Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Learning at School,Test-Free

So I've heard that kids are taking these new tough tests this week in elementary schools across New York. I've seen some nasty-hard sample questions on Facebook, and I've heard stories of students and teachers and parents all getting nervous about what the results will say about them, and/or the new standards.

It's all rumors to me, because my kids go to a progressive (private, Jewish) school, so they don't take those tests. In fact, my kids, thus far, don't take tests. Period.

(I know what you're thinking. How will they ever get into Harvard? Or, for that matter, Columbia or Wesleyan?)

The differences between styles of education can and will be debated from here until the end of time, but the subject is in high relief for me this week because the high-stakes testing in neighboring schools happened to coincide with our spring conferences.

Yesterday, Bella talked us through her achievements thus far in fourth grade at her portfolio conference--a parent-teacher-student conversation, which is progressive education's answer to the classic parent-teacher conference. Her portfolio was amazing, not because it was fancy or typed or decorated or perfect, but because it was a selection of the varied work that Bella has done this year--work that she herself chose, explained, and reflected upon.

When parents complain about progressive education, they often say they feel like their kids aren't learning anything. In an educational environment that de-emphasizes tests, homework, and other quantifiable measures of achievement, the majority of the learning takes place during school hours, and within school walls. Parents don't see the learning, because they aren't present when it is happening.

The portfolio conference, for me, was like a flash-flood of evidence of all the learning that is occurring. Throughout the year, students select samples of their work from each subject, and write their thoughts about what they enjoyed and found challenging in doing the work. The result is an impressive, highly personal record of each child's individual learning and their thoughts about what they learned. That binder demonstrates the real purpose of education: to help kids grow as thinkers.

This wasn't the first time I was won over, in a conference, to the benefits of child-centered, constructivist education. Josh and I once attended a 45-minute parent-teacher preschool conference during which the teacher showed us our kid's art, showed a photo of her making the art, and read from a transcription of the conversation that took place while she was making the art. This all, by the way, was when she was age three. At that Reggio Emilia - style preschool, there was a real belief in the value of the thoughts and intentions and creativity of young children. It may sound over-the-top--it's just preschool, I get it--but without doubt we left that conference confident that her teacher knew her as an individual, enjoyed her, and valued her as someone capable of achieving wondrous things. It was kind of awesome.

Of course, Bella's older now and we expect different things from her school. (If only there was as much art education in elementary school.)

We didn't need the spring conferences to tell us that our kids are learning things at school, as they tell us themselves about their units of study, and we see them developing and growing as curious, thinking people. But as a parent, it's nice to see the evidence.

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