Testing

How did testing and accountability become the main levers of school reform? How did our elected officials become convinced that measurement and data would fix the schools? Somehow our nation got off track in its efforts to improve education.  What once was the standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy:  Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience was needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.  -Diane Ravitch, The Life and Death of the Great American School System

Ravitch continues with a subtle, yet crucial point.

Tests should follow the curriculum. They should be based on the curriculum. They should not replace it or precede it. (emphasis mine)

Oh how I wish our schools would listen to such wisdom.

Once a school begins down the path of being “test-driven,” or governed by the data and numbers, anxiety takes root among parents who then transfer that anxiety to their children.  Unfortunately, the things of greatest importance in education are sacrificed, forgotten, or neglected.  I believe this is evident when observing the order of Ravitch’s last statement.

When tests do not follow the curriculum, but precede it, a new standard dictates the nature of the classroom, by which I mean what is taught and how it is taught.  Who wrote the tests?  What standards are they following, determining, and prescribing? Does their concept of education align with our school?  Probably not.  How could it?  “They” do not even know who “our school” is, let alone the students in my class.

An important order exists within a school that should not be violated. The “test[s] should follow the curriculum” because the curriculum embodies the ideas on which we (any particular school or home) seek to nourish our children.

The curriculum is determined by the ideas we desire to instill, not tests prescribed by strangers.

In addition, the ideas are determined by our mission and vision of education.  If we believe that we must cultivate wisdom and virtue, what ideas will fulfill this task? Those ideas will define the curriculum we use because the curriculum must embody those ideas, and the curriculum in turn will determine the tests we (ought to) administer to our children.

The prescriptive direction flows one way.  We must exercise great caution concerning the tests we administer.  We must exercise great caution in how we interpret these tests, what we communicate to parents, and the reactive measures we institute as a result.

“The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.”

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Marking Readiness

In her newest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch outlines the primary causes behind today’s deterioration of our schools, and prescribes four vital courses to generate education reform.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), according to Ravitch, largely contributed to the problems plaguing today’s schools.  The vine that sprouted from this federally mandated reform was accountability.  Students must acquire a certain level of knowledge, and teachers must be held responsible for getting their students to that place.  The rat race had begun.

The fruit from this vine spoiled on at least three accounts.  When the primary objective is to produce immediate results, what more efficient model exists in our culture than the modern management networks applied in the business world?  Ravitch notes that business model management may work well in the corporate world, but education is not a business.

As school districts from NYC to San Diego adopted business models of management, teachers and principles went into survival mode in order to secure their jobs.  The single mark of concern rested with student test scores.  NCLB instituted the use of standardized testing in order to measure student progress.  The quickest and surest way for educators to succeed was to teach toward the test.  The test became king and determined the educational success or failure of our schools.

The problem with testing is that it has chipped away at the heart of education and produced illusory knowledge.  However, Ravitch does not entirely oppose the use of testing.  She devotes a small amount of time briefly tracing the short history of testing (roughly a hundred years) and the benefits it can yield when appropriately administered and evaluated.

Yet, the form into which testing has evolved seeks to measure knowledge according to prescribed standards.  Were these prescribed standards those carved by nature they would be appropriate for the human child and unalterable.  But they are not.  They are standards that continually flex to the ungrounded values espoused by temporal notions of progress.

For what end do we covet such notions of knowledge?  Readiness?  Readiness for what?  Is it possibly for a pre-scripted part that contributes not to what it is to be a Man or a Woman, but to the progress of an economic ideal upheld and valued in our current culture?

The purpose for testing in today’s educational institutions boils down to producing a readiness for either adulthood or employment.  The two are not the same, nor do they go together.  The one attends to the meaning of our humanity, the other to the product of our labor.

Before I became an educator I used to start colts for a world champion reigning cowhorse trainer.  My job was to take an unbroken colt (2 year old) and get him ready for the next phase of his training.  Sometimes that could take six months, three months, or sometimes one month.  It all depended on the horse.

At some point during a colt’s training (education) my boss would ask me, “Is the filly ready?”  He never asked me if she passed the test.  There was no test. Yet there were various indicators that marked her readiness.

Before she could work on a real cow she had to be able to turn, stop, backup, know her leads and how to change leads, relax her neck, lower her head, position her shoulders, ribs, and hips, pivot on her inside rear foot, tuck, spin, and leap – among other things.

