Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Problem of Articulation

Ever tried explaining electricity to a nine year old? I gained another level of respect for Virginia's elementary school teachers tonight.  My daughter has a test tomorrow on electricity. Nothing complicated: open and closed circuits, conductors and insulators, series and parallel circuits, resistance, etc. We used iPod headphones, turned switches on and off in the house, and even made some sparks with jumper cables to see the principles of electricity at work.

She really got it. Then I started quizzing her with the study guide. Maybe she didn't get it after all. She could show me and even explain what all of the terms and concepts were all about while we were moving around the house and looking at electricity at work in our world.  But something about putting it into clearly articulated words, absent the tangible examples, escaped her.

After a little work, she managed to articulate a little better, but when I read the definitions from the page for her to identify, she struggled a little more.  The terms and language used in the review guide didn't quite match the language she had used to understand the concepts. 

Tomorrow, I don't know how her teacher will assess her.  I'm sure that with over twenty other students taking the test at the same time she won't have a chance to just explain it to him, much less show him. If she's asked to write about it her chances are much better. I do know that at least by next year she will have to answer multiple choice questions about it for the fifth grade Virginia Standards of Learning test, the type of test that doesn't value what you know or give you the chance to express what you've learned-- it is the type of test that exposes what you don't know and expects the student to understand the narrow scope pre-determined by the "standard-setters" and "test-makers."

My experience tonight leads me to wonder how many students are harmed because teaching them to truly articulate their learning is no longer valued. We expect to assess learning through an easy and streamlined process.  We define what should be known, how it should be expressed and if students learn to articulate differently than what is prescribed they are punished rather than rewarded.

I don't have a well "articulated" conclusion to my thoughts, but after spending time engaged in learning with my daughter I found myself sad that even though I'm convinced that she understands, I'm not sure how she'll test. And in our world today, the test is all that matters.

(Post-Script- I first wrote this post over a month ago.  My daughter aced the test.  It was fill-in the blank and short answer.)

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