Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Timed Tests are Stupid

I have a friend who thinks that one of the main criteria of intelligence is knowing lots of facts. This same friend believes that another defining characteristic of intelligence is speed. This friend thinks that I am somewhat smart. I read a lot (and widely) so there are a lot of facts stored away in my head. I also have fairly fast recall, though not as fast as it was when I was younger.

On the surface, my friend’s picture of intelligence makes sense. It is certainly one that correlates highly with good grades in school. If possessed in sufficient quantities, factual knowledge and ready access to those facts make standardized tests relatively easy.

I like taking tests. Especially standardized tests. I always have. I find them pretty easy and I LOVE the added element of a severe time limit. I do well under pressure and usually score pretty high. As a 50-year old, I have very few opportunities in my life to take standardized tests any more. So instead I get my ego stroked by playing trivia games and doing timed crossword puzzles on the New York Times’ website. I am not proud to admit that I do these things, because I know that deep down they really do serve just one purpose—to make me feel good about myself.

As a product of schools that graded based on timed recall of facts, I used to believe that intelligence was a thing you could measure in just exactly that way—gauge how many facts a person knew and how quickly they could recall them. But once I became a teacher, I saw how utterly wrong, and even destructive, this view of intelligence is for so many kids.

If I develop a pain in my abdomen that won’t go away, that seems to move around a bit, that doesn’t respond to antacids, that wakes me up in the night, and seems worse after I eat dairy products, eventually I will go to a doctor. And once I describe my symptoms to the doctor, if she is flummoxed and no obvious diagnosis comes to her right away the LAST thing I want her to do is to take a guess.



If my car starts to run a little rough, (especially in the rain), and it makes a knocking sound when it idles below 1500 RPMs, and it has a bit of trouble accelerating up hills, I will take it to a mechanic. If, after hearing the list of symptoms, the mechanic cannot say exactly what is wrong I do not want her to just replace the fuel injectors.



In both cases I want the expert to do some digging. I want them to research my symptoms and ask follow up questions and to take it out for a test drive—(the car, not my abdomen). I want them to slowly and methodically isolate the problem and then help me fix it.

The factors that make a doctor or an auto mechanic good are careful listening, a deep pool of basic knowledge and experience with bodies and cars, a network of colleagues to consult with, excellent research skills, an ability to focus, an ability to think critically, and a reservoir of patience.

These are the very same skills we should be developing in students. Notice that high among these skills is a deep pool of basic knowledge. We should absolutely be teaching facts. Memorizing multiplication tables, state capitals, planets, the periodic table, countries of the world, and all sorts of other facts is a good thing and should not be tossed aside in favor of teaching critical thinking.  But this sort of list-based learning should be seen for what it is—a necessary preliminary step and NOT the true measure of intelligence.

I have been thinking a lot about timed tests recently. My daughter is a sophomore in high school and she has tests all the time. Most of the tests are given in a 45-minute class period with no time later to finish what you did not get to or to check over your work. Is this really a good way to test what people know? If you really want to find out what students know, wouldn’t you give them enough time to let them show you what they know rather than increasing their anxiety and making it more likely they will make mistakes?



Seems pretty basic, doesn’t it? Yet timed tests are still the most common way teachers and states evaluate what students have learned. As someone with many years of classroom teaching experience, I get it. Schools are organizations built on structure and predictability.

Put bluntly, schools need to move hundreds or even thousands of kids through their day with maximum predictability and minimum friction. In most high schools, the master schedule is driven by the size of the cafeteria—how many kids can eat lunch 4th period? 5th period? 6th period? If school systems really valued student learning as the top priority, class schedules would look very different, as would tests.

When I go to the doctor or the mechanic I do not give them a 43 minute time limit to correctly diagnose the problem. Then why do we add the unnecessary element of time to our evaluations of what kids have learned?

If I am in a car crash and trapped behind the wheel with a collapsed lung, I want the rescue crew to get me out of there as fast as possible. But reading a passage and answering comprehension questions is not a life and death situation. Why do we treat it like it is? Working through a complex geometry problem involving the quadratic equation quickly will never save someone’s life—so why do teachers and schools continue to use timed tests to find out what kids know?

It is a well-known truism among teachers that what you test on should reflect what you value. In a twisted way, our utter over-reliance on timed tests bears this out. As a society we value speed and busy-ness. We do not seem to value quiet reflection or the student who says “let me think my way through this.”

I understand that all of this is really just a reflection of the deeper problem of education in America. We still don’t agree on what schools are for. Are they a great democratizing place where our kids go and all of them learn facts, but also learn how to find, process, consolidate, evaluate, and synthesize information in order to be citizens who can participate fully in our democracy? Or are they the place we send kids to train them for whatever entry-level jobs will demand of them? Do we want our schools to help our kids come to their own well-founded, well-considered conclusions or do we want them to be able to produce a lot of factual information quickly?


You value what you test.

Monday, June 6, 2016

GOP Primary Voters---You're Fired!

There are some Republicans who believe that John McCain and Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama because they were not conservative enough. This group of GOP voters pinned all of their hopes on Ted Cruz this time around. Without harping on Cruz or his fans, let me just say that we all saw how that turned out.

