The Thought Police?

I am finishing up teaching my juniors the novel 1984 by George Orwell. While I won’t rehash the entire plot here (and you simply MUST read this book, by the way), I will tell you that the novel focuses on how society becomes controlled by a mysterious leader known as Big Brother. (Yes, the origin of that name comes from Orwell’s masterpiece.) Among other things, Big Brother and his cohorts are concerned that citizens may be thinking too freely and that they may rebel against authority, What to do? Send in the Thought Police!

The Thought Police are just what their name implies: they arrest citizens whose thinking contradicts long-held traditions or beliefs, even if those traditions or beliefs are inherently flawed – or worse. Citizens reveal their “thought crimes” by committing another misdeed: face crime. In other words, if you are listening to Big Brother speak and display any sense of disapproval (rolling your eyes, for example), you are done. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. The Thought Police will arrest you on the spot, and good luck finding a way to avoid punishment. In Orwell’s “fictional” society, citizens either follow Big Brother or pay the penalty.

While the aforementioned sounds far-fetched, the truth is that many of today’s – and tomorrow’s – classrooms are under the surveillance of the Thought Police. In my first post, I mentioned the idea of the “sage on the stage” approach to education, where the instructor stands in front of the class and lectures incessantly for the entire class period. Students take notes but otherwise have no meaningful contributions to the class, and they are assessed on how well they listened to the lecture, not how much they actually learned. “Sages” also leave no room for free interpretation of a given idea: if said instructor opines that Hamlet exhibited no signs of delusional behavior, then take it as gospel and avoid questioning the validity of such a claim. Those “sages” are, in fact, the Thought Police and are leading the charge in stifling individual student thought and expression. While colleges traditionally employ such instructors, high schools are seeing their fair share of Thought Police as well. For some English teachers, students are not intelligent enough to form their own opinions about complex literature, so those teachers simply will spoon-feed them a singular strand of thought. That, in turn, will make it easier for the teachers to assess student performance: a student is either right or wrong, as simple as that.

However, what are we teaching students if we restrict their abilities to think for themselves? Not to go all Dead Poets Society (a must-see film) on my audience, but do we not want our students to formulate unique responses to the issues and ideas present in their studies? What good would it do me to tell my students all they need to know on a topic? Sure, it might make grading essays a cakewalk, but how will they learn the way the world works if they take no ownership of that world in class? Today’s teachers need to do more than present the material (and their own perspectives) to students while policing the students’ thoughts and attitudes – teachers need to ask students to devise and explain their perspectives on a given topic and then encourage further exploration of said topic. Students, meanwhile, need to learn to think for themselves and to take more initiative in the learning process. Your teachers want to help you think independently, but we cannot do that if you resist our efforts and merely absorb the content without proffering a unique thought. Oh, and mindlessly staring at a computer screen (the subject of a later post by yours truly) doesn’t help, either. Stay active, stay engaged, and stay an independent learner.

Teachers and students alike have their work cut out for them if the above is to succeed. Eradication of the Thought Police is no easy task, and that’s just the first step. Constructing an original thought takes time and can be risky if that thought contradicts another belief, especially one held by a teacher. However, the goal is to foster student independence in the classroom, and as the old saying goes, to make an omelet, you first must break a few eggs.

And really, who doesn’t love a tasty omelet?

The New SAT: A Long Overdue Revision

I have made it no secret in my classes that I am not a fan of the SAT. Actually, that's an understatement: I utterly detest the SAT with a passion. (Wow, it feels liberating to type that.) As most teachers would agree, the SAT in its current form measures absolutely nothing when it comes to academic prowess or high school intelligence. The test measures no degree of intelligence and seems as antiquated as the “sage on the stage” teacher who drones on for an hour or more while students keep their mouths shut – or even worse. Even with the introduction of the writing section a few years ago, the test resembles nothing more than a “guess your way to a perfect score” exam. The fact that test prep companies and private tutors can instruct students on tips and tricks for mastering the exam – as opposed to showing them how to prepare academically for it – leaves the current SAT as nothing more than a money grab for the College Board. (I could say the same about the AP program, but that's a post for another day.) The test doesn't cater to high school students' classroom strengths and instead forces them to master the art of educational guessing. Having a bad day? Too bad, so sad – you still have to take the exam and hope that your guessing works. Don't have fresh batteries for your calculator? Oh well, you still have fingers! In short, the current SAT is a joke of a test. Teachers have been calling for reform for years, and colleges have begun looking closer at the ACT and have even gone test-optional. Throughout all of this, the College Board has had its head in the sand.

