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Published in Print: April 7, 2004, as ‘The Priceless Ingredient’

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‘The Priceless Ingredient’

Interpretive teaching offers an antidote for test-driven schools.

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Interpretive teaching offers an antidote for test-driven schools.

A wildlife reserve might seem like a strange place for an epiphany about education. But that’s what happened to me last summer, as I trained to be a docent naturalist and discovered the fascinating world of "interpretation." Although I’ve been teaching for 20 years, I wasn’t familiar with the discipline of "interpretive teaching" techniques that park rangers and docents use to present information to visitors.

There’s a striking difference between interpretation and the tidal wave of test-driven curricula sweeping through schools. Interpretation recognizes that people learn best when they connect personally to information. And it’s this personal connection that’s being lost amid the demands of state-imposed high-stakes tests, coupled with the new federal mandates of the No Child Left Behind law. That law’s escalating expectations, accompanied by sanctions for schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress," portend even more focus on test-prep curricula.

Good interpretative presentations are pleasurable, relevant, organized, and thematic. One of the gurus of interpretation, the writer Freeman Tilden, said, "Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile."

And sadly, "sterile" describes many of our schools today. The justification for much of our instruction seems to have degenerated into telling students, "It’s on the standardized test, so you better know it."

It’s not as if educators don’t know about interpretive techniques. Remember integrated curriculum? Or thematic instruction? Or building a community of learners? In the rush to raise test scores, however, these foundations of good teaching are being left behind.

I visit many schools as a mentor teacher and see the destructive effects of a narrowed curriculum. Because subjects such as art, languages, history, music, and other life- enhancing curricula aren’t tested for No Child Left Behind, schools under the gun to raise scores give these subjects short shrift. Some schools ignore them all together.

One of my teachers described her No Child Left Behind Act program-improvement school as "the place where all they teach is reading and math." After a day of drill-and-kill in program-improvement schools, some students are asked to stay for No Child Left Behind Act-sponsored after-school tutoring. Teachers worry that showing an educational video might not be considered "academic." Schools feel pressure to reduce field trips and recess. Scripted, teacher-proof programs proliferate.

It makes me wonder why any kid would want to show up.

And it raises the question: Are students developing a self-sustaining love for learning or a distaste for school because it is so bloody dull?

The test-prep straitjacket also burns out teachers. Days spent cramming students with facts deadens teaching. As the testing pressure mounts, interesting, creative projects—the very things that engage students and teachers—are abandoned. One of my colleagues summed it up: "They don’t test fun."

We need teachers bursting with curiosity who model for students an eagerness to learn. Interpretation writers call this enthusiasm "the priceless ingredient." The current backlash against the No Child Left Behind Act reflects growing resistance to the emotional and intellectual wasteland created by judging a school’s success solely on student progress in two or three subject areas and measuring that achievement on a single standardized test.

The problem arises when standards become standardization, which leads to the factory model of schools.

Interpretation acknowledges upfront that its practitioners have a "noncaptive" audience. If visitors don’t like a docent’s tour, they can simply walk away. Some interpretation books contrast this to "captive" audiences in classrooms. But I’ve taught students who apparently hadn’t gotten the word they’d been captured. While students can’t physically walk away, they won’t retain much of lasting value if they aren’t interested.

Good interpretation cautions against overloading visitors with random facts. Yet that’s what standards-based curricula have become for many students: a sea of irrelevant information.

Ironically, having standards in place is a good thing. Standards provide us with a road map for teaching our students. The problem arises when standards become standardization.

Standardization leads to the factory model of schooling: Susie comes down the assembly line for her grade level, and the teacher pours in the facts Susie is supposed to learn that year. It doesn’t matter what language Susie speaks at home, her interests, her intellectual level, or her background. In the standardized factory school, every student is expected to learn the same thing at the same time.

Educators must challenge the standardization gospel that there’s a set body of knowledge every student needs to acquire. We must argue for diverse curricula and multiple ways to measure progress. After all, we’re working with human beings who learn in different ways and at varying speeds. Unlike assembly-line widgets, people don’t make linear progress. Students sometimes go for months and learn very little. Then, inexplicitly, they make a giant leap forward.

In addition, public schools fill an important function as a great, democratizing force in our society. There’s a vast, unspoken curriculum schools provide students: getting to know others who are different and learning to get along with them, being part of a community, taking one’s turn, working together, making a contribution.

Depending on standardized tests to measure progress ignores many valuable aspects of schooling and narrows the curriculum to content that lends itself to multiple-choice questions. The very thinking and reasoning skills our students will need most as they enter a complex and fast-changing work world are the ones not tested because they don’t fit easily into a, b, c, or none-of-the-above answers.


Long after our students forget the facts we teach them, they remember how they felt about our class. We’re most successful when students respond to our enthusiasm for the subject matter and make our passion their own. The content we teach today will change. The love of a subject area that we pass along to students endures.

This special connection between teacher and student—one that goes beyond content—is part magic and part mystery. And it’s our most important work. But it means our greatest victories can’t be easily measured. As Albert Einstein famously said, "Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts."

When I put on my docent vest and lead a group of visitors down the trail to discover the wonders of the wildlife reserve through interpretive techniques, I’m reminded of why I became a teacher. It’s time to take a page from the interpretation handbook and strengthen thematic, relevant teaching that engages students and brings pleasure back to the classroom. No, it’s not easy to measure. But it’s how humans learn best.

John Moir has been a teacher for more than 20 years and writes frequently on education. He lives in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Vol. 23, Issue 30, Page 35

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