I often lecture or blog about grading, arguing that the way we now assign grades is an antiquated system that may have worked well for the Industrial Age but that undercuts what is valuable, exciting, or potentially useful for interactive thinking in the Digital Age. I'm often critical of No Child Left Behind, with its reduction of evaluation to standardized testing (and even penalties to school districts that do not produce high scores). NCLB seems to me the apotheosis of an early 20th century way of thinking that undermines digital potentials. But I'm actually criticizing here a much broader way of thinking that reduces the process of thinking to "a result," even to "the best result chosen from among a select number of choices" (i.e. multiple choice exams). That concept of grading seems the exact opposite of critical and daring thinking, and inconducive to the kind of integrative, creative, innovative thinking our era demands, in all fields from the arts to the theoretical sciences and engineering.
Whenever I talk about new ways of evaluating, including peer and self- assessment of process and not simply a standardized outcome on a multiple-choice test, someone in the audience inevitably retorts, "Well, that's subjective. It may be fine for humanists--but it would never work for science. We need rigorous, standardized testing to produce the highly specialized scientists necessary for our world." Maybe. But within a minute, I can get this same person pontificating in a different direction simply by switching the topic a little, lamenting, "And isn't it terrible that America today undervalues science and produces so few scientists?" No argument there!
But now let's put those two arguments together. What if it turned out that our "rigorous" standardized, multiple choice form of testing--in all fields, including science and math--selected out those who do well on standardized tests but who lack precisely the forms of inquisitive, inductive, hypothetical reasoning and willingness to tirelessly test out a hypothesis that is the basis of the experimental method and exactly what science demands? In other words, what if the supposedly scientific or objective testing methods branded as excellent selects for those who do not possess intuitive, subjective, relentlessly inquisitive thinking abilities? What if standardized testing penalizes the child who has the inquisitive, doubting mind necessary to be a good and, sometimes, a great scientist? It is not only shocking how few scientists this country produces but how many kids who think they want to go into science end up going into business when they graduate, or even give up their pre-med or other pre-scientific majors to go into social sciences (which, most typically, means into business careers). Maybe all those eager high school kids with high test scores in science aren't the kids with real scientific potential of the kind favored at universities? Maybe those potential scientists were left behind . . . frustrated by the rote thinking required to ace the SAT's.
Most work in science does not yield a Nobel Prize. It is incremental. It is about a process of discovery that slowly, often tediously, yields a result that then needs to be replicated and build upon again. Even outside of the wet lab, even in sciences like math or theoretical physics, the process and the insight are as basic to the discipline as "knowing things." But "knowing things" in the way one knows them on standardized, multiple tests is a very superficial form of knowledge. It's not even very reflective of how much we will know things in the future.
Our entire practice of testing is based on a theory of knowledge that is out of date. It used to be thought that brains and neural connectors grew in the same way feet do, tiny at birth, growing until maturity. We now know that infants have an overabundance of neurons and that, if neural development proceeds on course, they will shear off about 40% of their neurons on their way to an adult understanding of the world, working on streamlinging neural pathways by repetition and experience, using the scaffolding of one experience (and that of their culture) on which to build ever-more reflexive ways of reacting on which to then build more nuanced, interactive, reflective ways of thinking later. But the brain is not something you fill up. A brain develops by trial-and-error and by selection, selecting that which is most useful (however "useful" is defined in a given situation).
Much of our standardized testing is still based on an outmoded filling-station view of neural development and of knowledge: the cartoonish model of the prof emptying sand into the empty head of the student. Heads don't fill up with knowledge. New kinds of knowledge build upon older knowledge and often replace that knowledge. Everything works in that process of selection, adaptation, revision, selection. Memorizing correct answers to questions has some function, but it is not at all clea to anyone what that function is or how useful it is in an era of search and browse. Process, on the other hand, is more important than ever. And here actual application, experience, inference, testing, and repetition are crucial. Those elements, it turns out, are as important in perfecting a golf swing as they are in learning how to think in ever more sophisticated ways.
Socrates had it right. If you want to model higher level thinking, you don't lecture about your insights achieved as the result ("the answers") of such thinking. You certainly don't have students take a multiple choice test to ensure that they remember your conclusions. If you want to encourage the love of thinking and the skill of critical thinking, you question them, you hear their ideas, you debate them, you give them feedback, you lead and mislead them, you intellectually thrust and parry, you joust, and you have them reach conclusions by learning which intellectual moves are fruitful and which lead to dead ends.
That Socratic method is used in law schools today, but I'm suggesting should be true for all fields--including the sciences. It is a profoundly humanistic method and, to make great scientists, it is that profoundly humanistic method that is required, the ability to think through an idea, to revise an idea in light of other ideas, to test and question, to think critically, to analyze data, to respond to the arguments or hypotheses of others, and on and on. It may not yield the highest test scores on SAT's, but it may well be what sorts out the kind of process-oriented mental habits of those who are most likely, someday, to think like Einstein.
Einstein, of course, grew up loving to make little mechanical devices. And he had, as a very young man, two favorite books: Euclid's Elements and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. He was one of the world's most famous dyslexics ("dyslexic" being a term we also need to question), but he was also someone who, throughout his life, understood the contuities between mechanism, geometry, number theory, a priori concepts, and experience. How do you answer a multiple choice test for pure reason? I fear that No Child Left Behind may well be constructed to leave behind exactly those non-linear, inductive, intuitive, critical, curiious, humanistic, and scientific thinkers who, if nurtured, might well grow up wanting to Be Like Einstein.