Poking through my feed reader last Friday, I stumbled across this great Ted talk by digital pioneer and provocateur Seth Godin. 

In it, Godin argues that our schools need to change drastically if they are going to properly prepare today’s kids for tomorrow’s world.  Traditional practices that we’ve relied on for decades — think spending significant amounts of time memorizing important content or ideas — are worse than outdated.  They are completely irrelevant.

(click to enlarge, download and find original image credit here)

Now don’t get me wrong:  Godin’s argument aligns nicely with everything that I believe about teaching and learning in the 21st Century.

The lessons that matter the most to our students have nothing to do with memorizing isolated bits of knowledge simply because (1). Isolated bits of knowledge can be accessed almost immediately by anyone AND (2). In a rapidly changing world, it is simply impossible to keep up with which isolated bits of knowledge are important in any given discipline.  As college dropout Dan Brown explains in his Open Letter to Educators, information is worth almost nothing in a digitally connected world.

But here’s the hitch:  I’ve spent the past two months encouraging my sixth grade science students to memorize the definitions of essential vocabulary words. 

Not only do I believe that a foundational understanding of key words will help my students to be more fluent scientists — kind of like having a foundational understanding of basic multiplication facts helps kids to master increasingly difficult math concepts — I know that the tests that our state uses to determine whether or not students have “mastered” the content in my classroom are full of knowledge-based multiple choice questions.

No one is measuring the kinds of higher-level collaborative behaviors that Godin — and most teachers I know — believes students must master.  No one ever asks whether my students can develop and then conduct an experiment that answers an interesting question.  No one ever asks whether my students can engage in a cycle of collective inquiry with their peers designed to build new knowledge together.  No one ever asks whether my students can identify – -and then draw conclusions from — patterns or trends in scientific conversations.

The ONLY thing that our current tests — which students take without ANY learning supports or digital connections — measure is the ability to remember basic facts. 

Heck — one prototype question asks students to explain the difference between oceanic and continental crust using the terms mafic and felsic.  Can YOU answer that without Google’s help?


According to test writers — and by default, the policymakers who have decided that multiple choice tests are the best way to hold teachers accountable for student learning — definitions really DO matter.  As a result, my kids have packets of vocabulary practice worksheets that they’re grinding through right now — and while I’m convinced that memorization isn’t a skill we should spend a ton of time celebrating, I’m also convinced that the kids in my room who know every word inside out before our exam will earn better scores than those who don’t.

Do I brag about the memorization work that my kids are doing?

Nope.  But I’m not ready to demonize it yet, either — especially in a high-stakes world where my job status depends on the scores that my kids turn in on knowledge-driven end-of-grade tests.


Related Radical Reads:

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

The Monster You’ve Created


Original Image Credit: Seth Godin by Joy Ito


Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on May 26, 2013

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