Dear Zaharis Families,
Printed on the wall outside of 6th grade teacher Susan Stott’s classroom door is a quote declaring to all who enter her room—To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions. This simple statement is a reflection of what we are about at Zaharis Elementary School. Critical thinking is nurtured at Zaharis through a workshop approach where we place a premium on inquiry-based, hands-on learning. Children develop independence as learners and the ability to work together to raise questions, investigate issues, and solve problems. Our classroom communities are alive with a passion and fire for learning. Children apprentice themselves to their teachers and they work side-by-side to make sense out of the world. If you’re reading this newsletter, you chose Zaharis for your child and what many parents refer to as the road less traveled by.
A recent article in Newsweek Magazine entitled, The Creativity Crisis, reports that a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future - a virtue we should be nurturing within the public schools – and one that had been flourishing up until the 1990’s. Since that time according to researcher Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary, creativity scores have consistently inched downward; ‘It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,’ Kim says. ‘It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is most serious.’”
What is the source of this decline? “It’s too early to determine conclusively why U.S. creativity scores are declining. One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools.” How sad.
The authors then raise the question—what does this mean for America’s standards-obsessed schools? Standardized testing has swelled and mutated like a creature in one of those old horror movies, to the point that it now threatens to swallow our schools whole. But let’s put aside metaphors and review a few indisputable facts on the subject:
The test has become the curriculum in many venues. If it’s not measured, it’s not taught. One of Einstein’s greatest contributions to the world was this simple theory: Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted. Yes, standardized testing is a measure of success in school that should be valued. But too much emphasis has been placed on this single measure. The AIMS test narrows the curriculum in too many schools and classrooms.
- Test preparation has become a core academic subject in many schools and classrooms and has stepped up and taken its place alongside reading, math and language and has knocked science and social studies completely off the board in many places.
Some might say, “What’s wrong with teaching to the test if the content of the test is deemed important to know?” Here is the problem with this argument: A standardized test measures thinking at a knowledge and comprehension level of learning. Instead of nurturing the development of lifetime learners and thinkers who can think through a critical lens, and explore, create, develop, construct, apply, synthesize, analyze, and evaluate—the focus often shifts toward nurturing the development of school time learners and thinkers who are simply being prepared for the big test. If our students are memorizing more formidable facts than ever before and if they are spending their school life being drilled on what will help them ace a standardized test, then we may indeed have raised the bar—and what a crying shame. Scores may go up. School may be harder. But it sure the heck isn’t any better. We can’t fall into the trap of doing a fine job of teaching kids to bubble in responses at a level of recognition and recall, but fall short of teaching them to become critical thinkers.
A couple of years ago, I came across an aspiring teacher on an out-of-state recruiting trip. During her interview, she had this to say in response to the question, why do you want to become a teacher?
“I graduated from high school with a cumulative GPA of 4.50. I was #1 in my class and was the school valedictorian. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized I didn’t learn a darn thing—no, I take that back. I did learn something. I learned how to play the system. I learned how to memorize meaningless facts that lack purpose and context prior to the test and then I learned how to forget them very next day.” She continued, “It wasn’t until my second semester in college when I was asked to write a 20-page research paper on creativity in the classroom that I realized that there was no creativity in the classroom, at least not in the schools that I attended. Kids are not being taught to think critically. That is why I want to be a teacher. I believe that I can do something about that.”
Like this aspiring teacher, I too, believe that we can do something about that. My colleagues and I recommit ourselves to this noble task every day when we enter the long driveway where the marker reads—Enter to Learn. Build Your Dreams. Yes, the children at Zaharis Elementary School will look smart when they pass standardized tests. But imagine the collective influence they will have when they are leading the organizations that hire our next generation’s work force! We can make a difference.