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Only when someone else is looking

June 13, 2011

I was brushing my teeth this morning when I glanced over at the bottle of mouthwash sitting on the bathroom counter.

“Helps you get better dental check-ups,” the bottle boasted, linking itself to recent commercials that explain how a given oral health product helps you improve the areas of your mouth “that dentists check the most.”

That’s weird to me. My goal isn’t to have better check-ups; I’d like strong, healthy teeth! Obviously, there’s a connection between the two, but when– and why– did marketers decide that successful check-ups is the more compelling point to make?

It reminded me of all the times I’ve heard students ask, “Will this be on the test?” when they’re expected to learn something new. Whether the topic is boring, and they’re trying to decide if they can slack off, or the topic is interesting, but they’re fearful that fun and being test-ready are incompatible, the question is a way of asking, “Can I get away with not doing this? If it’s not on the test, can I spend my energy on something else, more important?” Never mind that a skill that may not be on the test may show up in life, and maybe it’s a good idea to know it anyway…

Whatever happened to intrinsic motivation?

Or self-assessment? Last September, Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote about her children’s experiences as students in an international school in Beijing for the New York Times. Reflecting positively on how much testing was emphasized in the Chinese school, Rosenthal wrote that

When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.

“How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month.

Anyone else find that troubling? Who is going to tell this girl if she gets what’s going on before entering the voting booth to choose a Representative, Senator, or President? How will she know if she gets what’s going on in a future relationship enough to decide whether or not to get married? Just how well did that school do by this child, if she can’t determine for herself whether something works, without necessarily getting a grade? How well have we done if a student isn’t developing the capacity to reflect on her own thinking, and can’t decide for herself whether or not something makes sense to her? (And how well are we doing as a society if such a statement is used, uncritically, as a means of promoting a kind of education that breeds such intellectual dependency?)

For all the other problems I have with inappropriate/excessive uses of standardized testing, or with an over-emphasis on grades, I think it’s this that bothers me the most. I worry about systems that encourage people (teachers and students alike!) to do the bare minimum they can get away with, and only when someone else is looking. And I worry about people growing up without the ability to self-monitor and self-assess, given how frequently we find ourselves with no one looking over our shoulder to tell us if what we’re doing is “good enough.”

There are quite a few schools that intentionally foster students’ ability to think beyond these kinds of limits, but can they ever become the norm rather than the exception in a world where the dentist’s approval is more important than a healthy bite?

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