Picking up my three year old from school is my favorite task of the day. Not only am I still a super hero in his little world, but I also bear witness to genuine excitement about learning and, in his little hand, some sort of creative project. This varies from scribble on half sheets of paper, which recently produced “Mr. Tomato”, to construction paper cut outs of guitars with flowers or cats with wings. He eagerly explains what he produced and how he did it, and we proudly display these authentic works throughout the house. Shifting to my day job, I listen to the gripes and groans from students in grades nine through eleven as they prepare for June exams. These voices come from all along the bell curve–top students to average students to struggling students. As I assemble this chorus in my mind, I notice a common theme: student creativity and authenticity has been lost in formative evaluations across all academic subject matter lines (with the exception of the art and music program). And this has been a common chorus in the many schools spanning my career: elite boarding schools, parochial schools, public schools, international/bi-lingual schools. What is being tested primarily is memory. While memory and teaching students how to memorize has its own cognitive benefits, it is not what students should be mastering in every course across the curriculum. Looking at some of their review packets, it is clear that while this is not the only element of their exam, it is certainly a large portion of it. Harold Bloom suggests that evaluation and creativity are the highest orders of thinking. It would follow, then, that if the academic year focused on ensuring that students have fundamental skills in respective disciplines, shouldn’t these skills be put to “the test” by demanding them to be used in an evaluative and/or creative capacity? For example, in a European studies course, an exam question could read: will the European Union exist as it is now in ten years from now? Why? Why not? Base your analysis on the geopolitical and cultural aspects of Europe that we examined this year. Or for a Biology class, what, specifically, are the challenges of making new anti-biotics to counter “super-bugs”? What do you see as the greatest threat to the human race in the future, super-bugs or super-viruses? Why? How can we combat this? Base your reply on the cellular nature of these life forms. As educators, we need to demand more from ourselves by stepping away from what we have always done and have on our computer drives to what is happening here and now in the world, regardless of our respective disciplines. By planting ourselves in the present, we develop relevance within the student learner, and we embolden them when we demand from them evaluations and creative solutions to problems now and in the future. Maybe then, when I pick my thirteen year old up from school in the future, I may see that same spark of learning excitement that I saw today.
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