Education Opinion

The Other Educational Outcome

By Walt Gardner — March 19, 2010 2 min read
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The accountability movement so far has focused exclusively on measuring the knowledge and skills that students learn from their teachers. These are cognitive outcomes that constitute the very foundation of education. They are the primary reason that students go to school.

But there is another aspect of learning that is no less important. It consists of the attitudes, values and interests that teachers want to instill in their students. They come under the umbrella of affective outcomes. Yet as vital as they are, they are totally ignored by today’s reformers.

There are several reasons for the oversight. First, they are not as easy to measure as their cognitive cousins. Anonymous self-reporting by means of Likert inventories, for example, is seen as subjective. As a result, data collected this way are treated as inferior to data collected from standardized tests. Second, affective variables don’t have the sex appeal that high-stakes test scores do. Not surprisingly, the media shun the subject. Third, affective outcomes don’t concern the business interests that dominate school reform. They want a return to “the basics.”

All of the above are serious errors. Teachers have long known that it is altogether possible to teach a subject well to students (cognitive), but to teach them to hate the subject in the process (affective). If one of the major goals is to develop lifelong learners, then students are severely shortchanged. I often heard students in the hallway at the end of a semester say that they couldn’t stand a particular course, even though they received an A in it. Nevertheless, the media will highlight the test scores of that school, without mentioning anything about attitudes.

This negative reaction by students will continue to grow as more schools are converted into test preparation factories. Drilling, of course, has its place in learning, but not when it totally sucks the intellectual life out of the classroom. And that’s precisely what’s happening.

Japan and Korea serve as case studies of the danger of this tunnel vision. Their students consistently rank near the top in math and science on tests of international competition. Yet they score at the very bottom when it comes to their attitudes toward these two subjects (“Weighing Students’ Skills and Attitudes,” Lessons column, New York Times). Both countries are known for their heavy emphasis on memorization, to the exclusion of other strategies. This erosion of enjoyment has far-reaching implications that parents are belatedly beginning to realize.

I was reminded of the importance of affective outcomes most recently by the publication of “Lacking Accountability, Doing Just Fine” by Sidney Trubowitz on Mar. 10. So maybe there’s a lesson here for the U.S. as it contemplates revising the No Child Left Behind Act: Don’t give short shrift to affective outcomes. Long after subject matter is forgotten, students remember their feelings about what they studied.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.