A few weeks after school finished this year, I asked my high schooler to recall anything she had learned from her recent final exams. From American history she remembered a list of native American staple crops: corn, beans, and squash, a list, she tells me, that her class remembers with the helpful acronym CBS.
Some things have to be memorized, but one of the most difficult habits I’ve had to break is giving tests that rely too heavily on memorized bits of data. These kinds of tests are mostly matching, multiple choice, or fill-in-the-blank questions, often with a token essay question at the end. Since the goal of a test is to assess knowledge, I’ve had to reconsider what it means to really know something, and I’ve discovered there is a significant difference between knowing and memorizing facts.
Knowing requires direct experience of real things. Dickens tried to warn us with his novel, Hard Times, about substituting knowledge for facts. Mr. Gradgrind praises his student, Bitzer, for correctly defining a “horse” as “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive,” and scolds Sissy, daughter of the circus performer, for not knowing the data. Ironically, she is the only person in the room who does know what a horse is.
Before the Enlightenment, we believed in reality; we trusted real things to give us knowledge. Our senses gave us direct experience with reality, and our intellect used that experience to abstract universals. After seeing a pepperoni pizza sliced into eight pieces, you could “see” that the whole was bigger than the parts, and you could extend that particular knowledge universally. Descartes separated the mind from reality; according to him, we could only know our thoughts directly. By separating the mind from the senses, the whole-body or spiritual sense of knowing was lost, and knowledge became the abstractions. As James Taylor explains in Poetic Knowledge, “Sooner or later, it is all reduced to ‘facts.'”
Facts are often substitutes for real meaning. Mr. Gradgrind thought Bitzer knew what a horse was, but he didn’t know. Mr. Gradgrind did what we all have done: abstract a meaning from a real thing, put it into words or symbols, and then give it to the students to memorize. When the student then correctly matches the name “Wordsworth” with “romantic” instead of “realist,” we think he’s learned something. Frederick Wilhelmsen in Man’s Knowledge of Reality, explains that the intellect can associate a symbol of meaning rather than the meaning itself. “This is the way in which a man,” he explains, “can dupe himself into thinking he knows when he does not.” This is the way a teacher dupes himself into thinking his students know something when they do not.
The mind can associate the words “native American crops” with the words “corn, beans, and squash,” but that doesn’t mean the mind knows the real meaning of native American or even squash. Of course, you might object, that living among real Native Americans and eating CBS is unrealistic for a classroom. That’s true to an extent (you could bring corn, beans, and squash for lunch one day), but we are not without resources. We have literature, art, music, and story. We can read aloud and memorize the Song of Hiawatha, a poem whose imaginative language and meter gives more direct experience with the souls of Native Americans than a list of vegetables and legumes.
One reason I keep giving these kinds of tests isn’t a lack of understanding, but simply insecurity. Going to class with a handout, or better yet, a powerpoint slideshow of terms to know is safe. Say the magic words: “This is going to be on the test,” and immediately everyone stops talking and starts taking notes. Seeing those notes copied into notebooks gives me a feeling that I’ve taught something.
I use the word “feeling” because it is more of a feeling than a reality. At this year’s midterms, I assigned my Great Books class a paper, due on the day of the exam, rather than a traditional test. When the day of exams rolled around, I saw the neatly copied and stapled booklets of tests and felt insecure. These other classes had memorized pages of information; had my conversations about Augustine and Dante and Milton taught my class anything I could point to on a piece of paper?
The bad feelings disippated, however, when I read the papers they had written, describing the virtue of piety in the Aeneid and the ways that Jane Austen’s view of marriage had changed their own views. They had learned something from direct experience with real stories, and they reincarnated those ideas into thoughtful essays of their own.
Some things, probably the most important things, simply can’t be assessed or graded. How do you get a group of senior girls to “know” how to relate to guys? After reading Pride and Prejudice, they have the direct experience of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. When one young lady who recently graduated asked me if she were being too flirty with a guy, I pointed her to Elizabeth. She was fun, friendly, and the only woman who wasn’t throwing herself at the rich guy. Now the student sees the principle. She knows it. A list of “qualities for young women” that included a definition of “discretion” would not have taught her as much.
Maybe teaching real things is easier to pull off in a literature class than mathematics, but it can be done. On the first day of Geometry class, my teacher explained the counting numbers by telling me a story of cavemen going out to hunt woolly mammoths. I got it. I “saw” the counting numbers. In college I took a class on differential equations, and one day my boyfriend (now husband) asked me what a differential equation was. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. I had memorized the processes of getting correct answers, but I didn’t know anything.
We need to go back to the real things. Go on a fast. Get rid of all your multiple choice tests and force yourself to come up with something better. Figure out what you want your students to know, not what data you want them to know, but what you want them to know. Then find the real things that embody those things and teach that. Changing our assessment arsenal will take time, but anything better than corn, beans, and squash is a step in the right direction.