EDuCATInG The CReATIVE
Undoing the Damage of Standardized Testing: A Call for
Thinking and Creativity in the Classroom
Undoing the Damage of Standardized Testing: A Call for Thinking and
Creativity in the Classroom Introduction
Eisner (2005) states what we decide to teach in our schools
determines whether or not we are genuinely educating our students.
What we teach and how it is measured molds the kind of minds our
students will possess. As Horton and Freire (1990) assert, 'we make
the road by walking.' In education, the paths we choose as teachers
have a direct and lasting impact on each child with whom we come in
contact. Unfortunately, curriculum in the public schools today is
driven by assessment. Testing all children from the
third grade on up to ascertain that they possess adequate reading
skills sounds good in theory. Let's 'leave no child behind;' let's
make sure each one can read. The problem does not lie in the
rhetoric; the problem lies in its application. In a well-meaning
attempt to try to ensure uniformity and fairness for all, we are
being unfair to the very children we are trying to aid. Art and
music are an integral part of the curriculum in schools where the
children perform well on standardized testing but are disappearing
in places where the population of the school is primarily a
marginalized subgroup. The 'back to basics' curriculum actually
includes nothing but the basics, and the less-advantaged children
are being intellectually and culturally shortchanged.
If we value creativity in our citizenry and communities, it must
first be cultivated in our schools. Richard Florida, in his book,
The Rise of the Creative Class, addresses the need for creativity in
our communities. Florida believes creativity can and must be
developed for everyone to have an opportunity to meaningfully
participate in society. He states, 'Human creativity is a virtually
limitless resource. Every human being is creative in some way...
creativity is the great leveler. It cannot be handed down, and it
cannot be 'owned' in the traditional sense. It defies gender, race,
ethnicity, sexual orientation and outward appearance' (p.xiv). As
teachers, the challenge is to find a way to balance the demands of
standardized testing while at the same time ensuring all students
have an opportunity to develop cognitively and creatively to their
Evidence of a Problem
Visit a third grade
classroom during the month of February; witness firsthand the stress
these eight- and nine-year-old children are under to pass the
state-mandated test. Not passing the test means not getting promoted
to fourth grade; it means facing failure and defeat at a very young
age. The weeks before the test the children are agitated and
distractible, whispering to each other when changing classes or
walking down the hall on the way to lunch. They report having
trouble sleeping and eating; feeling worried just all the time. 'I'm
afraid everything I know will go out of my head,' one pudgy
eight-year-old confides in me. 'If I have to go to summer school to
keep trying to pass the test I won't be able to visit my grandma in
Missouri with my sister,' a curly haired girl muses. 'I just wish it
would hurry up and be over so my life could get back to normal,'
expresses a very wired gifted and talented student. Each student in
every third grade classroom is affected; the gifted and talented
student who is afraid of anything but success, the average student
who is unsure of his aptitude for a test he's never taken, and
especially the struggling student who has little confidence in his
own abilities anyway. For the struggling reader the test is quite
likely to contain content he may not comprehend or relate to;
vocabulary he may not understand.
The Faces of the Problem
Which children are
at the greatest disadvantage when taking a standardized reading
test? Is it the child from the affluent household with a wealth of
experiences who is exposed on a daily basis to a rich vocabulary and
appropriate use of grammar and syntax? This same child who has been
read to since infancy, taught nursery rhymes, sent to preschool, and
has a home library of hundreds of children's books. What about the
child from a disenfranchised subgroup; the child whose family never
had the resources for preschool or children's books? Would the child
whose parent(s) speaks broken English or no English be at a
disadvantage? What about the child of a non-reader? Which child is
more likely to go to summer camp? Which one to summer school?
As a teacher in a diversely populated public elementary school, I
have an opportunity to see firsthand who the standardized testing is
snaring. In my school, it is the child from a family of migrant farm
workers, the child of an interstate truck driver who is in his third
different school this year, the little girl whose parents split in
January and are in the middle of a bitter custody battle, two little
boys with August birthdays, a quiet girl who is frequently sick but
has to wait for hours in the nurse's office because her single
mother can't afford to lose any of the hourly wages from her minimum
wage job, the slight boy who is living with his aunt this year
because his father is in jail on drug charges, and the little girl
who has just moved from Louisiana and a school system that had not
prepared her for the rigor and endurance required to pass an all-day
reading test. These are the faces of some of the children who will
be spending their summer in a classroom instead of a park or a
swimming pool. Children who have few opportunities for intellectual
growth outside the classroom; children with so many issues unrelated
to their reading abilities that affect their performance outcomes.
Why is it valued?
Besides the obvious
injustice of who is actually affected by the pass-or-repeat
ultimatum dictated by the state, the real dilemma is how we got in
this mess in the first place. How did our schools become so pathetic
that what is important and what is valued is the outcome of a
multiple choice test containing less-than-interesting reading
passages? The biggest error is placing any value on this test in the
first place. What is important in our schools is not the outcome of
a multiple choice test, but the thinking and creative abilities of
our students. Can the children think for themselves? Can they come
up with unique solutions to problems and generate their own problems
for others to solve? Can they analyze, synthesize, justify, and
infer? We must decide what the goals of our society are to be
concerning the education of our children.
Rather than focusing on
pinpointing the 'right answer' for a multiple choice test, what can
be done to promote thinking in our students that is more critical,
more creative, and more caring? For students to become the
thoughtful citizens our democracy demands, they need to do more than
simply acquire knowledge. Children are quite capable at even an
early age of monitoring their own thoughts and giving reasons for
their beliefs. The school needs to be an inquiring community where
reasoning and judgment are taught, sought, welcomed, and encouraged.
