It is a strange thing to sit at the end of a very long, very intense road that is training to be a physician and take a look back on the winding, arduous road I took to get here.  I am now endeavoring to prove I have done all of it by gathering documentation of the past 15 years of my life in excruciating detail.  With just one final test to go, my neurology boards,  I have become an absolute master at the ubiquitous modern knowledge measuring tool, namely I can fill bubbles on a scan sheet in completely, inside the lines with a no. 2 pencil, choosing only one answer and always guessing if I don’t know.

   It is amazing how standardized tests have become the mainstay of education these days.  Colleges and medical schools use them to differentiate students, nations use them to compare their system to other nations, and No Child Left Behind uses them to set minimum standards for funding our schools.   We use them to prove we can drive in most states.  We use them to measure IQ’s all over the internet.  We use them to poll current public opinion.  We use them to test marketing for the latest breakfast sandwich.  Mensa and the triple nine society determine your eligibility for geniushood by these tests.  Everyone can be boiled down to how they fill out these neat little bubbles. 

Really, who can blame them.  These answer sheets are inexpensive, objective representations of knowledge, easily and cheaply read en masse by computer.  Bias can’t enter the grading as it is completely depersonalized, and much less arbitrary than grades across school systems.  Everyone is treated exactly the same.  No test will ever be perfect, but since refusing to measure achievement at all isn’t an option, we do what we can.

     What I find more interesting is the belief that by learning how to take these tests, you can improve your score.   Companies like Kaplan, the Princeton Review, and countless others are making fortunes off this idea, preparing anyone and everyone for the SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, USMLE, or the medical boards claiming to boost the scores in all.  Yet, these scores remain relatively flat over the 40+ years of their existence, because they are standardised. 

    This belief that the way you teach will change the test score has dramatically altered the way we teach subjects in American schools.  Protesters proclaim to anyone within earshot that these tests are distorting the way we teach our kid.  No less a figure than the former President of the University of California, Richard C. Atkinson has said

“Anyone involved in education should be concerned about how overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priorities and practices, how the test is perceived by many as unfair, and how it can have a devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students. There is widespread agreement that overemphasis on the SAT harms American education.”

    As schools fail, they do have a tendency to revert to the time tested basics, reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Sports, Music, drama, and art get phased out and the three R’s are pounded into student’s skulls.

      Coming from a neurodevelopmental point of view this is the absolute worst thing you can do.  Psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan have conceptualized this in a long body of research as two types of learning the brain uses, directed attention and fascination.  Rote learning and memorization rely on directed attention.  This is very taxing on the brain.  It takes effort and creates mental fatigue. 

     In  the history of mankind, we have only very recently been required to think this way, all day every day.   Is it any wonder attention deficit disorder has run amok in our society? 

    The Kaplans describe the symptoms of this fatigue as irritability, distractibility, impulsivity, and trouble making or following through with plans.  ADD and mental, or attention, fatigue sound like a match to me.  Our schools are asking the brain to do something it is often poorly equipped to do.  Some just aren’t born with the ability.

      The flip side of directed attention is fascination.  These are the subjects that hold our interest naturally and effortlessly.  In children, we call this play.   This is how children explore the world around them.  This is how they explore what they think it would be like to be grown up, where they observes bugs and plants up close.  The playground is the child’s laboratory.  Recent research shows that the more natural the environment, the more attention is restored as measured by objective tasks and tests and pencilled-in bubbles. 

Could it really be that recess, greener playgrounds, and field trips hold the key to improving learning in schools?  Could it be that something this simple means better scores when directing our attention to pencilling in little bubbles? 

     I wonder of taking tests at a center with an arboretum would improve SAT or ACT scores.  Sounds like a way to give Kaplan and the Princeton Review a run for their money.

     The extracurricular and elective part of education is a key part of this as well.  Far from taking away from reading, drama provides a script and attention to language of direct interest to students that English class can’t touch.

   Art is all about creativity, considered a valuable skill in most professions.  In recreating a scene, much can be observed about nature, biology, geology, geography, light, shadow, perspective, pigment, color, or sculpting.  Art is science packed.

    Music is based in counting and math, but also language.  Reading music has been compared to learning a new language and may hold some of the same cognitive benefits as learning multiple languages. 

      Sports also require attention, focus, effort, cooperation, teamwork, strategy.  All these things are skills that serve us well in life.  All these things are learned easier by fascination and direct experience than directed attention.

     Adult learning theory as developed over the past couple of decades holds that we adults learn best when we have direct real world application and interest in the subject.  What I don’t get, is why we think this is limited to adults.  Isn’t the complaint of every teenager that they won’t need to know this in the real world? 

       Fascination or play might be envisioned as learning just to learn, but you cannot deny it has a heavy dose of natural and effortless interest.  So if you’re school is squeezing out recess, electives, art or music education to prepare for state tests, perhaps they might consider this a worthy experiment.

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