The End of All Learning?

It was the Friday before test day– one of six major standardized tests that my eleventh grade English students are required to take this year– and we were analyzing a work of short fiction in class. “This is dumb,” complained one of my brightest students. “We just learn the same stuff every year.” I opened my mouth to make what was likely to be either a well-founded protestation or a moralizing quip, but whatever words I was about to say fluttered and died on my lips as I realized she was absolutely right.

Photo by Fort Worth Squatch

Photo by Fort Worth Squatch

Though scholars far and wide have already studied the impact that standardized curricula and testing are having on our students, there is a phenomenon that is sneaking its way into our students’ cognitive hard-wiring and rewriting the paradigm of learning, yet we may be completely unaware that the landscape is shifting beneath our feet. The truth is that standards-based instruction and assessment teaches our students that knowledge is useless and that learning is finite. Modern learning standards, such as the Common Core, boil down the entire realm of learning possibilities into several subjects, which are further reduced into a limited number of skill-based concepts that are then tested, re-taught, and tested again using different texts. The subliminal message working its way into our educational system is that these skills can and should be mastered. We may not realize we are even sending it, but our students are starting to receive the message– that learning has an expiration date, and that knowledge means nothing.

To my frustrated student, the idea that a work of literature could have an educational value separate from its ability to help her master what she sees as a pointless skill set was inconceivable. In her world, the text is merely a vessel for the review and application of standardized competencies and essential learnings. In this climate, complex works by esteemed authors from Chaucer to Poe are held in high regard, not for their artistic merit or for the sense of literary community bestowed on those who have read them, but for the level of syntactical rigor they confer upon the standardized tests that exploit them for the sake of determining a student’s mastery of grade-level concepts. What happens, then, when the student is finally “proficient” in them? If mastery of the skill has superseded knowledge as an end in itself, then what impression do we leave these students when they leave school? Are they simply done learning?

I don’t mean to suggest that we didn’t learn how to analyze and evaluate literature when I was a student– we did. However, the skills were merely expedients, not the end goal. We learned how to analyze for the sake of unlocking new and challenging texts. Once unlocked, literature had the power to broaden our experience, to give us sense of perspective, and to inspire us to search within ourselves for what we believed to be the truth. No one had to give us a standardized test for us to realize the wisdom in Lao Tzu’s writings or the significance of Machiavelli to modern politics. The ultimate goal of learning was knowledge. We weren’t out to master the analysis toolkit in order to pass exams or to prepare us for the workplace. We valued education because we believed that life was a constant, unceasing education, and we wanted to be prepared to understand the lesson.

“Off the Grid”

My honors students recently read a contemporary novel that pushed the boundaries of their thinking about race and gender. When I was able to arrange for its author to come and meet with my students for a Q&A session, I can hardly express the satisfaction or validation they felt for the hard work they had done in analyzing and appreciating the book as a work of art. Through his insightful comments about writing the novel, they were able to see how the author used his craft to try to create, not just a text, but an experience for the reader. Through purposeful use of different narrative elements, he hoped to galvanize his readers into reexamining their own beliefs, and as my students told him (to his extreme gratitude), he was successful. It was by far the most rewarding moment of my career so far.

Still, in the back of my mind, a voice nagged at me, asking a question that has plagued every lesson plan in my three years of teaching: Will this help them pass the test next week?

The skills that this author had so beautifully employed in creating this soul-searching novel were related to those on the test, but I knew from experience that without practicing the rote and formulaic multiple choice format of the standardized tests– without giving the skill priority over the content it was meant to make accessible– my students would not meet their proficiency goals, nor would I. I won’t go into detail about the incredible stakes of these tests for my students (or for me), but needless to say, we could all appreciate that what we were doing in taking time out for this author was “off the grid” and had acute consequences.

It is because of moments like the one I shared with these inquisitive students and the author who inspired them, when education and life became tangled into one, that I decided to become a teacher. I’ll never forget the thrill of learning a new word or the adventure inherent in diving into a new work of literature that I experienced daily as an adolescent because of teachers who were passionate about learning for the sake of learning. This job, unfortunately, no longer exists.

I have been teaching for only a few years, but in those few crucial years, the job I prepared for has become unrecognizable from my own high school days, replaced by a drill-and-skill, data-driven system which suggests that learning is a limited enterprise made of multiple choice mastery. The things we leave behind when we refuse to see the flaws in this standards-based system are too costly– our students, who, through the sole medium of standardized testing, receive the message that learning for the sake of learning is invaluable; our teachers, who “fight the good fight” until they continually fail their data goals, watch their students being punitively remediated into submission, and are becoming frustrated into leaving the profession; and a culture that is no longer simply leaving its teachers and students behind, but has now forsaken knowledge in itself.