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Will This Be On The Test? Examining Classical Education

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

An Unexamined Life

People seldom question elements of their culture unless and until those elements seem detrimental. Up until such time, you rarely hear those elements praised or even discussed. For example, you just don’t hear at the water cooler:

“Did you know some cultures in history disapproved of eye contact, but ours rewards it? Crazy!”

“This drought is killing my yard! Hey, good thing it isn’t the Bronze Age, right? Back then, we fought drought by sacrificing our children to the gods, but I really like my kids… If I had to pick, though, it might be Billy.”

If you want to change a feature of your culture, you must begin by showing how it is harmful and explaining why no one noticed before. Classical educators have such a task when it comes to the TTT, the TRADITIONAL TEACHER TEST.

You know the TTT only too well. It kept you up late cramming information into your head – info which you promptly unloaded the following weekend. It is responsible for some of the grey hairs which now adorn your temples. At some point, confronted with arcane data or a tricky maneuver, you took your life in your hands and asked, “Will this be on the test?” After some TTTs, you were reduced to wondering whether joining the circus was an option for a person without high-wire skills.

But you never said to yourself, “The TTT is a cultural construct which may or may not have value as the centerpiece of every class I take. Let me weigh the costs and benefits, and compare and contrast it with other possibilities.”

The Resistance

While you were knuckling down, which was an admirable response, a quiet rebellion was underway. Homeschoolers, Montessorians, Masons (well, Charlotte Masons), Paideians, and utopian classroom teachers were writing each other tracts about Classical Education. But what did “Classical Education” mean? Everyone meant something a little different, and the rebellion produced quite a bit of Brand Confusion from the outset. The parties came to agree on a few essentials, including an indictment of the TTT. The charges included that the TTT:

- is a contingent reality and not an inevitable feature of education

- is not a path to delight or long-term retention

- is often written very poorly; for example, it relies heavily on easy-to-grade-but-very-difficult-to-write-well multiple choice questions which provide high stakes but little insight into student learning

- is treated as the most important tool for instruction and assessment, but should have a diminished role, if any

But wait, there’s more! As the movement heated up, the rebellious voices grew more confident in their assessment of this assessment:

- A TTT should generate actionable information rather than final measurements; re-teaching and re-takes should follow when tests indicate that they are needed.

- The TTT should assess learning, not a student’s ability to read minds. A TTT should not be a guessing game. An instructor who has not communicated to students exactly what needs to be mastered for the test has failed to do his job.

And finally, and perhaps most radically:

- The TTT does not need to ask students about absolutely everything they learned and discussed. The bulk of the tested content should consist of what is necessary for every student to know not only now but months from now. It can leave out much of the content that was “covered” in favor of what students really need to carry with them. Teachers should be judicious and realistic about human learning.

Resistance to the Resistance

Perhaps you are having one of these reactions to the above:

The cynic: “The TTT is the queen of the classroom. What takes its place? We must mention that most rebellions fail because they only have a vision of what to eliminate, and so a new terror is ushered in. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The bureaucrat: “I took TTTs, and look at me – I’m great! What’s more, the TTT got us to the moon! Won’t kids go soft and start losing World Wars if they don’t have to pull all-nighters to pass a TTT that they would fail spectacularly but three months later?”

The concerned aunt: “If schools aren’t judging and measuring the kids against the most “rigorous” and thorough assessments possible, how will we know who should go to Harvard, who should go to the local CC, and who should give up and learn to weld?”

To the cynic, we reply that a wide array of assignments is ready-to-hand. Paragraphs, essays with re-writes, speeches, debates, posters with gallery walks, shorter or skill-specific tests and quizzes, and many other tasks not only do a better job assessing learning but also move students forward in their learning in the same moment.

To the bureaucrat, we reply that we could accomplish the same or more with different means. Further, we ask the bureaucrat if we can afford to continue to discard so liberally the talent that TTTs have disregarded and discouraged. For every NASA engineer produced by the TTT-based system, there is a student who learned to dislike learning. These invisible victims represent wasted human capital, if you like to think in those terms.

To the concerned aunt, we reply that school does not exist to separate the starters from the bench. If Harvard wants to know who will flourish at Harvard, that’s Harvard’s job. A school is not a talent laundering operation that exists to serve the needs of colleges or corporations. A school teaches students the material in the most effective way. A school measures for the sake of learning, and does not provide learning for the sake of measurement.

A school is attentive to truth, goodness, and beauty, with its eyes on the eternal destiny of the soul and the skills and knowledge required for living out the call to holiness. Unlike human pupils, who are irreplaceable, every assessment strategy can be replaced. If the TTT does not serve the purpose, it loses its place.

Advocating Alternatives: The Brass Tacks

I am only one humble teacher with no official role in The Resistance. The nature of rebels, however, is not to wait for authorization before publishing manifestos. So here is my summary of guidelines for adapting the TTT for classical use.

- You will need to consider with great care what sits at the core and what is simply nice to know.

- Course grades should reflect engagement and core mastery. If you include a TTT as part of your teaching, weight it accordingly.

- As a rule, unit TTTs in a classical mode are significantly shorter and allow for course-cumulative questions. Course-cumulative questions are important to ask if you mean to encourage retention of critical information rather than to habituate students to cram and regurgitate.

- If you are writing a unit’s TTT, you should be working from your list of unit objectives, the same list you used to plan your lessons. All of your objectives should be transparent to the students so that they know what is most important to study, and this should be true from the outset of the unit; provide a study guide or unit cover sheet on day 1 of lesson 1 of the unit. Promote student learning even more by explaining how you (or your curriculum-map-maker) decided what was most important to know.

- Following Robert Marzano, a bright light of modern/establishment educational thought and certainly no “Classical Education” partisan, a TTT should come about 3/4 of the way through a unit, giving space for refinement, re-teaching, and exploring the knowledge in a more-interesting and less-pressured mode.

- You can ask many of the same questions you were asking before, but grade them differently. For example, if you use multiple choice or true/false questions, instruct students to explain their thinking. Give partial credit when students have demonstrated partial learning. Work on asking excellent questions!

-Writing an appropriate TTT is difficult. Doing so is more difficult still if you wait until a few days before you need to give it. Write it first, before teaching a unit, so as to begin with the end in mind. You can edit the test as you teach the unit, but you should start with a good test, and you should teach to it.

- Always keep students first. The test is but a tool in our education bag, not the reason the bag exists. The test is made for student learning, not student learning for the test.

Thanks for Reading and for Teaching! Send me a message if you have thoughts to add!

Photo Credit: Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

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