Assessment Opinion

The Habits of Using Evidence & Reason Can’t Wait

By Deborah Meier — October 01, 2009 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

“To the extent that we can teach students to seek evidence and rational explanations, we will reduce magical thinking and encourage the application of reason and intelligence.” —Diane Ravitch, Bridging Differences, Sept. 29

We agree! That’s my “core.”

We also agree that Arne Duncan’s agenda lacks evidence or rational explanations. Why? Partially because he ignores his own privileged schooling as irrelevant for all of those millions of “others.” He’s creating a system, a big business. He forgets that business data doesn’t always speak for itself. Witness our current crisis.

Well-educated or not, all of us fall back on “common sense” and “street smarts.” It’s not a bad idea. But our street smarts differ (and which ones are relevant is tricky). Evidence that seems out of synch with our own experiences should make us pause. We need open minds, but not naïve or vacuous ones. The idea of a good education for democracy requires the recognition that one may be wrong. But one can also be right. Such an education requires respect for the evidence of our daily experience, too. Thus, self-interest, our individual slant on life, plays a role under the best of circumstances.

Personal experience: as a teacher, I have not found a student’s past test performance on commercial standardized tests to be useful evidence. Unless. Unless I’m able to go over them, item by item, with the students at my side explaining their own reasoning. Yes, tests always tell us something, but what they tell us is a very different question. It’s hard to “reason” me out of this conviction, but I do learn from my colleagues. (For public information about the state of education we can do better with low-stakes sampling.)

What I’m most interested in is the highlighted sentence above: how my students tackle knowledge claims. How they wrestle with their own, their neighbors’, and society’s dilemmas—how they make judgments on matters central to their and our future—including where to get advice.

My point about Dante, Shakespeare, et al was based on someone else’s list of what every educated person should have read (or be able to pretend to have read). There are many such lists floating around. My school had its abbreviated list, too. For kids who’ve been exposed in the normal course of life to virtually nothing on those lists, the assumption that they can all be “covered” and memorized without damage to our core agreement above is the crux of the dilemma. Doing them together is time-consuming! Since the habits of using evidence and reason can’t wait until we pour all the facts into children’s heads, a good education must engage in both together. “Even” 5-year-olds learn by reasoning about the world while trying it on for size.

Even great teachers of important subjects are not The Answer. I took an amazing physics course with David Hawkins in Colorado one summer. I drove away with a seemingly deep understanding of one or two basic principles...or so I thought. On the drive east, they slipped away after about 650 miles. But what didn’t slip away was my fascination with physics. I actually think I had good science teachers in both high school and college. But they couldn’t get through to a roomful of teenagers as “out of it” as most of us were—particularly when it came to modern “counter-intuitive” science.

I liked my high school history teachers, but most of my smart friends found them “bor-ring.” And mathematics? I didn’t come near to learning what I wish I had, either about its beauty or its practical value. Why, if beauty matters, do we teach five times as much math as all the arts put together—without catching its beauty or its usefulness?

Yes, we are amusing ourselves to death, but in part because we are not “amusing” ourselves in our classrooms. My dictionary suggests that amusement includes pleasure. There’s no reason tough stuff can’t be a pleasure to take apart. Poor science education, as you say, that tries to fill the bucket (brain) makes us more, not less, susceptible to magical thinking. Because in the hurry to “cover” a lot, we teach scientific laws as though they are merely the word of authority. I always kept the textbook at my side when looking in the microscope in bio labs to be sure I was seeing the “right thing.” I threw out all the potted plants that my kindergarteners had dutifully planted the week before—in a controlled experiment—when I discovered Monday morning that the ones in the closet were doing fine and the ones on the window sill had all died! My favorite college physics teacher did the same with an experiment with marbles rolling down a ramp. At just the critical moment when the teaching of science should have come into play, we both were too afraid the “kids” would learn the wrong thing.

In the effort to cover it all, even the best-educated are often cheated. Especially when it comes to judgments about what’s in the best interest of all of us. (Fortunately, they may be somewhat better off regarding their own self-interest.) To better level the playing field we cannot cover everything in ways consistent with your highlighted motto. That’s one dilemma. Nor do I expect that the “experts” who are in a position politically to write such standards (the details) are likely to be the best of their kind. (And, god help us, surely not the testing companies that turn them into test items with one right answer! Which, for teachers, is the real curriculum.) That’s a dilemma, too.

Meanwhile, we need every potential juror and voter alike to know how to reason well, to deal with uncertainty et al. We need 100 percent of them to have had a shot at using their minds well, day after day after day for 12 years; at working through ideas, arguments; and, piqued by unexpected phenomenon or claims. They all deserve wise expert guidance that can catch them when they slip, shift the subject when needed, ask uncomfortable questions and more. For that we need a very different kind of schooling—for all. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s worth moving toward. Back to “Alice in Wonderland.” If we don’t care where we’re going—and the only measure is a standardized test score—the more difficult reforms won’t be tried, until we fail once again with the latest fads. The vocabulary section generally tells the meat of the story. It’s a measure not of the test-taker’s intelligence, but the language of his community and peers.


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