A Person is Not a Line Chart (Part 2)

Make sure to read Part 1 of this three-part series! In Part 1 I stated clearly the problem in education and proved that it was indeed a problem. Now I take a look at what education should be. In this post, I transition from identifying the problem to looking for the solution.

We have established as a corollary of the first claim (in Part 1) that there is too much material in the curriculum that students will never need, never use, and never remember. The educational system has a duty to students to ready them for their optimal future, and overloading them and, frankly, wasting their time with information useful only in a specific field does not fulfill this duty. But discrete facts are usually applicable only to that field, so what should school teach?

School should teach concepts that transcend the barriers between fields. School should develop students as people, workers, and thinkers by enriching their perspective of the world through education. What I mean by these imprecise and lofty phrases is best illustrated with some examples.

It is more important to develop an intuition and understanding for logic and logical deduction than to memorize (and forget!) specific mathematical formulas. It is more important to develop one’s ability to communicate with others by analyzing writing techniques and great literary works than memorizing plot details of any particular book. It is far more important to understand how to avoid repeating the past than to know at what times certain events took place (although for very important events this is a reasonable requirement).

So school should teach concepts, methods, and perspectives. Discrete facts will, of course, be necessary to lend backbone and background to these key ideas but should not be the ultimate end and the end-all of education. They should instead give depth to the key ideas they support and help students know how and when to apply those key events. Facts should be a backdrop for the actual goal: to enrich students’ lives and futures.

Now let’s return to the original issue of grades. It is far easier to grade mastery of facts than to gauge overall understanding and appreciation of a subject. But remember that teachers are paid professionals and what is easy is not always best. The main question is “how do you measure understanding of concepts?”.

I express my answer with my second claim: assessments should be essays. By “assessments” I mean everything that is graded. By “essays” I mean detailed, developed written responses to open-ended prompts. Full written responses provide a medium for students to express their complete understanding both of details and the concepts that connect them. Prompts should be challenging enough so that students have to demonstrate mastery of the concepts to apply them to the prompt yet specific enough so that grading is not altogether subjective.

If these two criteria are reached, essay prompts will serve as an accurate, reliable way to measure overall understanding, which is what we have concluded really matters. The teacher can give students points for specific details (or remove points for the omission of details), but the crux of the essay is on the application and description of key ideas, and this is what we really want to measure. Multiple choice tests are not open enough to paint a whole picture of the student. All they do is generate a line chart. A good essay question can paint a far more holistic picture of the students’ overall understanding. Because an essay expresses thoughts and reasoning in addition to simple memorization, it serves to reveal much more of the essentials that multiple-choice simply can’t.

However, this conclusion doesn’t give any way to implement it in actual schools in a concrete, practical manner. In Part 3, the final post of this three-part series, I examine possible methods of implementing these changes and address whether everyone (schools, students, parents, teachers, lawmakers, etc.) can be satisfied.

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