Some horses were always better than others with these things, but none of these things were exercises foreign to the nature of a horse.  Any horse could learn to do these things because they were things that a horse does naturally.

As a trainer I was teaching the horse when to do them and how to perfect them, or rather to execute them with greater precision and finesse.

As the trainer I was the only one who knew where the horse was in his training and what he needed to learn.  When I was asked if a horse was ready, I was asked with a very clear and defined image of what a “finished” horse looked like.  That was the goal I worked towards in every horse I trained (hundreds of them in my career).

The question of readiness was not the same as that of passing a test.  In fact, there were days when a horse would perform well and then the next day act as if he had never learned a thing.  Others could go through all the exercises physically, but were still not ready mentally.

We always trained a horse with a view to developing him both mentally and physically, and only the one working with the horse every day knew “where” he was in his training.

A horse’s readiness was not the measurable result of a day’s set of tested exercises.  Their readiness was a state of presence that emerged from days, months, and years of training.  The mark of readiness was set upon the backdrop of a horse’s entire training and not upon the result of a single test.

Do we misread our students by looking to their test scores rather than to their education as the mark of their readiness?  Perhaps what we should be doing is asking a student’s teacher, “Are they ready?”

Hamlet:             the readiness is all.

Love Never Abdicates

We 20th century Naughts share a common error when we think.  We tend, against our better judgment and against our natures, to look at the universe and all that is in it – material or immaterial – scientifically, as though life were one big laboratory.

However, the cosmos is not a great scientific experiment nor can we live wise, successful, or prudent lives on that basis. Life is an art, not an experiment, and the differences are far-reaching.

So are the similarities. For example, both involve uncertainty and what we might loosely call experiments. The artist does not approach her work with complete certainty about where the next brush stroke belongs, how the next line should scan, or when the orchestra should reach the crescendo. She experiments.

The difference between art and science is not whether the artist and the scientist experiment, but how they judge the success of the experiment, which implies further that each has a different purpose for their experiments.

The artist judges by fitness – by whether the stroke, line, or note harmonize with the elements and idea of the specific work of art. The artist is formal.

The scientist judges by fitness as well, but his fitness carries a much narrower, a more precise (perhaps) purpose. Does the information gathered fit the hypothesis? The scientist is, at least in an ideal way, factual.

It’s ironic when you think about how little practical information can be gained through the so-called scientific method. No doubt, if we think about the discoveries made by scientists over the last 800 years, we are astonished. And some of those discoveries are so immensely powerful that they seem to be quite practical.

Nor do I want to diminish the use that has been made of many of these discoveries. But the scientific discoveries are only practical, that is to say, they only benefit people, when they are applied in an ethical context. When scientists function within a power context (in other words, when scientistific research is driven by political ends and the drives of businesses whose highest function is to make money), the results are quite mixed.

They are only beneficial to the people who benefit from them. And people only benefit from them when they are brought into an artistic framework.

I have to leave this point somewhat unfinished and no doubt provocative (please don’t make me say anything I didn’t say when you attack me – I am in no way opposed to science; I love it and I yearn to see it restored to its rightful place) because it isn’t what I meant to write about.

What I meant to write about is how I and virtually everybody I know is trained from early childhood to think in the scientific mode while the artistic mode atrophies.

We are trained to assume that things should be assessed quantitatively instead of formally.

We tend to believe what is scientifically compelling, and dismiss those elements of being that stand outside the reachof the sciences as either unimportant or as merely personal.

To read the news web sites, one would think that we don’t know of any other ways to find truth than through the sciences. Newspapers constantly call on experts, who generally are readers of statistics, often from a particular brand called “social sciences.”

Let me list a few examples of this bias that come easily to one’s mind:

We build our subdivisions (not neighborhoods) on the technical ideas of the civil engineers, not the formal ideas of the artists. Even our architecture tends toward a technical, rather than a formal approach.

Our economy is regulated by people who seem unable to even imagine valid information that stands outside their technical analysis. They do not think about the nature of an economy (which literally means “household customs”), of the household in it, of the soul in the household, etc.

Political science, so-called, is utterly informal. People learn how to scientifically measure and thus to manipulate the masses. The person in that mass does not merit the politician’s personal attention. The symbol embodied in a person, yes, but not the person.

Our inner cities are the results of technical analysis applied to a reality that is fundamentally artistic.

So are our suburbs, our schools, our malls, and even our entertainment, though at least movies and music are unable to completely eliminate the artistic element that makes up their essence.

