In the novel I’m reading*, an Italian barber boasts that, “I get the flower of men’s thoughts, because I seize them in the first moment after shaving.” His shop, he tells his customer, is a “haunt of the Muses, as you will acknowledge when you feel the sudden illumination of understanding and the serene vigour of inspiration that will come to you with a clear chin.” The barber shop doubles as a spa of the intellect, where people’s minds are refreshed and revived.
This barber is a kind of intellectual midwife – he doesn’t do anything to anybody’s mind; he just opens up some space for it to do its thing. Then, he watches and listens, moved and inspired to be in the presence of thoughts coming into the world. It doesn’t matter to him at all what the thoughts are; it is the energy of the new idea that is so magical. As a teacher, I relate to this wonder at the birth of a new thought. I am less concerned with what students are thinking and much more with creating a space where they can think, want to think, and where their thinking grows and flourishes.
I read this barber shop scene last night after coming out of a forum on testing, where teachers and parents came together to testify to the toll of frequent high-stakes testing on kids (see the video of Madeline Kobayashi in the blog post linked below for a vivid description of kids under the stress of a high-stakes test) — and to organize for change. For, unlike the energizing space that the novel’s barber shop provides for its city’s thinkers, the testing-room is for many students a place of bewilderment, defeat, and demeaning disregard for who they are, what they know, what they care about.
When a test is integrated into curriculum and serves precise educational goals efficiently, it is useful and meaningful. As a colleague responded when I asked about assessment in her English classes at Francis Parker School:
I ask myself: What’s going to be useful in the world they are inheriting, and that leads me to: Exposing them to multiple perspectives as readers, then supporting them as thinkers, speakers, and writers to bring forward their thinking in diverse contexts for a diverse audience. So I assess on the basis of clarity and polish and thoughtfulness of expression so that they may gain an audience as speakers or writers, and I assess on the basis on whether or not they have cast their language and their writing in a way that will gain the audience they seek and deserve.
Assessment that respects students’ and teachers’ intelligence is a vital part of education. (Click here for research, methods, and other resources for authentic assessment.)
However, if tests are repeated to an excessive degree (12 standardized tests for kindergartners! Tests for preschoolers! Up to 30 class sessions spent on testing!), and loaded with huge consequences (most disastrously, school closings), they are unconscionably damaging. And clearly a result of incompetent, unorganized, inefficient leadership. A well-coordinated and well-planned system of assessment would not be experienced by thousands of students and teachers as “out of control” (one teacher calculated that one of the twelve tests that teachers had to copy and administer over the course of the year was 68,000 pages. That’s at one school). It’s time to test the testers: Chicago school communities are not seeing evidence of clear thinking on the part of CPS decision makers.
For another blogger’s account of the forum, click here.
*George Eliot’s Romola