My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #16,
October 21, 2001


One of our favorite sports these days is bemoaning the ignorance of our students and the failure of our schools. Our favorite fix seems to be high-stakes testing, which determines not only the future of students, but the future of their teachers and their schools. What people don't seem to realize is that this solution practically guarantees more of what already hasn't worked very well: force-feeding students knowledge they will memorize just long enough to pass the tests and then promptly forget.

We know our kids aren't stupid. When they start talking about something that interests them, they always surprise us with how much they know, be it baseball statistics, the names and habits of dinosaurs, the rules of Quidditch, or the lyrics of Radiohead. They know how to do amazingly complex things -- strip engines, sing Bach cantatas, throw fastballs, build web pages, design costumes for school plays, play the guitar solo from Stairway to Heaven.

Give them a problem that interests them and they'll spend hours and days and even years solving it: how do you paint smoke that looks insubstantial enough, that seems to drift with the air currents? How do you master the slalom or criss-cross or vert double on your roller blade? How do you put the music inside your head down on paper and orchestrate it? Give them a problem that bores them, and they'll say, "Is that going to be on the test?" and "Why we gotta learn that?"

It's not like kids are that different from grownups. They learn something for the same reasons we do:

  1. The knowledge surrounds us so that we can't NOT learn it -- like language, or music in a musical family, or animal tending on a farm.
  2. We are rewarded if we learn it, whether with acceptance, or good grades or a salary or a promotion.
  3. We are punished if we don't learn it, with rejection, bad grades, job loss.
  4. It's intrinsically interesting to us, OR we are taught to see it as intrinsically interesting, OR we are allowed to see it in terms of what IS intrinsically interesting to us.

The second and third are entirely external. They may work for a while -- we may learn what we need to know, or at least as much of it as we need to get by. Rewards may skew the way we direct our interests -- a talented artist who becomes a hero to other students for his ruthless caricatures of the principal may become an editorial cartoonist, and a geeky kid who wins debate trophies may go on to a career in government. If we're able to think in the long-term (and few kids can), the thought of college scholarships, or making partner, or making lots of money, may keep us busy learning what we're told we have to know. Punishments may make us dislike the subject even more than we did in the first place -- we might simply learn to fake it, or memorize it just long enough to pass the test.

In either case, we may still have little genuine interest in the knowledge; we may in fact regard the whole educational process as a stupid set of hoops to jump through.

But the first and the fourth reasons are internal motivations, that draw on our own questions, our need to explore and know and make sense of our world. It's learning that stays with us because we acquire it eagerly, even joyously.

It seems to me that if we're really serious about improving our kids' education, we need to help them find what THEY want to know in what WE want them to know. The best teachers have always used their students' existing passions to lead them into new subjects. If kids are passionate about the environment (and most of them are), good teachers use that as a hook for lesson plans not just in science but in art and literature and social studies as well. Right now, many teachers are using September 11 as a hook to teach about Afghanistan, Islam, the Crusades, American foreign policy, art, music, and literature.

The trick is to show kids the connections. Why don't kids remember when the Civil War took place? Because it's not real to them; none of us are really good at differentiating things that happened before we were born. But tell a kid who loves model trains that railroads are one of the reasons the North won the Civil War, and he'll sit up and take notice; show the battlefield photography of Mathew Brady to a kid who loves to take pictures, and she'll be hooked; show a gentle dreamy poet the wartime notebooks of Walt Whitman, and you can start reeling him in.

No subject, no object, exists by itself, or has meaning by itself. A Ming vase by itself means nothing. But if teachers ask, "where can you go from here," students can see that it could lead to the study of the artist's life, Chinese art, Chinese history, archaeology, ceramics, geology, the history of vases . . .

Better yet, we could ask kids to make their own connections. No matter what the students' interests are -- hot air balloons, guns, music, fashion, war games, dance, whatever -- we could ask them to figure out for themselves how those things might relate to the Civil War, or to whatever else we want kids to learn. This is the theory behind one of the most successful learning projects ever, the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge (, where, by starting with subjects students themselves have chosen to explore, like dolphins and word games and water balloons, they not only learn biology and physics and grammar, they build a web page where they can teach it to other students. And they love doing it.

These students are not just learning factual information, which is the only kind of knowledge we can measure with multiple-choice machine-scored tests. They're learning to think about the facts, to ask questions, to figure out what kind of facts they need to answer their questions, and to hunt for the information. That is usable knowledge, the only kind of knowledge that matters.

The root meaning of the word "education" is "lead out from." Some think of this as leading the child from ignorance to knowledge. I think of it as bringing out the best in the mind and talent and soul inside each child. If real education is what we want, it seems to me we're going to have to trust our teachers more, and demand a better way to measure what our kids have learned. One ThinkQuest page is worth more than a dozen test scores.

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