Tuesday, March 27, 2012

To some I teach. To those that allow me, I educate.

Inner Contemplation, S. Wirt, 2011, Mixed Media

“To some I teach.  To those that allow me, I educate.”  This realization came to me today in the midst of a discussion with a dear friend about his college students.  It seems that the characteristics of his students are very similar to mine.  They are the products of k-12 standardized test based schooling.  While they are skilled in deflecting responsibility, producing a variety of excuses and surfing Facebook, many lack in the ability to generate an original thought.  Always wanting to be told what the right answer is and exactly what will be on the test. They do not clutter their mind with “unnecessary” peripheral information that just may relate to something beyond the test content. 
So what happens then, when you do away with the written test?  How will you quantify a student’s level of knowledge? I think the answer to that question has much to do with the content of the course.  As an art educator, my students can often show me they have learned a skill and how to apply it to a variety of situations or concepts through the creation of an artwork.  However, there are times when they just have to know and understand specific technical content, this includes vocabulary.  This “entry-level” knowledge base will then serve as the foundation for learning how to apply, manipulate and create something else. I believe, a good assessment system would be one that is tiered and allows room for both demonstration and articulation of knowledge.  There’s a difference between entry-level mastery of information and advanced level understandings of concepts with the ability to apply knowledge as to demonstrate understanding.  Sadly, I think the Virginia k-12 education system as a whole has spent way to much time, energy and money to ensure that students reach entry level thinking and not enough time, determination and funding to ensure students construct their own knowledge so they may demonstrate their ability to apply concepts, skills and understandings to more than a singular situation.
The primary questions in designing authentic education reform should be, how much time and how many “in the trenches” teachers are needed to create a balanced structure of “acceptable” evidence that can be utilized to validate learning instead of how much money will it cost to create authentic, standardized, tests that prove all students are competent in specific subject matter.  What ever happened to teachers having autonomy and being seen as capable of determining a student’s readiness to continue to the next level or their level of understanding?  Testing has taken over learning.
I am thankful everyday that I teach art in Virginia.  Where, we don’t have to bow to an end of year-standardized test.  Yet.  I see my own 4th and 5th grade children’s school schedules and way too much instructional time is lost to state standardized testing.  If more time is spent on process, the product is often of much higher quality.  The process of learning is prematurely halted once the “test” on content has been administered and then instruction moves on to the next topic.  It is for this reason that I try to structure my scope and sequence to systematically build on ideas and provide opportunities for individual inquiry.  I present concepts, techniques and options and see what students can do with them.  Some need more direction than others while some students need the space to figure it out for themselves.
Going back to my original statement I reflect on what I do.  Yes, I teach.  I present information.  I demonstrate techniques, processes and methods of art making.  For some students, that is as far as their art learning will ever go.  For others, they will ask questions and push the limits of an idea.  I will guide them in using the educational tools they have been offered to create what it is that they want to make.  Maybe a better way to say that is to mentor them in how to find the best way to use their artistic voice in the process of learning a variety of art content.  What determines whether I teach or I educate comes down to the choice the students make.  I ask them at the beginning of the year if they are here to get a good grade or are they here to learn about and create art.  If their honest answer is that of the later, they will also earn the grade.

For further reading about standardized tests and how they really aren’t true assessments of learning, especially if what has been “taught” is merely superficial facts with no application see What's Wrong With Standardized Tests? (http://www.fairtest.org/facts/whatwron.htm )


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