receive that forgiveness and acceptance only through Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5 says that there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. But he will use us in passing along his forgiveness if we let him.

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. – James 5:14-16, NASB

I’ve heard “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” quoted King James style, dozens of times; these are comforting and powerful words. But let’s look at them in this wider context. These verses start by saying, “Is anyone among you sick?” The Greek word translated here as sick, astheneo, also means:

1. to be weak, feeble, to be without strength, powerless
2. to be weak in means, needy, poor
3. to be feeble, sick

Look at all the ways you can be sick – poor, weak, powerless, needy – and be included in this scripture! Many of our troubles, shortcomings, and sins are about being sick in just these ways. And then these verses say that one remedy for these kinds of sickness is to confess your sins to other Christians! But why is this remedy available?

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” – John 20:19-23, NASB

Metea Baptist Church

Here the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then tells them that he has given them the authority to forgive sins in his name. I believe that this authority is extended to us, as well. 1 Peter 2:9 calls us a chosen race and a royal priesthood; one of the functions of the Hebrew priest was to facilitate the forgiveness of sins by accepting sacrifices presented to God. He was just God’s agent, and so can we be. This does not mean that we have the power to forgive sins, but that we can pass along Jesus’s forgiveness.

Have you ever felt such guilt or shame over something you’ve done that even though you’ve prayed, maybe even begged God, for forgiveness, you still carry the sin’s weight? In other words, have you ever doubted that God has forgiven you?

Burlington Church of Christ

There was a time in my life where I felt the crushing weight of my own lifetime of sin. So I bought one of those marble composition notebooks and began to take an inventory of all the times I fell short. I went all the way back to age 5 and wrote the story of every sin and shortcoming I could remember. I filled the notebook with my stories. When I was done, I prayed to God for forgiveness for them all, hoping finally to put them behind me. It helped, but the weight did not entirely lift. So I called upon a brother whom I trusted, whom had been on his own serious spiritual journey, and asked him to meet with me privately so I could confess my sins to him. Let me tell you, I felt like I had some real whoppers in there, things I did not want to admit freely, things I certainly will not admit here. But I knew my friend had been down a similar path in his life, and would at least understand my journey. I was not prepared for what actually happened, though. He sat quietly and listened as I read. The more I confessed, the more I could see in his body language and hear in his vocal reactions that he was deeply moved, that he felt great empathy for the pain I was carrying, and that he genuinely wanted me to feel and be freed from my shame and pain. And when I was done, he said, “Jim, you have done some very serious work here, reaching deep into yourself to call yourself into account. And I want you to know that now you never, ever have to worry about any of those things you’ve done anymore. They are forgotten. You are no longer bound to them.”

That day, Jesus was there in my friend, personally feeling my pain and telling me that I was forgiven. It was the turning point in my spiritual life. I went from being a man defined by his sins to being a man defined by having been forgiven. I stand on that foundation and it has enabled powerful spiritual growth since.

I’m not saying that each of us needs to buy a marble composition book and start writing. I am saying that we can keep our slates clean today by confessing our current pack of troubles, shortcomings, and sins to other Christians whom we trust. We don’t have to confess to another Christian anything we’ve confessed to and successfully left with God if we don’t want to. But we do profit from confessing to one another when we don’t feel relieved of the guilt and shame or when we can’t stop repeating a mistake.

Greensburg Methodist Episcopal Church

But don’t just walk up to a random Christian and start blabbing. It takes time and effort to build the trust relationships in which it is appropriate to be genuine like this. We tried to facilitate those kinds of relationships at my church when we started small groups a few years ago. We hoped they would become communities that allowed us to be genuine with and minister to each other so we could powerfully experience God’s love and forgiveness. But it was too easy for those to just become Bible studies, and so they did, and that’s pretty much all they are now. We didn’t discipline ourselves to become real with one another.

Building those trust relationships takes work, and it starts with making friends with other Christians and letting those relationships build. Over time, we become more free to be genuine with each other, letting each other see our real selves, including all those troubles, shortcomings and, yes, the sins. Our trusted friends in Christ will bear these burdens, empathizing with us and reminding us in poignant ways that God knows, forgives, and loves us anyway. As you build this discipline, as much as your friends become Jesus’s agent of forgiveness and love in your life, you become Jesus’s agent of forgiveness and love in theirs. We become a conduit for Jesus’s love. What wonderful service that is to the Lord! This is how you really live Hebrews 10:25, not forsaking our assembling together, but encouraging each other. This encouragement keeps us fully in touch with God’s expression of love for us – his complete acceptance of us because of Jesus’s sacrifice. When we receive God’s love so fully, we naturally respond with joyous worship; it’s how God wired us. Wouldn’t it be great to be part of a group of Christians who can worship and live with such abandon? It all starts with you being real.

Burlington Church of Christ