Matthew Lipman (2003) defines a community of inquiry as a process
that has a 'sense of direction and moves where the argument takes
it.' He further stipulates that a community of inquiry is not merely
discussion but is dialogic; it has a structure. In a community of
learners, dialogue is used to create meaning. Catherine Belsey
(2002) refers to Saussure's idea that meaning is differential, not
referential. Meaning depends on difference. To find that difference
in the classroom, multiple voices must be heard and affirmed. For
teachers and students, this means engaging in a critical discourse
Shor (1999) refers to as 'the third idiom.' The third idiom is the
local discourse invented in the classroom as the power struggles
between teacher and students are negotiated through a new code which
is a hybrid discourse. In this way the students share in the power
within the classroom.
Ira Shor (1996), echoing back to Dewey and Freire, states 'that
power is a learning problem and learning is a power problem.' In
Shor's book, Critical Teaching & Everyday Life, published in
1987, he questions 'the role of lectures and texts in a dialogic
course.' For critical pedagogy to be implemented in the classroom
there must be a minimum of teacher-talk and an end put to the
one-way transmission of knowledge. The teacher's role in a community
of inquiry is to function as a facilitator. Henry Giroux, in his
introduction in Freire's book, Literacy: Reading the Word and the
World, contends it is important 'for teachers to develop pedagogies
that allow them to assert their own voices while still being able to
encourage students to affirm, tell, and retell their personal
narratives by exercising their own voices.' Critical and creative
thinking are fostered when the classroom is 'a setting for the
negotiation of understandings, for deliberation about reasons and
options, for the examination of interpretations' (Lipman, 2003).
To promote and improve the quality of conversations that take place
in the classroom, one first must look at the framework. Classroom
arrangement is one factor. The room should be arranged so that
students can see and hear each other during discussion. For quality
conversations to take place students need to engage each other, not
direct all questions and comments to the teacher.Also, the teacher
needs to act as a facilitator for the students' ideas, modeling the
behavior desired in the students. Classroom thinking can be measured
by observations, recordings, and interviews.
After teaching and modeling critical and creative thinking, some
type of formal or informal measurement can by used to recognize the
improvement in thinking of our students. We need to think about what
would count as evidence of students thinking critically and
creatively and how that could be measured without a pencil and paper
test. Feuerstein (1980) identified ten characteristics of
intellectual growth that a teacher can observe and document. The
first characteristic is perseverance. Thinking students use
alternate methods to solve problems and don't give up in despair if
the answer to the problem is not immediately evident. Decreased
impulsiveness is another evidence of increased thinking and
reflection on the part of the student. A third characteristic of
intellectual growth is flexible thinking. Students exhibit flexible
thinking when they can consider and express the viewpoints of
others, thus stating multiple ways to solve the same problem.
Metacognition shows a growth in thinking as the students are now
able to describe the visual images and pathways taken as they become
aware of their own thinking. Careful review is an aspect of
intellectual growth as students review the criteria expected for
their finished products.
The sixth characteristic is problem posing. With problem posing, the
students ask the questions and envision the problems themselves. The
use of past knowledge and experiences is another way students are
able to apply meaning from past experiences to new ones. Another
feature of growth in thinking skills is transference beyond the
learning situation. Since the ultimate goal in education is for
students to be able to apply what is learned in school to real-life
situations, transferring occurs when evidence of previous thinking
is seen at home or in other classes. Precise language is evidenced
by students using more descriptive words and providing supportive
proof for their ideas. Finally, students experiencing intellectual
growth should show enjoyment of problem solving. Rather than
avoiding problems, students are noticed seeking out problems. By
keeping anecdotal records on each child, the teacher will be able to
evaluate the effectiveness of a critical stance in the classroom.
How can we teach children to think about thinking and to become
social constructivists in the classroom? Paulo Freire (1987) sees
thinking, feeling, and action as ways we make sense of the world.
Freire further states that, 'the educator needs to recognize that
knowledge is not a piece of data, something immobilized, concluded,
finished, something to be transferred by one who acquired it to one
who still does not possess it' (p.41). Children learn to think by
listening to others think out loud so they can build on each other's
ideas and challenge one another to give reasons and justify their
beliefs. Children learn best through the shared experience of
language, not with a paper and pencil test.
As Pinar (1996) writes in Understanding Curriculum, 'Discourse, as
poststructuralists employ the term, communicates the social
relatedness of the human world and more specifically, our social
relatedness as inscribed in and expressed through language... .The
human world is a world of language.' Language and dialogue are the
keys to engaging children in meaningful conversation which broadens
their ideas and views about the content areas and their world
outside the classroom.
There must be a place in the curriculum for wonder and
imagination in the classroom in order to develop thinking and
creativity in our future citizens. As Eisner states in The Arts and
the Creation of Mind, 'A culture populated by a people whose
imagination is impoverished has a static future. In such a culture
there will be little change because there will be little sense of
possibility.' Schools have become so test-driven that little
attention is paid to imagination and creativity, yet creativity is
vital for our classrooms and communities. Regarding creativity,
Florida contends, 'it is something essential that belongs to all of
us, and that must always be fed, renewed and maintained - or else it
will slip away.' If we want to undo the damage of multiple choice
tests, we must foster thinking and creativity in our students before
it is too late.
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