All Subjects not Created Equal (from 7-24-10)

Our system is currently obsessed with measurement, with numbers, statistics, and data. I can only assume that the system is being run by a lot of Math People. I have nothing against Math People, though I have never, ever been one. My son is a Math Person beyond compare (but he is also that rarity – a Math Person who is also a Word Person). In any case, Math People have a certain way of looking at things, and that way of looking at things biases them.

I have come to the conclusion that we are trying to treat all subject areas in school as if they were equal, and, in fact, that we are treating them all as if they were Math. The last time I checked, I wasn’t teaching Math– I was teaching Language Arts.

All our testing is based on a simple premise: The test-meisters ask a question, and give us four possible answers. Only one is right. Choose the right answer and you know your stuff; choose the wrong answer and you don’t. Now I am not a Math Person, but it seems to me that this method is uniquely suited to Math, where there is only going to be one right answer.

Not only is there one right answer, generally speaking there is usually a single way of arriving at that answer (which is why we have Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally). In other words, Math is a subject where we want everyone to think in exactly the same way. You must think about the problem in a certain way, and then follow certain steps in a certain order to get the proper answer.

Mistakes are made in Math when you a. misinterpret which steps need to be completed, or b. complete the steps incorrectly, or c. random guess because you don’t care which train will arrive in Detroit faster. The point is, everyone who is going to get a Math question correct on a test is going to essentially have to think and do exactly the same things to get exactly the same answer. I’m not putting down Math. I admire Math ability. But that’s just the way Math is.

Now let’s swing to the other end of the spectrum, which I consider to be Language Arts or Art itself. I teach Language Arts, and the chief areas we test are Reading and Writing. Let’s look at Writing first. On most state Writing tests, students are given a “prompt,” otherwise known as a “dull topic” to write about. Whereas in Math, everyone must think about problems in exactly the same way, in Writing, thinking about things in exactly the same way is frowned upon. This is a good thing. In recent years, some Florida Schools have been flagged for inspiring children to use formulaic elements in their essays, catchy similes like “I was as nervous as a marshmallow in a campfire,” or onomatopoeias like “Poof!” This is bad. Students are supposed to think of their own details– not just plug generic, prefab details into their essays.

The Writing Test does involve certain similar things happening with all students, and they are clearly spelled out in the rubric: they should focus on the topic, they should be organized, they should use vivid details and good word choices, and they should follow the rules of writing “conventions.” And these are, in fact, what a lot of good writers do. (I would argue that these four categories represent a reductionist view of writing, but that’s for another post.) Within those categories of writing activity, though, students are not only allowed, they are expected to write differently from person in the next desk, school, or county over from them. This is a pretty big shift from how things are in Math, where only one type of thinking is allowed.

And so Writing is different from Math, and is, to a certain extent, treated as different. But in the end, we slap a number on each essay.

So what about Reading? I would make the case that the flaw with Reading tests is that they treat Reading like Math, as an impersonal, one right answer kind of subject, when in fact Reading is more of a divergent thinking kind of activity. Are there obviously wrong ways to interpret something you’ve just read? Yes. But is there wiggle-room for interpretation? Yes again. That’s what makes classroom discussion of a story or essay so rich. We do our students a disservice when we constantly hammer them with the idea that there is only one way to read something, and that what you bring, or don’t bring, to the text as an individual has no bearing on how you read and interpret something.

And what about other subjects, like Science and History, which I view as falling in the middle of the spectrum? Yes, there is the Math element in these subjects: Science obviously involves measurement and numbers; History obviously deals in dates and statistics. But Science is also about the flash of insight that gives us the theory of relativity, or a brilliant idea for a Science Fair project involving Mentos and 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke. Science is about creative problem solving. History is more than just the facts– it is making sense of those facts, interpreting them. The History teacher I work with assigns a paper about the Salem witchcraft trials that asks them to look at a whole slew of documents, both historical and modern, and then argue what they think caused the witchcraft hysteria. Again– a similar kind of thought process for each students in terms of reasoning, but many right answers because of different interpretations of the data.

We are attempting to treat everything as if it were math– and everything is not Math. Not being a mathematician myself, I have possibly drastically underestimated how much creative thought goes into higher Math when you start using it for real purposes– say in Science.

We need to realize that everything isn’t Math, though, just as not everything is Language Arts. As my wife, Andrea, and I discussed this subject this morning, she pointed out that you wouldn’t want a standard measure for all accountants, doctors, lawyers, and journalists. You want your accountant to be good at Math and have some knowledge of tax laws; you don’t necessarily want him too creative. A doctor who is too data driven and Mathematical my not look enough at the whole person in diagnosing a problem. I have seen and read about too many people who had a drug thrown at them by a doctor who completely missed what the real problem was. A lawyer represents a delicate balance between the factual/analytical and the creative/verbal as they balance legal issues with making a convincing argument. And journalists are supposed to give us “just the facts,” but if they do so in such a bland and lifeless writing style that we skip the article to head right to the Funnies (not that there’s anything wrong with the Funnies!), he isn’t doing his job as a writer.

Everything isn’t Math. There is certainly a place for Math, but when we try to view everything through a mathematical lens, we get a skewed perspective, just as we would get a warped view if we looked at everything only through the lens of art and intuition. Our students need to be able to use multiple, and often overlapping windows on the world around them, and with the statisticians in charge, they are often being given only one.

I am not saying I am “against accountability” which is the mantra I keep hearing from the pro-testing crowd every time someone criticizes testing. I am against only having one way of looking at everything. Some things can be measured, but others can only be observed. But that’s a topic for next time.