Questions Matter More Than Answers (from 3-25-10)

NOTE: The following post is from March 25, 2010 – after passage of Florida Senate Bill 6, which began the rating of teachers according to their students’ test scores.

Senate Bill 6 has passed the Senate and has gone to the House. What has been heartening this week is how many people outside of teaching have actually started standing up and saying how this ridiculous it is to make everything about the test.

The bill’s proponents say basing our evaluations as teachers on the test will help sort out the Bad Teachers, as if there is some kind of Secret League of Bad Teachers. The thought that has occurred to me as I think about my own children, who easily pass the tests with flying colors and always have, is that for me, a bad teacher is precisely the one who worries about test scores too much.

I don’t want my children in test preparation classes. I want them in classes that will make them think, challenge them, inspire their imaginations. I want my children to learn more than bubbling in correct multiple choice answers. I want my children to have nuanced thinking. I want them to see both the shades of gray in the world, but also the places where the things are definitely black and white in a moral sense.

Our children have always passed the tests, not because of any test prep their teachers have done, but because their teachers have made them excited about learning, and because our home is a place of books, discussions, books, jokes, word play, and thought. When test scores become an end in and of themselves, the things that actually make for good test scores go out the window.

Is it possible to have high test scores and be a Bad Teacher? I would say yes. If you put test scores above real writing, real reading, real thinking, real reasoning, real science – then you have your priorities all wrong. If you get high scores but leave your students cold to your subject, you are a bad teacher. If you get high test scores, but your students have never been touched by a book or written something that really mattered to them, then you have failed. If your students can bubble the correct answers nearly every time but can’t think for themselves, then their educational system has failed them.

I just finished teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to my Gifted/Advanced 8th Graders. What happened in their heads and in my room when we were discussing that novel cannot be measured on any “instrument.” The ideas we discussed, the connections they made, the questions they asked – these are what learning is about. In the book, the girl Clarisse McClellen says that the schools pound answers at them, but no one ever asks questions. She compares the school of that future society to so many spouts pouring liquid down so many funnels, and the teachers saying it’s wine when it’s not. I asked my students what that made them think of, and they said, “FCAT.”

Asking good questions is often, very nearly always, more important than find the “right” answer. I don’t want my students to learn the testing game and think it’s an education. I want my students to ask, “What does it mean to be educated?” and then to find answers. The most important things can’t be captured on a standardized test.

As Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

How do we measure whether teachers are teaching good questioning? Good question.