Until now.

Bowing to pressure from colleges, high schools, and instructors around the country, the College Board recently announced sweeping changes to the SAT, changes that will arrive in 2016 (sorry, sophomores and juniors). While I won't review all changes here, you can go to the College Board's new website “Delivering Opportunity” to see the breakdown. English teachers, however, should rejoice at the forthcoming changes, which include more analysis and fewer “guess the answer” questions. The essay, while optional, will have students read and critically analyze a short passage, rather than compose a response to a fairly predictable (format-wise, at least) essay prompt. Those piles and piles of flash cards? Burn 'em. Random vocabulary words? Forget 'em. The College Board finally has recognized what really goes on in the English classroom and, in some ways, has affirmed the work of English teachers who focus on skilled writing and critical analysis of literary text. No argument in this corner! I preach revision in my English classes, and the College Board has revised the SAT to the umpteenth degree.

While one might expect near-universal praise for the new test, that clearly has not been the case. Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post opines that the changes will cost teachers valuable information as to whether students can put their thinking skills to work in short timeframes. Parker then takes a swipe at schools themselves, suggesting – no, flat-out accusing – them of grade inflation to pacify students and parents alike. She adds that the changes will result in students not learning “rich vocabulary” and not using diverse sentence structures in their writing. FairTest public education director Bob Schaeffer calls the new SAT “a different test, not an improved one” and argues that grades are the best predictor of college success and that test-optional policies ensure equality and fairness to all applying to college.

Parker's and, to a lesser extent, Schaeffer's, arguments represent the general consensus for critics of the new test. However, like many of those critics, neither Parker nor Schaeffer are classroom teachers and likely rely on research and sheer conjecture/opinion in crafting their responses. Parker's claims about loss of vocabulary and meaningful writing are false; students still can put those tools to good use when composing essays and responses on the new SAT. She seems to feel that memorizing facts, figures, tips, and tricks measure a student's intelligence, but nothing could be farther from the truth. My best students are not those that use flash cards for vocabulary quizzes, but those that look at a text and examine the literary techniques used to compose it. (In fact, and in light of the forthcoming exam, I likely will abolish all vocabulary quizzes and instead have students display vocabulary knowledge responsibly in their writing.) The aforementioned leads me to another point, which is that the College Board is guarding against something many English teachers deplore: the random addition of advanced vocabulary to inflate otherwise weak writing. How many times have we English teachers seen words in essays that clearly do not belong? Students may right-click to find synonyms, but those synonyms may not duplicate the exact meaning of a given word. In the students' minds, however, the new word “sounds” better. The fact remains that writing essays and even short responses are necessary in any English classroom, so intense, critical textual analysis – not meaningless vocabulary and multiple choice exercises – is a must. Parker seems to laud the current SAT essay, but does she realize the utter predictability of the essay prompts? Take one look at the prompts over the years and you will see the pattern: a) a quotation or thought, b) a short reflection on the quotation or thought, and c) the assignment that calls for an essay with support from literature, history, or personal experience. Oh, and if you don't have a personal story, you can make it up. Is that what we want to encourage in the classroom, too? More importantly, what intelligence does that measure? (Perhaps this.)

I refuse to administer multiple choice book tests because they do not measure whether students comprehend the material; they only measure rote memorization. Parker might pine for analogies (abolished in 2005), and they are important in helping students think, but they certainly are not worth an entire section on the SAT. Likewise, when students write essays, I do assess their technical and mechanical skills, but I focus more on their content and analysis of a given topic. Can you tell me the significance of Hester Prynne taking off her scarlet A for a short time in The Scarlet Letter? That's what concerns me most. Students today learn in so many ways, and kudos to those who are memorization masters. However, the public needs to realize that now more than ever, not all students are cut from the same cloth. Like many critics, Parker might want to spend some time in a 21st century English classroom before jumping to conclusions.