Even religious life is approached scientifically in America. Consider church growth and even the Emerging church. Progressive, cutting edge, and failing utterly to grasp the nature of the Bride of Christ.

We don’t trust the person who cannot back his case up with the sheen of scientific research, regardless of whether the issue relies on scientific research. We might not even know how an issue could possibly NOT rely on said research.

The sciences are powerful and admirable. They are marvelous servants; it is their nature to serve. But they do not and they cannot tell us what is right and wrong, how things ought to be, what the nature and essence of a thing is, whether and how we should use the power they give us, or the forms of beauty.

They cannot tell us (though they can provide information – they can advise us) how to raise children, how to nourish our souls, how to love our spouses, how to develop our virtues, how to arrange our flowers, which books to read, how to manage our time, how to build our communities, the foundations of sound government, how to play an instrument, whether a song is beautiful, what love is, what truth is, what knowledge is, what goodness is, what justice is, what freedom is, or, for that matter, what anything IS.

Happily humans are not finally scientific by nature. We include a scientific impulse in our nature, but we are artists, formalists, creators by nature. Even the great scientists approached science like an art, and that is because underlying and mastering the scientific method is a deeper commitment to the arts of truth and knowledge. When that commitment is lost, the sciences become tyrannical and tyrants use the sciences for their ends.

This post is an appeal to get back to nature. To stop surrendering our common sense to the latest research. To stop believing that the misapplication of the methods of the natural sciences can save us. Only love can save us. Only beauty can save us. Only truth can save us. Only the Good can save us.

And, while each of these rejoices in the work of the natural sciences, none would ever bow their knee to them. Love never abdicates.

Teaching By the Numbers

Yesterday’s post was infinitely long, so I’ll give you something shorter today: a quotation from David Hicks in Norms and Nobility:

The modern educator tends to define his tasks too narrowly, and when things go wrong, his impulse is to double -check his calculations rather than to doubt the significance of his research. He finds it impossible to understand that a correct answer can be a wrong answer.

Government and its money encourage him in this delusion by creating the need for “objective criteria.” These criteria do not and cannot measure quality, or for that matter many of the goals they propose to measure….

Nowhere is this confusion of quality and quantity so evident as in the area of teacher certification.

A Filosopher Reflects on Philing

Owen Barfield was an inkling to whose daughter, Lucy, CS Lewis dedicated The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

He was a first class scholar in his own right who was comfortable with Latin, Greek, German, French, and who knows what other languages. I would love to read his book called History in English Words, which he described as a “general and superficial survey of semantic development.” How can that not make your heart melt?

The following quotation comes from another of his books called Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning.

… the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he has ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowledge, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.

As a great believer in different kinds of knowledge, I have to pause here and draw a rather technical distinction that you’ll want to skip over to get to the bold text below.

He is looking at the words Poetry and Science as they are used now. He’s describing a very metaphysical mode of knowing that was developed and explained by Coleridge and Shelley in the early 19th century.

What he’s getting at, I think, is that Descartes and Bacon, with their pretensions for the scientific mode of knowing, were off base. The highest forms of knowledge discovered by the poet and the scientist are the same.

These words can and have been used differently, and that can create confusion. These uses pre-date Bacon and Descartes, so they arise from a quest for true knowledge as opposed to Pragmatic utility.

I am referring to the distinctions Dr. James Taylor makes in his masterful opus, Poetic Knowledge, which you need to read if you want to teach knowingly.

He describes four kinds of knowledge as identified in the classical tradition and developed by Thomas Aquinas and others: the poetic (pre-rational, rooted in the senses), the rhetorical (persuasion by evidence), the dialectic (one of two options – beyond a reasonable doubt), and the scientific (absolute certitude – notice that this is not what modern “Science” means).

So in the Classical Christian tradition, there is a distinction between poetic and scientific knowledge, but neither term refers to what the terms poetry and science refer to today.

End of metaphysical digression

Barfield is arguing against the false claims of the scientist (from now on, I’m using the terms in the modern sense) to have some sort of knowledge the poet can’t have. This arises from and relates symbiotically to hubris:

That the two or three experimental sciences, and the two or three hundred specialized lines of inquiry which ape their methods, should have developed the rational out of all proportion to the poetic is indeed an historical fact–and a fact of great importance to a consideration of the last four hundred years of European history. 

A disordering has taken place, he suggests, in European culture and in the European soul.

