28 February 2014

The flip side of the “critical thinking” debate

As long as I’m in full-out combat mode… One more snipe.

Plenty of people love to hate the SAT because of the purported lack of “critical thinking” it requires.

But what about the other side?

I’ve had more than one parent tell me that their child does wonderfully on tests in school because they can just memorize things and spit them back, then forget those things as soon as they’re done.

They say this as if it is a good thing. (For the record, this is not the sort of content-based education I support.)

Their primary problem with standardized tests is that their children cannot simply memorize their way to a high score. They are upset that the SAT and ACT do not test rote memorization.

What they do want, I suspect, is simple: a test on which their children can achieve a high score — one that they’re not embarrassed to utter when their friends inevitably start comparing their children’s scores, and very preferably one high enough to get those children into a college whose name they can slip into polite conversation with oh-so-faux humility (“Boy, she really learned a lesson waiting until the last minute to do all those applications, but wasn’t it great that she could choose between Harvard, Duke and Amherst?” That’s a direct quote, by the way.)

If such a test involves rote memorization, they’re all for it.

I’ve also had more than one student tell me that they’re good at tests that just ask them to plug in the formula but they don’t don’t do so well when they have to, like, figure things out.

They say the words “figure things out” with striking distaste, and without the slightest sense of irony. Sometimes they even wrinkle their noses as they say it.

Often these are students with serious gaps in their knowledge and a marked tendency to resist any new way of approaching things. That does not, however, stop them from insisting that the SAT/ACT is a stupid test that doesn’t measure anything.

The problem, course is, is that the SAT and the ACT demand flexibility. If you cannot adjust your approach to the task at hand (the way you sometimes have to in real life), you’ll never get past a certain point.

I suspect that this is what a lot of people mean when they say they’re “bad test-takers.”

To be clear, I am not saying that ALL parents or students are like this, or even that most of them are. But it is an attitude I’ve encountered repeatedly, and it’s one that I have less and less patience for.

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