I feel like I am in the blockbuster film The Matrix, plugged into a system that is a farce, yet knowing a better reality.
Big Picture Learning
Like many parents of high school juniors, I sat in front of my computer several weeks after the PSAT searching for my child’s results. As an educator and staunch believer in personalized, real-world learning, I was filled with emotions I wanted to deny. My role as mom quieted my better judgment, bending my mind into submission to traditional education norms.
I am ever-present to the thought that childhood is almost over for my 16-year-old son, Nick. In less than two years, he will be unleashed from the compulsory education system and launched (or left) to find his way in the world. It is both exciting and scary, if I am being honest.
But, somehow a singular event, a few hours of his life, seems to have taken hold of our family like a snarly octopus holding each of us in its tentacle grip. While college entrance exams have failed to demonstrate a high correlation to college matriculation (not to mention life fulfillment and happiness), they, like many other standardized tests, continue to reign supreme in the minds of educators, students, and families. They cast a hologram not of what is but of what others deem will be.
I opened the email from the pre-college entrance exam company, half-holding my breath, sweat forming on my brow as I read the results. Now what?
It is laughable to imagine that a simple test has such a tremendous impact, but this is the residue of the political “good idea” of standardized testing. We have devoured standardized testing in the US K-12 system, making decisions about the very essence of school from it. We have latched on to it and it to us like this omnipotent, omniscient oracle. We worship it, converting school administrators, teachers, families, and students to revere it, as well. Rarely if ever, do we question if it is best.
Truth is, standardized testing feeds the system. It is easy to read numbers and percentages and create narratives in our heads about who students are and what they’re capable of. It is easy for school and district leaders to make a case for more resources or deserving accolades with “real” numbers.
We have conjured up a game that has distracted us from the true goal and power of education, leaning in and contributing to a healthy society, tapping personal fulfillment and purpose, and making sense of life. And, all of this comes at a cost.
In the past decade, we’ve seen school safety and student mental health decline. We are cementing narrow conceptions of achievement and success neatly in career pathways and college readiness matrices that continue to fall short as predictors of either. We have tied ourselves to old ways of doing things while preaching deep desires for innovation.
I feel like I am in the blockbuster film The Matrix, plugged into a system that is a farce, yet knowing a better reality. I wish we were all channeling our inner-Neo, swallowing the blue pill (not to mention our ego and apparent need to have fast, general data to drive every decision), and looking the system in its face as we dismantle it. I wish we would finally unleash education from a standardized system that forces all of us on a hamster wheel, instead of a path of lifelong learning.
This is not to say that all testing is bad, but we have allowed it to be the summation of education and created a competition fueled by quickly proving, at all costs, that we are schooling kids with fast-paced content delivery, when the research on adolescent learning says we should be focused somewhere else entirely.
As a Big Picture Learning educator, I have embraced that education is highly personal, emergent, life-long, real, and dare I say, messy. I’ve witnessed young learners and adults focus their attention on something that matters to them and explore it deeply, bridging connections in the community and discovering content intersections understood in typical K-12 classrooms but often siloed into discrete subjects and courses.
I have seen what happens when you stop telling learners what to do and when to do it, and instead guide and advise them as they figure themselves out. I have contributed to the powerful dialogue of authentic assessments that ask: What have you learned? What must you still learn? Where do you need to go next?
I have seen what happens when you stop telling learners what to do and when to do it, and instead guide and advise them as they figure themselves out.
Big Picture Learning
All of this makes me wonder what would be possible if we completely embraced an approach like this across our education system, for all kids—an education that is truly personal.
Please let me be clear. Swallowing the blue pill will reveal an unsettling reality, one that challenges us to have difficult conversations about equity, liberation, and what it means to be educated. It reveals how we see community and the globe as part of an ecosystem and how we redistribute decision-making when it comes to learning. We will need to recalibrate the roles of adults and tap into our humanity as we learn to understand who young people are and pay attention to cultivating assets, instead of agitating perceived deficits.
But, if we are willing to take all those things on, I (and we) can imagine an education system that embraces lifelong learning—not driven by urgency and a single score on a test—but by individual purpose. I can imagine a new future for education.
After I opened the email from the pre-college entrance company, I sat in frustration not at Nick but at us, the ones who know better. As his mom, I want Nick to have a life that is fulfilling, purposeful, healthy, and joyful. I want him to see and value his talents, offering them to the world to make it better. I want him to understand what it means to be passionate enough about something that he dedicates his energy toward its existence.
Above all things, I pray he doesn’t rest on his laurels or doubt himself because of a number on a test.