But to imagine that this tells us anything about the nature of knowledge; to speak of method as though it were a way of knowing instead of a way of testing, this is–instead of looking dispassionately at the historical fact–to wear it like a pair of blinkers.

Modern science, that following on the work of Bacon and Descartes, provides a method for testing theories. It is dialectical and rhetorical, in Taylor’s sense above, but it is not (oh the irony) scientific.

Now, Barfield has a great deal more to say. Poetic Diction is one of those rare books with something jarringly insightful on every page. I am in the process of reading it through quickly, sans reflection, to get something of the gestalt in my head.

But I was prompted to write the foregoing because of a practical matter I am dealing with. Order.

More to the point, filing.

I conclude from my efforts that in a pragmatic world the philosopher will be out of place – unsuited.

The pragmatist orders things for their utility. The question is, “What will I use this for? Then file it accordingly.”

The philosopher, humbling himself before everything he encounters, orders things according to their nature, whether or not he can make use of them.

Happily, sometimes, even frequently, utility and nature overlap. Of course, as a would-be philosopher, I cling to the hope that in the end they overlap perfectly. What creates the disruption is false perceptions of utility, which lead to false perceptions of reality. But sometimes they overlap even in the immediate.

For example, businesses are, by nature, Pragmatic concerns. Their purpose is to produce results. They measure those results with a rather reductionist but quite powerful proxy called “cash.”

So the business, living in a realm dominated by conventions, don’t have to worry much about contradicting nature. They can ignore it almost completely. It’s natural for them to do so. (oh the irony)

Thus busines files can be ordered by utility pretty completely.

But schools are different. They are not Pragmatic institutions measured by an abstraction. They are, by nature, philosophical institutions of the highest order, requiring more wisdom than any other institution except the family. That is probably why most of them become not-for-profits.

A business model may help a school succeed as a business, but it runs the risk of destroying it as a school.   

However, since the late 19th century, schools have been trying to operate pragmatically. For example, much of the practice of the modern school arises from scientific management and factories.

The bell, for example, at the beginning and end of 50 minute sessions. Who would do that to a child? Who would believe that a child could learn best in that setting? What an unnatural way to order things!

It didn’t matter. Schools had become institutions for utility, not for education. Please note the distinction, as it cuts to the heart of our failure as a nation to educate our children.

Another clear example of Pragmatics overthrowing truth in schools jumps out with the curriculum and the way it is ordered.

The arrangement of classes simply doesn’t lead to discoveries of truth. I say that not based on some party conviction, but on the constant statements of high school and college students that I talk to, like:

  • “You say that because you are X”
  • “We have to agree to disagree”
  • “That’s your opinion”
  • “That’s true for you”

What all of these and so many more statements share in common is that they confess one thing: You can’t know the truth.

These deeply felt convictions arise, not from philosophical persuasion, but from being formed by a structure that doesn’t lead to truth (and also from a resistance to submitting to truth).

When students are assessed, the assessors don’t ask whether they can see truth better or whether they are more free than they were at the beginning of the lesson. All too frequently, they ask where they perform in an abstract exercise against an abstract group of people so they can, at best, determine whether to move them along the assembly line.

I saw a commercial for one of those nationwide colleges like University of Phoenix or LaSalle or something like that. The graduate talked about how much she valued it because it gave her a certification from an accredited institution.

Abstractions like certification and accreditation have replaced practical, concrete virtues like wisdom.

This is a cancer that eats at our cultural soul. What kind of adult student would freely subject herself to a process whose highest virtue is that it “certifies” her. What kind of a school would make that what they advertise? What kind of a society would value it so disproportionately and uncritically?

Answer: a Pragmatic society; which is a synonym for a soulless society.

So I’m trying to file my papers without eliminating my soul. I guess I just don’t fit.

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Suggested resources:

Poetic Knowledge, Dr. James Taylor
Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield
File… Don’t Pile, Pat Dorff

Your theory of writing

People of a more practical bent will sometimes suggest they don’t have a theory. Others argue that theory is a distraction or isn’t important.

Those positions (each a caricature in itself) hold a view of theory that arises from a reaction to the overly academic approach we take to writing. The great temptation for any teacher or school is to isolate what happens in the school or classroom from the rest of life and then to exalt it over things outside the school or classroom.

When schools do that, people outside the schools can overreact the other way and deny the importance of what happens in the school. And to the extent that the school overvalued itself, the anti-school people will be right.

The only value of education is what it actually accomplishes in the soul and for the life of the student.

