By Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
When I read recently about how students at Stuyvesant High School and Harvard University, to name only two recent prominent examples, used everything from notes on scraps of paper to texting answers on cell phones to help each other out on exams, I had to shake my head—not at the students’ behavior, but at the institutional culture to which they were responding.
Nearly fifty years ago, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire published his influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he described “the banking system of education,” whereby students are treated as repositories for information that will be deposited into them by teachers. Teachers are then able to “withdraw” the information from the students by means of tests.
Notice that it’s the teachers who are the active ones in this scenario; the students are simply passive recipients of knowledge.
In contrast, Freire proposed a dialogic form of education, where students’ ideas are valued by their teachers, and the pedagogical method is more of a conversation than a one-way lecture.
While still popular in some theoretical educational circles, it’s clear that Freire’s ideas are not in ascendancy in current American educational policy, which, in the No Child Left Behind era, has turned education into a process of leaping through the hoops of a long series of standardized tests.
Back in the 1970s, I went to a selective New York City public school, Hunter College High School. When I took the entry test, in sixth grade, I had no test prep whatsoever. My parents were very nonchalant about the whole thing, so I wasn’t nervous about it—it was just something I had to do, so I went in and did my best. I got in, along with five others from my elementary school, P.S. 6.
What I remember from my four years at Hunter is earnest, thoughtful discussion classes in English and Social Studies and even Spanish, with teachers who treated us like budding intellectuals. When I left Hunter after 10th grade to transfer to Simon’s Rock College, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the classroom conversations got even livelier and more compelling, and the written assignments more challenging. We were asked to write analytic essays, persuasive essays and informed opinion pieces… over and over, at ever-higher standards of rigor.
The process culminated in the required year-long senior thesis project, which for me, as an English major, was an in-depth study of the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf. There is no doubt in my mind that the joy I got out of reading everything Woolf wrote, and all the literary criticism about her work that I could find, led me to eventually choose to return to graduate school for a doctorate in Comparative Literature.
My point in relating this personal trajectory is to reflect that if I had only been asked, at each stage of my schooling, to memorize information and spit it back out to a teacher (or worse, a robo-grader) on standardized tests, I don’t know that I would have chosen to undertake the hard work of earning a doctorate and becoming a professor myself.
I would have had a very different idea of what education was all about.
And sadly, competitive test-taking does pass for education in too many scholastic and even academic environments these days. Given this reality, who can fault students for trying to game a system that so clearly disrespects them as intellectuals and original thinkers?
I consider myself fortunate to be teaching now at my alma mater, an institution that values collaboration rather than competition, and thoughtfully constructed arguments over right-or-wrong multiple-choice tests.
Granted, I teach in the humanities, where memorization is less important than in the hard sciences. But even in the sciences, given the ready accessibility of our collective auxiliary internet brain trust, do we really need to be forcing students to memorize the periodical table anymore?
Isn’t it more important to give them assignments and challenges that will develop their teamwork skills and encourage them to think creatively, rather than spit back knowledge that has already been established?
Doing this requires us educators to create assignments that are more complex than simple multiple-choice tests. That’s why it’s good news that the new federal Common Core standards that will be adopted over the next two years by K-12 school districts in 46 states will require the teaching of expository writing from elementary school on.
As a writing teacher, I know that while it’s possible to cheat on an essay assignment, it is much more difficult than on multiple-choice tests. Requiring kids to write, rewrite, and write again is one of the best ways to ensure not only that they tread the straight and narrow path of ethical education, but also that they develop what may be the most important skill set of all: learning how to formulate original ideas, and express them in a polished, thoughtful way.
Here at Simon’s Rock, our orientation workshop for entering freshman is actually a writing boot camp, in which we have students reading, discussing, writing and workshopping writing for five hours a day during their first week at school. We follow this up with three semesters of a required general education seminar, in which students are reading, discussing and writing almost constantly.
As a graduate of Simon’s Rock, the parent of a 2012 graduate, and a veteran of nearly 20 years as a Simon’s Rock professor of literature and general education, I know this approach works.
Sure, once in a while we have a student who tries to get away with plagiarizing a paper. They are generally caught easily, because of all the draft stages we require students to go through on the way to turning in their final paper. Relatively few students try cheating, though, because they know we professors really want to know what they think about a given topic. For us, learning is truly a dialogic process, and students quickly respond to the seriousness with which we take them as creative, original thinkers and writers.
Fundamentally, American educational policy needs to start treating students with the respect they deserve, whether they are at elite private schools or underperforming public schools.
It’s not the kid’s fault if he doesn’t know how to construct an expository argument in good English any more than it’s the kid’s fault if she decides to cheat on a test she knows doesn’t measure her accurately as a thinker. It’s the school’s fault, and ultimately the nation’s fault.
Given the multiple crises today’s young people will be facing as they become adults on our overpopulated, environmentally damaged, violent planet, we need to be educating a generation of creative, collaborative problem-solvers for whom spoken and written eloquence is a necessary leadership tool.
This is not a matter of policy or even ethics. It’s a matter of survival.
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Ph.D. is an associate professor of comparative literature, media studies and human rights at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass.