In 2009, a Nigerian novelist named Chimamanda Adichie gave a rousing TED talk called “the dangers of a single story”. She made it clear that there is a great risk in reducing complex human beings to a single narrative. While she spoke of the narratives in a cultural context, her central idea, I think, has a broader application. Around the world, our education systems are clinging to a single story of academic ability, based wholly on test scores. It’s a story as old as time, but with a very high stake ending. If you score well in tests, you’ll go on to succeed in college and career and live happily ever after. If not, then your life will go down the tubes and you will live miserably thereafter. This story is the reason why the testing culture has become overwhelmingly predominant in our schools. Rather than using tests as a diagnostic tool for instructional support, test scores are used to rank children’s academic ability on a very narrow spectrum. Throughout their school years, children shuffle from one test to the other, with the singular goal to increase their score and not necessarily to improve the quality of their learning. In the U.S., children who attend public schools take an average of 112 state-mandated tests between pre-kindergarten and grade 12, excluding any school-developed tests, teacher-designed tests or diagnostic tests. The number of tests are so high that teachers, quite literally “teach to the test” and spend over a month preparing students for each state-mandated exam. In China, the test culture is so stressful that students who attend the GaoKao matriculation examination, resort to extreme measures such as attaching themselves to IV drips for energy boosts. And recently in India, scores of anxious parents scaled school walls during an examination to provide their children with answers to the tests, thus resulting in a mass expulsion of those students.
The problem with overemphasis of testing is that it often obscures the true purpose of assessment. The only function of assessment is to inform the student of what they know and can do during or at the end of a unit of learning compared to what they should know. Formative tests are meant to act as a diagnostic tool to improve instruction so that the instructor can identify muddy areas and alter instruction to better suit the learners’ needs. However, the form of tests that we have today take a more judgemental tone rather than a diagnostic one, and with a demoralizing effect rather than an empowering one. Test results should reveal the complexity of learning rather than reducing them to a single number or grade.
When we reduce students’ intellectual ability to a single number or grade, we overlook the diversity of talents and strengths that they inherently possess. This is mostly because our education system assesses only for a certain kind of intelligence, while excluding other kinds. Howard Gardner, a professor in cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the “father” of multiple intelligences theory, warned, “We must proceed cautiously before we place students’ minds and hearts at risk with tests whose meaning can be over-interpreted and whose consequences can be devastating. Educators and parents should value the development of knowledge and skills that go beyond a single test.” Our education systems take a very narrow definition of what constitutes as intelligence and ability. I think it was Einstein who once said, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.” Our education systems currently have a few students who fit perfectly well into our notion of intelligence and ability, while the vast majority are disenfranchised by the system. Research indicates that almost 2,000 high schools across the United States graduate less than 60% of their students. Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. According to a recent report by UNESCO, 47 million children have dropped out of schools across India before Grade 10. Continued enrolment in 2016 alone dropped from 77% to 52% in each high school grade level. These large dropout percentages demonstrate that our education systems are failing our children.
The solution lies in changing the narrative. First, we need to agree that the purpose of education lies outside of the culture of relentless testing. Jiddu Krishnamurti once said that education must reveal two worlds to young people: one that is within them and one that exists around them. A lot of our education system focuses on the external world. But we fail to address the inner world that lives within our children, that holds their own strengths, talents, hopes and dreams. Second, to bring our children’s’ strengths and talents to surface, we must broaden our understanding of the range of human diversity that naturally exists. According to creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, “human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability. At the heart of the challenge is to reconstitute a sense of ability and intelligence.” Children prosper with a broad curriculum that draws out their various talents, not just a small range of them. Non-academic classes such as sports and the fine arts, need to be given equal status and weightage as traditional academic classes such as math and sciences. Third, we need to help children learn and thrive by investing in their strengths while reducing our fixation on their deficits. The culture of testing on a narrow spectrum of academic ability lays an overemphasis on our children’s shortcomings, while their strengths are rarely revealed to us. A deficiency based approach to learning through test scores focuses heavily on what children do not know or can’t do. If we don’t offset this with a strength-based approach, our children will be at risk of being lost, demoralized or disengaged from learning altogether. If we can shift the goal of education to drawing out strengths from our children’s inner worlds, then we recognize that this means different paths and destinations for different children. And different stories. There isn’t one ending set in stone for students who score well or poorly on tests. Life is a great deal larger than that. While nations around the world are grappling with how best to educate our children, it may behoove us all to pay heed to the wisdom of Chimamanda Adichie and reconsider the dangers of a single story.
By Ms. Kiran Pai, Director
Issued on Forbes India Marque Edition