by Steph W.
Home schoolers and unschoolers have long understood the limitations of standardized academic standards and testing. We know that intelligence and learning are living, dynamic things that can't be easily pinned down and studied like dead creatures used as specimens. It is interesting when psychological researchers say the same thing.
I recently read some of the work of Robert J. Sternberg. He offers a three-part theory of intelligence:
- Analytical Intelligence-- solving problems and judging the quality of ideas
- Creative Intelligence -- developing your own ideas and problems to solve
- Practical Intelligence-- using these abilities effectively in everyday life.
We learn best and work most effectively when we balance these three abilities. Yet, according to Sternberg, only one -- analytical intelligence -- is measured on tests or valued in the classroom. He points out that part of the danger of this artificial, unbalanced way of teaching and assessing students is that many people will never explore a field that would fulfill their gifts and interests. Having their skills and ideas judged in a warped way, they may conclude that they are "not good" at something at which they would have excelled.
In Successful Intelligence, he writes (words in italics are my own comments):
I went to my son's English class one Parents' Day. They were studying The Odyssey. A good book -- actually, a great one. The teacher read a quote, and the students had to identify who said it, or what was happening at the time. For students who loved to memorize, that was just fine. But no one who excelled in that class was showing the talents of either a writer or a literary critic. (Or even a person who just genuinely enjoys literature, mythology, and history) And among those who did not to do well was, for all we could tell, one who had the potential talent to be the next Shakespeare.
I believe that many imaginative writers conclude early on that they are "not good at writing" because they are judged on spelling or mechanics instead of the quality of their ideas. Similarly, students with potential in math sell themselves short because they are convinced math is about computation, neatness and accuracy rather than challenging concepts and creative problem solving. This way of judging our abilities diminishes us and makes our complex intelligence seem like something one-dimensional.
I also think the way society tests and evaluates, rather than just being a reflection of prevailing theories of intelligence and learning, shapes our notions of what intelligence is. This is a dangerous trap.
Sternberg offers several interesting examples of how limited professionals are in our ability to view intelligence outside of narrow boxes. For example, he cites Joe Glick's study of the Kpelle tribe in Africa. This researcher tried to get the natives to sort terms taxonomically (into categories); for example -- fruits: apple, orange, grapefruit; vehicles: bus, boat, car. This was meant to be a revealing measure of their intellectual abilities. Instead, the Kpelle sorted functionally (e.g. apple/eat, car/gas)
When he was about the conclude that they simply lacked the mental ability for this task, Glick decided, as a last resort, to ask "How a stupid person would do it?" Then, they sorted taxonomically with no difficulty. Not being shaped by our school system and our standardized tests, they believed that functional relationships were the only thing that made sense. After all, that's the way things work in real life. Only a "stupid" person would do it differently.
Another example of the limitations of testing -- and the assumptions shaped by our test-driven culture -- came from Seymour Sarason, psychologist at Yale. He reported to his first job administering intelligence tests at a school for the mentally retarded. The day started with rounding up the students. They had cleverly eluded the complicated security system and escaped the building. Nevertheless, when they finally got settled down and were tested, they couldn't complete even the simplest levels in the Porteus Maze tests.
Similarly, Brazilian researchers found that Brazilian street children could successfully run a street business, using mathematical ability and practical intelligence. Yet they couldn't answer the same mathematical questions on a test.
I guess this reflects what home schoolers and unschoolers have known all along. Learning doesn't really occur -- nor is it reflected -- in static measures like tests. It occurs in life. Real life -- messy and unstandardized -- where people learn what they need and accomplish amazing things. Things "expert" educators and psychologists "know" they can't do. Things that make them part of their culture and shape who they are. I hope these are the things our kids are gaining through life without school. Even if they never show up on a test report.
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children -- Sarah (14), James (9) & Patricia Elizabeth (4) since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.