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To elaborate more on my second educational philosophy:
I guess the biggest reason I have a problem with the dominant culture of standardized testing is that it undermines the importance of social justice/civic education, which is the one thing that made my education magical.
I didn’t really start learning until sophomore year of high school. Before that I hated history because I thought it was just memorizing facts and I wanted to be a doctor because that’s what my parents wanted and I guess I felt more content memorizing facts about the human body than about humans. But I was never learning, or at least never engaged with my learning. I hated it when my teachers asked me “explain” or “analyze” because I didn’t know what that meant. But hey, I had a 4.0 and was deemed a genius according to my test scores so I must have been educated right?
Don’t worry, the story gets better because I met my match sophomore year. Her name was Ms. Garcia (more affectionately called Mama G) and she challenged my thinking like no other. She was one of my teachers in a program called “Facing History and Ourselves” (you really should check it out, it’s a lovely program that taught me so much), which basically delves into social justice issues in history and society to foster socially responsible leaders committed to fighting injustice. I clearly remember crying after a lesson because I just couldn’t contain my feelings. And that was the key. For the first time during my education, I was feeling and experiencing what I was learning. I was doing an inherently human thing, and my education was coming alive.
And this is the most important lesson I learned from Facing History and Mama G:
Learning is felt. It is not the 2 digit percentage on the Calculus test, or the 4 digit score on the SAT, because we cannot attach digits to learning, we cannot measure something so endless and profound. Learning is something that is felt. It’s the ache in my heart when I learn about the Holocaust, the churn in my stomach when I hear about minorities being denied their basic human rights, the refreshing confidence when I make a philosophical point that is uniquely mine, the excitement that shakes me when I connect something in science to something in history, and most of all, that feeling that I can’t quite name, the one that gets my head all hot and my insides queasy and my muscles just aching to get up and go out and do something. Learning is experiencing what someone teaches me, letting it soak through and change me.
Through my learning, I was able to become a more socially and politically conscious citizen and an overall better person. My mind and heart were opened and I grew in both intellect and character. I cared, not only about what was going on around me in society, but also about my education as a whole. I wanted to keep learning, keep analyzing, keep thinking, keep exploring, so that I could figure out the best way to contribute to society.
Where I Stand – Standardized Testing, Civic Education, and the Bottom-Up Approach to Educational Justice
I think it’s important, before I embark on this journey of educating myself, to elaborate on my 3 biggest philosophies on education and educational activism.
The high emphasis on standardized testing is destroying real education.
Seriously, high stakes testing needs to leave, like, yesterday. I wrote a 10-paged paper on this my sophomore year of high school, and I can still go on and on about it. Simply put, students are more than test scores. There are numerous dimensions to learning and education, and the standards don’t even begin to capture most of them. Test scores simply cannot objectively capture true learning, because education can’t be standardized or forced into a single definition.
These tests, which claim to measure student performance, are destroying our schools, turning them into factories where anything but reading, math, and writing is pushed to the bottom of the priority list. Now don’t get me wrong, math, reading, and writing are important and valuable skills but would you really consider someone educated if all they knew how to do was answer multiple choice questions about those 3 subjects?
- What about looking at the past and understanding the present?
- What about understanding society?
- What about global perspective?
- What about diversity?
- What about civic education?
- What about appreciation for the arts and music?
- What about exploration and discovery of exciting ideas and topics?
- What about intellectual freedom?
- What about critical analysis?
- What about applying concepts across disciplines?
- What about problem solving?
- What about creativity and innovation?
- What about lively discussion and collaboration?
- What about experiential learning?
Are any of these questions ever asked? Not on a standardized test, that’s for sure. The machines that grade these tests don’t care about how students came to their answer, if they used critical thinking, or if they can apply their knowledge in practical settings. All it wants is that one right answer. And how many times in life is there only one right answer?
Because of standardized tests, enthusiastic, creative, and dedicated teachers are placed in an impossible paradox where their job is to educate their students, but they have to make sure that their students’ scores are high so that the school can appear “accountable” and they can continue teaching. This leads to teaching to the test, which deprives students of the well-rounded and real education that they deserve. Testing should be used as a tool to support learning, perhaps for diagnostic purposes from some subjects, but unfortunately it has become the core of educational culture (thanks a lot, NCLB and RTTT). It has gotten to the point where learning has been obstructed in classrooms because of the very high emphasis on test scores.
Students deserve better. They deserve an education that fosters creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, an education that civically engages and empowers, an education that says a great big, “YES!” to all those questions above, and most of all, an education that celebrates rather than excludes all kinds of students and styles of learning, whether or not they align with the so-called “standards.”
Social justice and youth civic engagement are incredibly important components of education.
Students should not only be taught how to become good students, but also good people. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said, “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”
Education should foster open-minded, civically aware, and caring members of society, not create robots that know how to regurgitate facts. Every aspect of a person’s education needs to be paid attention to, and currently civic education is simply not given enough weight. Civic education is not simply just important anymore, it’s absolutely necessary. The issues of inequality and injustice in our world will only continue to remain unresolved if we don’t have socially and politically conscious people who are equipped with the tools to stand up for themselves and the oppressed in their communities. Students need to understand what happened in the past, how that has affected the present, and how they can contribute to a brighter future for all. Civic education not only builds respect, consideration, and character in students, but it also builds their analytical and problem solving skills.
And it’s not hard! The essence of civic education is all about relating to students, engaging students in dialogue, tapping into what makes them sad, angry, happy, human. It’s a great tool for motivating students to learn because it reawakens what is natural to them: emotion, experience, creativity. It enriches learning by weaving passion, discovery, critical thinking, and compassion in their education, and tells them, “you have the power to make a difference.” Wouldn’t you care more about your education if you could relate to it? If it was engaging? If you believed in yourself and your own potential? If you knew it could help you do things or act on issues you were passionate about?
Once we realize the importance of social justice education for our students, then our students’ education will become more exciting, applicable, and real for them, and they will be able to learn more than they ever did before.
Any approach that aims to achieve educational justice must take students’ voices into account.