I recently had an informative, though discouraging, discussion with a sixth grade teacher who works in a New York City Public School. I was asking him about the ability of kids in his class to work autonomously. I was curious to get his assessment of where his kids stood in regard to their ability to take responsibility for and to direct their own learning. Were they on or near the cusp of being able to pursue their interests independently?
Sixth grade is the entry level at his school, a middle school. The kids all arrive in the fall from other schools. What discourages him, and me, is the fact that the kids are unable to do any significant work independently. Their ability to find information on their own is limited. They simply don’t know how to go about it. Where to look or how to ask. Their curiosity is already stunted. They are passive learners, waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do. Given a chance to observe this class, I found them to be poor listeners, not well equipped to collaborate on even the simplest project, and easily distracted. They lack the kind of composure needed to do meaningful work on their own or with others.
Their teacher places the blame squarely on testing and the learning environment it creates. Teaching to the test. These kids seldom have a chance to think for themselves in school. They’re taught to “think for the test.” Ironically, those kids whose test scores are the best, are among the least inquisitive. They are not the risk takers, the ones most interested of learning on their own. The message that standardized test results are paramount is clear. That is what school is about for these kids. Small wonder attendance in this school plummets once tests are over for the year. This teacher is faced with trying to overcome a “fill in the blank” mentality. His work involves resuscitating a questing spirit. These kids may be well schooled, but certainly they are not well educated.
One school. One classroom. One small sample, I know. One small sample poorly served by testing meant to make their education better. Instead they’ve gotten a mis-education. At least they’ve got a teacher who recognizes what has happened to these children and cares enough to do something about it. Let’s hope it’s not too late.