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Educating for the Good Life

Once, a colleague happened to be looking at a sample question from the latest Science standardized test Ohio students are mandated to take and for which school districts and educators are judged. I had no idea what the questions was asking, or, more importantly why it was asking it—that is to say, why being able to answer this correctly mattered in any way shape or form. So I asked my colleague: what is that asking? why does it matter? and how will being able to answer this ever help one in life? The person simply responded, “I don’t know.”

Politicians today decide what is tested and how a student is tested. Educators then, bowing to community and administration pressure to “raise test scores,” teach to the test. Students, often with little interest or understanding themselves about the utility of such teaching in a world where much can be searched online in moments, coast through such teaching to the test uninspired, unmotivated, and yearning for escape.

Would the legal lobby in this state ever allow politicians to decide how lawyers should operate? Would the doctors of any state ever allow politicians to decide how medicine should be conducted? No, and no. Yet we educators do not have the powerful lobbies of the two aforementioned groups. So, the companies that make profits from test preparation, test administration, and test creation whisper into the ears of the community through the media that scores are down and education is failing; this is done so the politicians come running to the “experts” at the testing companies, who funnel campaign funds to the very same politicians, and “new” standards and accompanying tests are born and a whole industry is indirectly subsidized by the taxpayer as schools buy “new and improved” online textbooks and lessons and materials—a massive curriculum—all designed to prep students for the next onslaught of state-mandated tests. This is a cycle that I have seen over and over again and met of us fall for it over and over again. It isn’t a malicious conspiracy; it’s banal ignorance attempting to serve, probably mostly out of goodwill, but instead proves insufferable for stakeholders, both student, teacher, and parent alike. Not to mention business leaders, as said Science question and others like it do nothing to prep blue or white collar workers for the demands of modernity, the information and service economy, speaking, writing and collaborating effectively with others, and globalization.

The measure for anything taught in a classroom should be: that the thing being taught furthers the intellectual, psychological, and emotional resources of a young adult to enable them to lead a good life. A good life is here defined as one that allows meaning, purpose, contribution to society, financial stability, and a pursuit of well-being and self-actualization.

Anything that does not fit the above bill is not worth teaching or learning in a mandated school curriculum. The above is the philosophy from which all curriculum should be created. Clearly, this means crafting a curriculum that fits the students a school has in the building, not ones the community wished they had or thinks they should have. One must teach material and show how it connects and can and should be applied in the real professional world of reality. Otherwise, it is just mental gymnastics that serve no function beyond being easily able to be measured, placed in a chart, and used by various groups for ends that likely connect to fantasies of maximizing profit, a gain of views and readership, or garnering votes.

Sometimes I hear: but it [ghastly Science exam type questions mentioned at top] fosters critical thinking which is in and of itself helpful to students. According to the research I have read, critical thinking is domain dependent. Which is to say that the Science critical thinking question is irrelevant to a students’ life outside the confines of a pursuit of a life in the sciences. STEM is great, but everyone isn’t fit for it nor should they be as a specialized economy demands a multiplicity of skills and thus this question is not worth being asked or answered. Could Warren Buffet, Beyonce, Shonda Rimes, Lao Tzu, China Achebe, or Mozart pass the standardized tests? Who cares is the only answer that occurs to me.

I want to be judged by students, parents, colleagues, and the people that will eventually hire, collaborate and work with the young adults I teach by how useful the materials I teach are to the students’ lives both now and moving forward. Any other barometer of apparent success or lack thereof is fluff to be filtered out by thinking people.

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