Understanding Youth, Ch 3

One of our readings for Adolescent Development this week is Chapter Three of Understanding Youth by Michael Nakkula and Eric Toshalis.  Chapter Three, “Risk Taking and Creativity,” is concerned mainly with understanding the tendency of young people to engage in risky activities not as “bad” behavior, but as an attempt to test their limits and begin to more deeply define themselves in light of their newly acquired theoretical thinking skills.  In other words, they are experimenting with their lives.

The last section of the book centers around the idea of challenging students to develop “madd skillz” as a way to make school engaging and exciting enough to fulfill the students’ needs to experiment and take risks in ways that are more socially acceptable to adults.  The authors address a potential difficulty:

Can such mastery be cultivated and displayed in the classroom?  The answer, of course, is that it can, hypothetically.  In practice, however, scores of students become bored with repetitive learning exercises designed at best to promote “common learning” or the attainment of predetermined standards of competence.  The ordinariness implied by common standards is scarcely compelling, which is why No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and related high-stakes testing legislation run the risk of leaving creativity out of the curriculum and losing students in the process.” (Emphasis mine.)

What the authors don’t discuss here is why this might be the case.  I assume that they are talking about the phenomenon called “teaching to the test,” where educators become so concerned about test scores that their entire curriculum and classroom strategy becomes centered around teaching only those things students need in order to do very well on these sorts of tests.  I have often seen this phenomenon discusses in criticisms of high-stakes testing and standardized testing in general.

My understanding is that the purpose of these tests is to serve as a method for holding educational institutions accountable for their teaching.  In order to someone accountable, there must be a method of measuring what was or wasn’t done.  Assuming that the tests are well designed and really do measure the skills that we as a society believe are important for success, then there should be no real problem with teaching to the test.  Problems could also arise if educators lack the creativity, skills, and/or support required to develop new and engaging ways to teach the skills we deem vital.

In the example the authors cite in this section, a teacher initially puts a student who failed her first attempt at passing the high stakes test into a “catch-up” class.  This attempt backfired, as the student became even less interested in school and her grades and skills slipped even further.  This teacher realized her mistake and changed her approach: she instead challenged the student to write a social critique for the yearbook.  This had the desired effect.  The problem with her first approach wasn’t that the student had been singled out in some way (both approaches did this), but that the first solution was to put her in a class based on the drill-and-kill model, where students are expected to learn by repetition.  Had this class been designed to approach student learning more creatively instead of less so, it may very well have been just what the student needed.  There’s no reason why the “catch-up” class itself can’t be designed around challenging projects like writing social critiques.

This assumes that the test does measure what we want it to.  If it doesn’t, then a better solution would be to lobby for a rewriting of the test.

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