Thursday, September 2, 2010

First day back, Aristotle, standardized tests

Yesterday, as we all know, was the first day back to school for most of Edmonton's kids. My own two headed off to new schools- one to junior high and one to high school. These are big steps and, for the first time in ten years, I was not walking someone to school. It's not just parents of kindergarten kids that find the first day back a little wrenching!

When they returned home at the end of the day, I wanted to hear every detail. My daughter's full and complete account of the day included how, in her FSG class (Family Study Group- a cross-grade homeroom class), the teacher had told them this class was like a family and he was like their dad. He said that, sometimes in junior high, kids can feel like no one likes them...but that he would always like them, just like a dad, and they could always come to talk to him if they needed help. At my son's high school, another story: following the all-school assembly, the Principal came up to my niece (a grade 12 student) and pointed out a girl, one face in the veritable sea of teen aged faces. He told her that this girl was new, had just moved here and didn't know anyone at Ross Shep. Would my niece go over and introduce herself and show her around? Of course, she did and gave the newcomer her cell phone number so that if she was ever lost or needed help at Ross Shep, she could simply call and my niece would come and help her.

Both stories told me something very important- good teachers show and, in turn, teach empathy. They guide, not just the academic learning, but the emotional growth of students. Fostering a caring environment is not measured on any standardized testing, but it is absolutely essential to learning. Without relationship, without empathy, we have nothing.

The Wildrose Party has recently released details of their unequivocal support for standardized testing and  push for higher levels of accountability for teachers. While I agree that education is vital and needs to be held to a high standard, I am concerned that we do not have accurate mechanisms for measuring the full spectrum of what I consider to be a great education. In my humble opinion, teachers should model life-long learning, foster critical thinking, engage students, know their subject matter very well but still allow for new discovery through the interaction with students.  They should model and teach empathy, encourage active citizenship, nurture the individual talents of students and set high expectations for all students .... this list moves far beyond standardized test scores.  You could teach to the test, have brilliant scores without most (any?) of these things. You could be, in my mother's words, "a right so and so" and still have a class with top marks, especially if it is a self-selecting academic class to begin with. So, who is the real author of this success? And if, in the process of reaching for the top of the Fraser Institutes's list, your students have been turned off learning, stressed out, consumed by a win-at-all-cost attitude, placed on sleeping medication in elementary school and developed considerable skills in plagiarism ---is it success at all? (Sadly, I'm not making this up. Every single idea here is from an actual child.)

In my opinion, I think Aristotle got it right:

"To educate the mind without educating the heart, is no education at all."

So, to Mr. A at Westmount and Mr. B at Ross Shep:  Thank you for the lessons of the heart yesterday. I know they won't show up on any standardized test, but trust me-- they were the most important things you taught yesterday.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Nicely said. I think many students and teachers have these kinds of defining moments more often than we may realize, but with the all the pressures of our education process they are to easily bypassed and forgotten. I believe (and sincerely hope) that the majority of our teachers have the desire to do all they can to help their students grow socially, academically and that they do all they feel they can to help their students succeed. In today's busy, noisy and seemingly fast paced world, it is all to easy to miss the small gestures by individuals and simply lump the whole system under a failing grade.