All of which is preamble to indicate the unnecessary tension between theory and practice that I pointed to in my previous post.

My thesis here is simple: since, as we have perhaps already established, we all have a writing theory, that theory forms our expectations and practices as writers and teachers. 

The cosequence of my thesis is that the theory we hold, therefore, effects the quality of our instruction and the degree of our mastery of the art.

For example, if a student thinks that writing is a great mystery, a gift descending from the gods, he will practice accordingly. He may pray a lot if he wants to write well, but he won’t try to exercise a discipline he doesn’t believe exists.

Put in that caricature, that position might seem absurd, but that caricature expresses rather nicely the unconscious presupposition I held as a high school student. It’s easy to see why, because to this day the achievements of the great poets leave me breathless and, to be perfectly honest, often envious.

How was Shakespeare able to write the way he did? How could Chaucer so continually throw out lines with such grace and subtlety? How could John Donne hide so many, many layers of meaning in the 14 lines of a sonnet.

It’s no wonder that Homer begins his epics with the words “Sing goddess…” and Milton, “Sing heavenly muse.”

And both were, I’m certain, quite genuine in their appeal. Their theory of poetry led them to call for divine help.

So does mine.

Shakespeare seems not to have held such a theory. He was, one might say, a more secular poet, certainly than Homer or Milton, if not Virgil (Arms and the man I sing).

Behind those prayers lay a theology and a cosmology and an anthropology that inform every line of the poets’ work.

The absence of such lines in contemporary poetry indicate a different theology, cosmology, and anthropology.

When a person writes, he comes to the task with beliefs about how important writing is, the source of the power to do it, and how one practices it. Writing workshops and classes are not the place to teach such things. They already embody them in their modes and structures.

For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.

What I mean is that, given how we run our schools and hold them accountable, we need to believe that writing, like everything else in school, simply needs to be administered to the student in the right dosage. Then a standardized test can take our temperature – it can tell us whether we succeeded.

A workshop, on the other hand, will recognize the need for judgment and direct feedback.

At CiRCE, for example, we believe that writing can be learned only through an apprenticeship. Writing is a craft, and a craft can only be learned through coaching by a master. That is why we put so much emphasis on the need for the teacher to understand the ideas taught in our Lost Tools of Writing program.

Writing, like every art, requires judgment. That is why people often say, “There are no rules.”

They are almost right. The one rule is propriety. This directs the teacher’s and students’ attention away from rules to purpose and nature, because propriety is determined by the nature and the purpose of the act, the actor, and the other participants in the act.

And propriety requires judgment.

And judgment takes awareness of principles, understanding of the nature of the act, process, and artifact, knowledge of the thing represented in the writing, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

Writing needs to be taught practically – it’s a craft.

And you can never develop the judgment writing requires if you don’t thoroughly understand the rules of normal writing.

Practical writing, therefore, is always taught within a theoretical framework, a paradigm if you like. The failure to teach children spelling, grammar, and usage in the contemporary school arises from a theory of human nature, of education, and of writing that undercuts all three, as reflected in the growing inability and unwillingness of the people to communicate with any care or depth over the past few generations.

So to become a great writer or to help your students become one, you’ll want to do what you can to clarify your theory. The good news is that that clarification begins with common sense observations.

More good news: there are plenty of sources available to develop your theory of writing in dialogue with others. But be careful. If you read what other people say, you might not be looking at what writers do and how children learn. The value of what others say comes in the rather obvious fact that they’ll see things you can’t see and if they’ve written something it almost certainly has been thought about for a while. But if the theory is bad, the thought will only make it worse.

Some sources:

  • Aristotle: Poetics (short read, worth reading a lot over the years. This still drives most movie writing)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read his comments to the players in Acts 2 and 3 (if my memory is on)
  • Wendell Berry: Standing By Words (simply incredible)
  • Anything about theory by Ezra Pound. Watch out for his politics.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biologia Literaria (probably the hardest of these to read – don’t start with this)
  • Louis Markos, Teaching Company series on the History of literary criticism. Very nice introduction to theories over time, (though I think he misunderstood Plato’s point in the Republic).

I’ll leave it there for now. Those will do for one or two lifetimes anyway.

Form and creativity

Form does not limit creativity. It is the vessel in which creativity abides. It is the synergistic flesh through which the breath of creativity breathes. Form is the proof of creativity; its standard; its only evidence.

Creativity is precisely the act of in-forming matter with idea.