I disagree strongly with the above-mentioned conservatives’ analysis of the elections of 2008 and 2012. McCain and Romney did not lose because they were not conservative enough. McCain lost because he showed godawful judgment in wanting to place Sarah Palin one old-man-heartbeat away from the nuclear launch codes. He also lost because Americans were sick and tired of George Bush and wanted a change. Mitt Romney lost because he was simply not likable, though he could never get himself to this conclusion.

Heading into this year’s long primary season I was a bit concerned. You see, I am a latte-drinking, quinoa eating, NPR listening, NY Times reading, climate change believing liberal and I know how rarely a two-term president is followed by someone from the same party. I figured the Democrats would nominate Hillary Clinton and I knew she had very high negatives.

I saw the Republicans had a few candidates who were somewhat likeable. They had Jeb Bush. They had Marco Rubio. They had John Kasich. It seemed like even odds to me that the Republicans would win the White House. It was certainly within their grasp.

GOP primary voters had just one job to do and the Presidency of the United States of America could be theirs. All they had to do was nominate someone less unlikeable than Hillary Clinton. That's it. That is all they had to do. One thing. One job…and they chose Donald Trump.


Republican voters---you’re fired.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

All That You Have is Your Soul

I heard an old Tracy Chapman song a few days ago. It’s a song I have always loved for its simple message and heartfelt delivery. It could have been cheesy, but instead its simple beauty hits me like a slap to the face every time I hear it. Line after line of truth, followed by the repeated deeper truth of “all that you have is your soul.”

Just before I heard the song, I had heard a report on the local public radio station about a bill in New York that, if passed, would make New York the sixth state in the nation to allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives by taking a prescribed dose of lethal medicine. The reporter interviewed supporters and opponents of the bill and allowed each a few sentences to explain their positions.

If that reporter were to have asked me my opinion of the bill, I would have said New York State should adopt the bill immediately. For my reason I would simply sing the refrain from Tracy Chapman’s song: All that you have is your soul.

It is easy to go long stretches without considering the fact that you yourself will one day die. As a child the idea is so remote and unlikely as to be almost impossible to truly consider. At some point, someone close dies and if we are old enough when that happens for the first time, we can’t help but come around to the thought that one day we will also be dead. But then, if you are like most people, you shove that thought aside and get on with life.

Which is the right thing to do. Living in fear of death as a young person is unnatural.

But then you hit middle age. Maybe a friend dies young and you go to the funeral. Your own inevitable death looms a bit larger, but still you put those thoughts aside. You have work to do, a life to lead. Your own death might become something you start to plan for a bit—you write a will, you look into insurance—but still it is more hypothetical than immediate.

Maybe while lying in bed one night you broach the subject with your spouse. You talk a bit about your wishes—burial or cremation? Big memorial service or small gathering of close friends and family? Heroic measures or pull the plug? But again, you quickly make a light joke of it by calling dibs on getting to go first.  Then you change the subject before turning out the light.

And then a parent dies. It knocks you flat. One, because your mother or father is gone forever. And two, (if you are honest) because your own unavoidable end rises up in front of you in a way you cannot deny. There will come a day when you will no longer be. And your children, if you have any, will feel as lost as you do in the aftermath. As far as we can tell, humans are the only species whose members carry with them an awareness of their own impending death.

Which means we also have the opportunity to plan ahead for our own death.  Of course, many of us die in a way that does not allow for much planning. We have a heart attack; we have an accident; we have a stroke. But a fair number of people die of diseases that kill slowly and painfully over time.  It is precisely circumstances like these that allow for us to have conversations with people we love about our exact wishes. People lie in bed in the dark side by side and say things like “If I ever get to the point where I am being kept alive by machines, I want you to pull the plug.”

And states throughout the country have recognized the power of these spoken wishes time and again.  If we are beyond the help of modern medicine with no signs of conscious mental function and no likelihood of ever coming back to consciousness, our loved ones can ask that our wishes be honored and we be allowed to die.

But what if we are not that far gone? What if, instead, we have a fatal disease and we are taking inevitable steps toward our own death, but we are still conscious and able to feel pain? In five states you would have the option of asking a physician to help you die. In 45 states, you would be told the choice to live or die is not yours—it is the state’s.


And this is where I come back to Tracy Chapman and “All That You Have is Your Soul.” I believe that when you are born there is one thing you own and that is your own self. It can be easy to believe we own many other things as we grow up, fall in love, get jobs, have children, and accumulate people and things. The house we live in, the car we drive, the partner we marry, the children we have----all of these can come to feel like they are ours. But really, they are not. These things come and they go and in the end there is nothing you can do to stop them.

In the end, the only thing that is yours is your own soul. And if you are at the point where medical science is useless and you are tired of constant pain and the indignity of being unable to feed yourself or wash yourself or even get yourself to the toilet and you decide you are ready to die, you should be able to ask a doctor to prescribe you a lethal dose of medicine so you can have one least measure of control over your own life.


