You Can't Teach English via Scantron

>> Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Let me apologize for the apparent hiatus (which I failed to warn y'all about) over the last week and a half, both in new posts and in reading/responding to other blogs. I was working under a day-job push that resulted in overtime, a hurry-up revision of a draft novel and considerable forward work on an unfinished manuscript (that went quite well: 20K words over the last four days). So the neglect was not in vain. Thanks for the patience.

Now, moving on. Here, I have a couple of posts in a row inspired by dealing with my teenaged daughter. One of them is touching on something I've noted before: my brain doesn't work like other people's brains. In general. Apparently, my daughter has a similar (if not the same) problem as manifested in just the first week of English class.

Now, in general, my daughter kicks literary butt in English. She likes reading. She writes very well. She interacts in class and finds the topics appealing. However, summer reading was evaluated via scantron test the first week and her grades were, well, abysmal, despite the fact she read all but one. Part of it stemmed from the fact that she read them at the beginning of the summer and some of the questions were nitpicky details on page X questions (or so she told me). But, part of it was that her interpretation of the book, the characters and what it all means often falls outside the multiple choice answers provided. So, what to pick?

Man, that took me back. Although I've always seriously ruled in English class, my scores in English matched my math score on SAT (which surprised the snot out of me) and brought my cumulative score down on my ACT (which didn't mean it was bad, just not as stellar as science and math). Why? Same damn reason.

"Read this selection and choose the answer that best describes the main idea." Except my understanding in no way matched with any of the choices. I could defend my opinion, but there is generally no comment section on a scantron sheet.

Now, don't get me wrong. There are areas where multiple choice is appropriate. Math and science tend toward black/white answers*, repeatable and verifiable in real life. And the answer should be the same even if the problem is attacked in different ways. Similarly, historic facts can be addressed via multiple choice. However, once you moved to interpretation of those historic facts, once you start looking for perspective and evaluation of things that are subjective, this one-size-fits-all thinking falls apart. True/false history tests were the bane of my existence. "True/false: X often happened in the Y era." How frequently before it counts as often? Twice if they were notable? A hundred obscure times? Aaaaaaaah!

It's particularly ironic that many teachers and/or educational institutions push for black/white answers when artists and writers, particularly the great ones studied in schools, were great because they challenged black and white thinking. I think part of this is driven by students (and, to some extent, teachers for the convenience of grading). When I was growing up, nothing got the class to groaning like the prospect of an "essay" test. An essay test answer shows you really understand things, that you thought about it, felt it, accepted it. If you don't understand it, don't get it, you'll fail. Unless your teacher was none to bright, you couldn't fake it.

But that's real learning. Many students don't want to learn by the time they get to high school. They just want to get through school. Just tell them what they need to know for the test so they can move on without it changing their lives. Thinking and feeling is too personal and, as my daughter found out, no guarantee you'll do well on the test.

This reminds me of a lesson I learned in college. Doing poorly in my electrical engineering class, I was disheartened and my English major roommate suggested going with her to her English class as a cure. Now, I'd tested out of all my required English, so I didn't have any of the standard classes. I protested that going to a class I didn't have to go to was unlikely to make me feel better. Well, my roommate was right, as she frequently was.

They were discussing a Wordsworth poem I had not read before. I read it during the class and the discussion came to what was meant by a particular passage. Different students from the actual class were raising their hands and giving answers. Truth was, I could see how they thought so in that section, but the teacher was adamant those answers were "wrong." Despite the fact I had no business being there anyway, I raised my hand and answered - "the" answer the teacher wanted. By the end of the class, that I did feel better about my intelligence. But I also learned that many (not all) people teaching subjective subjects can be seduced into thinking there's only one answer to complex questions and passing that thinking on to their students.

I am convinced that Wordsworth himself, if he had been teaching that class, would not have the right to tell a reader their interpretation was "wrong." I'm proud to say that my sister, the English professor, does not teach English that way, as attested by the endless hours she spends grading essays, exercises and essay tests.

As schools are squeezed for funding, more and more, the schools are going to be stressing what can be objectively measured, leaving many of us non-standard thinkers behind. Which is a very very sad thing given that almost every improvement, advance, invention and artistic success ever has been direct result of thinking outside the norm.

*I mentioned that math and science is black and white and I stand by that in the realm of public education. There we are teaching laws and science, math skills and formulas that have been demonstrated countless times. However, in the real world where, for every problem, there might be any number of solutions, none of them optimum, that isn't true. Not only can you get there many different ways, but the answers aren't identical. And, in fact, my non-standard thinking and unusual perspective when looking at different solutions is one of the reasons I'm so good at my job.


  • Project Savior

    Good to have you back.

  • Jeff King

    Real glad to have you back... and great post BTW, I never realy thought about it like that. i was glad to get multiple guess test, because, it was designed to help to weak pass, or the lazy... and that was me to a T.

  • The Mother

    I have a story for you to tell your daughter. Our rabbi (short term. We loved him, but the congregation didn't) told this one as a sermon one day:

    He was in college, and was in a small group which was supposed to analyze a novel. They couldn't decide what it was really about as a group, but it turned out the author lived nearby. They called and the guy was really nice and his wife served them cookies while he explained what he had intended with his novel.

    Of course, the assignment wasn't journalism, so they couldn't TELL the prof that they had actually met with the author.

    They got an F. Because it was very clear to the prof that they had gotten the WRONG message.

    Such is the subjectivity of literature analysis.

  • Shakespeare

    I swear to God, you wrote this for me, and The Mother's comment makes it clear that 90% of the classes are still being taught this way.

    I have taught English for 17 years now, and I have NEVER, EVER used a scantron. Just yesterday someone suggested I hire a work study to grade my students' papers, and I felt like slapping that person. Who in the world would I EVER trust to grade my student papers for me? Writing is so subjective, and I have to do all I can to help my students practice and hone their writing skills--and find their own individual insights and strengths.

    In literature, I continually find students struck dumb when I don't end discussion with some sort of conclusion telling them what a poem truly means. I've had (a few) students write comments on evaluations criticizing me for not telling them the "true" answers, but exploring all ideas students come up with. My job is NOT to tell students what to think (or to delude myself into believing I can somehow know all the answers). It's to teach students HOW to think for themselves. When they ask me what a particular poem means, I ask them what they think it means. I usually start out the poetry section with "Jabberwocky," just to make that message as clear as possible from the outset.

    Great post. Could not agree more. I embrace the complexity and student-inspired thought with both arms. It is the sincerest happiness of my profession.

  • Relax Max

    They use these things, of course, because they can be graded on a machine, but even knowing that, I've always hated them - for the same reasons you put forth. Beyond the most cut and dried black and white things, such as a spelling test or a math test which truly DOES have one and only one correct answer, they suck. Argh. And they sure don't help a student learn to express themselves in writing.

  • Phyl

    This trend in education seriously worries me. Not only does it create a whole generation of students who can't think, but it creates robots who just accept what they're told, without question.

    The idea that everything about the human mind and human life can be measured with black-and-white numbers is one of the most harmful things permeating society, in my opinion. Some objective things can be measured that way (as you say, mathematical and certain scientific things). But the moment you get into human activity and thought (and frankly, I include economics here), you have left the realm of black-and-white numbers.

    I really appreciate this post!

Post a Comment


Blog Makeover by LadyJava Creations