I do agree with Schaeffer in that grades should always serve as the primary method of evaluation for colleges in reviewing high school students' applications for admissions. However, with more students applying to colleges, the colleges need more than a GPA (grade point average) to determine academic promise. The new SAT (and the ACT, for that matter) will, at the very least, help break the tie between two students who might have similar profiles but who have different test results. Yes, test-optional policies are increasing and someday may become part of the majority of admissions programs, but for now, universities should have a more accurate set of test results that correlate with academic achievements.

Sure, the changes to the exam are as much of a business decision as they are an academic one. The College Board has lost significant ground to the ACT due to the ACT's proximity to high school curriculum. So, are the changes to the SAT designed to increase the coffers of the College Board? Absolutely – and we could say the same about the ACT seeking close alignment with science, English, and math, all at the high school level. The real money grab, however, occurs with test prep programs, classes, and private tutors (and in full disclosure, I am one of the latter). The test prep industry has become a monster, with students spending thousands of dollars to learn the art of mastering a test by using tips and tricks, not intelligence or knowledge. And for what? Will a 50 point increase make a huge difference in whether a student gains admission to a highly selective college? How many students see significant increases after taking test prep classes? I could go on and on, but The Brooklyn Math Tutors do a great job of explaining my thoughts on test prep in more detail.

We all will learn much more about the new SAT after the first year of administering it to students. I still am not a fan of standardized tests, but these changes are beneficial to students, so I clearly support them. For now, we must be guardedly optimistic that the College Board has created a better test and will continue to work for the students while not undermining teachers. No test of any kind represents perfection, and if the new SAT proves faulty, we'll surely wait for yet another revision. Perhaps by then, all standardized tests will be a thing of the past.

Now, about those AP exams


Yesterday’s education in tomorrow’s world…today!

Hello, and welcome to my new blog! I have had a few “false starts” with blogs in the last few years, but I blame that on my desire to cover topics that, although significant, seemed too out of control to explore. This blog, however, really draws from my experiences in education and thus should be much easier – and more fun – to manage. So on we go!

Having taught English for ten years in private schools (at both the high school and college levels), I have seen the educational system in our country experience a seismic shift with respect to how schools operate, how teachers instruct, and how students learn. The name of the game today is: tomorrow. More and more, education is looking to future ideas and technologies that can be implemented in today's school setting. That said, the American educational system seems at a crossroads right now, pitting “old school” (no pun intended) educators with “new school” thinking. Many schools confuse “traditional” with “antiquated” and refuse to change their methodologies and operational procedures. Often, the schools that resist change are the ones with poorly prepared students and disgruntled faculties and staffs; those that at least consider modernization account for more positive environments. Gone also are the days when teachers and professors can stand in the front of the class like a “sage on the stage” and lecture endlessly while flipping transparencies in a dark classroom. Sure, some instructors still teach that way, but often with fruitless results. Today's teacher successfully incorporates some modicum of technology or interactivity into the daily lessons, often for the students' benefit.

In addition to teaching, I also have studied the “nuts and bolts” of educational administration and operations. How and why do schools and colleges operate the way they do? What are they doing to plan for the future? More importantly, DO they have plans for the future? The aforementioned questions (and many more) became part of my studies and, ultimately, my interests as an educator. I still am exploring answers to those questions – that's assuming I even will find answers in the first place!

What, then, is the goal of this blog? To put it simply, I want to create a means to discuss what I call the “21st century school zone” and its many components: administration, teaching and learning, technology, student performance, and much more. Now, you might say to yourself, “But Matt, the 21st century isn't the future – it's now.” You would be right if you were talking about anything BUT education; unfortunately, in many ways, today's education remains stuck in yesterday's world and appears to be spinning its wheels. My goal is, in a figurative sense, to help push the car out of the mud and to get it back on the highway. To that extent, my posts will consist of reporting on (with appropriate discussion and commentary) on educational news; review of instructional technologies and/or products; reflection on new educational trends and research; and commenting on my “life experiences” that seem relevant to the discussion at hand. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

I know I won't change the educational universe by maintaining this blog – that's impossible! However, if I can even get people thinking more about the direction of education, I have accomplished my mission. Join me, won't you?