The Medical Aid in Dying Act was introduced in the New York State Legislature this week to provide for this very control.  I will write to my state legislators right away to let them know I support this bill. In the end, whose life is it? Mine? Or New York States?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

I Know Why the Wild Chimps Throw Things

Hjalmar S. Kuhl and Ammie K. Kalan have published a paper in Nature’s “Scientific Reports” documenting a never-before-seen behavior among chimpanzees in four West African populations. You can read their report here.  

The authors hypothesize that the behavior they witnessed may hint at the beginnings of ritual and possibly even an awareness of the concept of the sacred among these chimps.  NPR picked up the story and wrote their own piece, titled “Why Do Wild Chimpanzees Throw Stones at Trees?

I have my own theory about this behavior:



There is a tree in my backyard with a small hole in it. The hole is roughly head-high and about the size of a regulation baseball. Also in my backyard, depending on the time of year, are many heavy black walnuts in their protective green sheaths. When held in the palm of the hand they have a really pleasing heft and they look like this:


As the green coverings split and rot away, the walnuts look more like this:


When these walnuts are on the ground, in either form, I cannot help but pick them up and throw them at the hole in the tree. It would be a waste of time to explain the set of rules that have developed over time for this one-person game. In the end, they are irrelevant. It is just something I do. The action has no religious or sociological meaning. It is simply deeply satisfying on a level far, far below intelligent thought. 

Once every 100 throws or so, I’ll actually get a walnut in the hole.  On those days, life is good.

I also throw rocks at a small circular orange bit of metal set on the end of a steel rod and marking the site of a fire hydrant on a path near Ithaca’s West Hill Community Garden. The metal disc is roughly the same size as the hole in the tree, as you can see here:



I walk my dogs in this area fairly often and by now they have gotten accustomed to waiting for me while I throw three stones—no more, no less—in an effort to hit the disk. Again, over time a set of rules has developed for this activity. And again, it would be a waste of time (and maybe even a bit alarming to you) if I were to explain them here. I have far less success at this challenge than I do with the walnuts and the tree. I have hit the disk a total of two times in hundreds and hundreds of attempts. On those days, life is great.

This feeling is all I need to understand what these chimps are doing.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Here is How Donald Trump Becomes Our Next President


If Michael Bloomberg does indeed launch a third-party bid for the Presidency, Donald Trump may be our next President. Don’t stop reading—hear me out. It really could happen. And the scenario is not all that far-fetched.

Here is how it would play out:

Donald Trump either wins or comes in a close second in Iowa. He then wins New Hampshire. At that point, 5 or 6 of the other Republican candidates (Fiorina, Kasich, Pataki, Paul, Christie, and Santorum) drop out of the race. Marco Rubio, Jeb! Bush, and Ted Cruz all stay in. Cruz takes South Carolina and Trump takes Nevada. Jeb! and Marco Rubio split the “native son” vote in Florida and Donald Trump beats them both in their own state.  All 4 try to hang on until March 1—Super Tuesday. Trump emerges from Super Tuesday with the largest number of delegates and Marco Rubio drops out, figuring he’s young and will have more chances down the road. Jeb! would also drop out at this point, having too much pride to stay in a race in which he is losing to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump goes on the win the nomination because Ted Cruz is quite possibly the most unlikeable person I have seen on the national stage since George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, and Antonin Scalia. At least Trump is entertaining—Cruz is just a smug know-it-all whose thirst for power is really off-putting, even to other Republicans.



On the Democratic side, there are several paths that lead to a Trump Presidency. No matter which of the Democrats gets the nomination, you can see the how s/he could lose in November. If it is Bernie Sanders, the Republicans scare the hell out of America by using the word “Socialist” in every sentence they speak. If it is Hillary Clinton, a final report comes out about her ill-advised use of a private e-mail server for State Department business and it concludes that she did indeed keep and send secrets. This plays into the already-common doubts about her trustworthiness and her candidacy is fatally tainted.

At this point, former NY City mayor Michael Bloomberg steps into the race and runs as an Independent candidate for President. He spends a billion dollars of his own fortune and attracts many independents, who make up fully 39% of registered voters in the United States.

On Election Day in November none of the three candidates wins enough states to garner 270 electoral votes.  In this case, the power to chose our next President goes to the House of Representatives. The Constitution states that the House must choose from among the top three vote-getters. However, the way the House chooses matters.

It matters a LOT.  It is not a case of one person, one vote. Rather, each state delegation gets just one vote. The current configuration of the House has just 13 state delegations that are majority Democratic in membership. 37 states have more Republicans than Democrats. So if the 13 states with Democratic majorities in the House all vote for Hillary/Bernie, that leaves a shortfall of 13 Republican-dominated state delegations that would need to vote for Bernie/Hillary to make him/her President.  That would never happen.

Either Donald Trump or Michael Bloomberg would need to get 26 state delegations to vote for him in order to become President.  I cannot imagine 26 Republican-led groups of US Representatives voting for Michael Bloomberg, with his history of vocal and financial advocacy for stricter gun control laws, to be our next President.

Donald Trump would win, pretty much by default.


When The Donald descended on his escalator to the strains of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and the cheers of his (paid) audience of “supporters,” I did not take him seriously. I still don’t, but that does not mean he cannot win.