Friday, June 10, 2011

The Doomsday Cult of Free Thought, or, How Standarized Tests will End the World

When I was in high school English, we studied Romeo and Juliet, because if teenagers need one thing, it's to read a story of people their age committing romanticized double suicide after going out for a week. Blue Oyster Cult would be proud.

On the test (constructed mostly of the usual sort of "what, literally, happened?" sorts of questions) was an essay question, "was Count Paris a victim or did he victimize?" I thought this a pretty silly question.

I answered "no," citing that Shakespeare, being a good writer, did not make cardboard cutouts, but rather characters with nuance and motivations beyond a binary system.

Like that, but with a reasoned argument

Instead of being lauded for my lateral thinking, which Sir Ken Robinson would have lauded, my teacher rewarded me with "-5 YOU MUST PICK A SIDE!" It was like being asked who I wanted to win the Superbowl, only more inane.

Of course, this is the sort of thinking championed by recruiting gang members in turf wars and standardized tests, which have gone so far as to use computers to grade essay questions. I doubt they've made a computer sophisticated enough to understand the argument I made, but computers work best when the answer is one of the first four or five letters of the alphabet.

Last night I asked my wife the question from my recent superhero comics post about Superman's powers. When I told her he had all of them, including super-reading retention, she complained I asked her a trick question.

Superman can also be a super-dick, so Jimmy knows all about no-win situations.

I told her that I shouldn't have to give her permission to say "no," but the fact she felt the need for a "none of the above" option is telling: in the American school system, we are taught that only the options presented to you can contain the correct answer.

This thinking is going to kill us all.

If you were asked to solve hunger as a multiple choice question, it might look something like this:

I'm so hungry I can barely lump all 10th-graders together by asking them how to solve global hunger. The answer you should give me is _____________ .

A) Allot more land for farming
B) Build better food with GMOs
C) Lower food prices
D) It'll work itself out

While "D" is clearly wrong, everything else seems to be right. Well, blind men, elephant, you know what I mean? The answer to the question requires creativity, not dogma, but standardized tests (which are informing how students are expected to learn) only offer four or five options.

The problems facing our world, things like food shortages (actually, there's enough food for everyone), oil shortages (also, enough for everyone) and water consumption (guess what) all require thinking outside of binary systems.

It's been said that if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. Makes sense, but we need to take a step back and realize that if we think the way we always have, we'll do what we've always done. We need to stop standardizing thought, since the thinking we're doing doesn't seem to be working, and instead demand of ourselves an education system in which creatively answering questions is rewarded, not punished.

Either that, or we can see how this will pan out for us.

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