I’m often asked about how I write, and while, like most writers, I’m perfectly happy to flaunt my knowledge and expertise, one of the things that I’ve learned over a long career is that almost every successful writer is unique in the way he or she approaches the craft. Oh, there are similarities, and a certain degree of grammatical competency is a necessity, but there are hundreds of variations on the theme of writerly success, and most people seem to understand this.
What most people don’t understand is that what is true in writing is also true in all professions requiring skill and thought. Once one gets beyond the mastering the necessary and basic competencies, the variations among the great and the successful are considerable. Again, the result must be outstanding, but how one uses competencies to achieve the result can differ considerably.
All that is why I’m appalled at the current educational craze for quantification and assessment along standardized lines. Using a building metaphor… that’s like saying you need to use a saw twenty percent of the time with a certain motion, a hammer thirty percent, a trowel fifteen percent, etc., regardless of what you’re building or what materials you’re using. Good and great teachers come in all flavors and talents, as do mediocre and poor ones, and trying to shoehorn teachers and students into the same methodology is a recipe for disaster.
Those who favor testing as a determinant don’t do much better, because tests essentially measure the use of certain skills in a short time period and the retention and regurgitation of information under pressure. That’s absolutely necessary in some professions, and counterproductive in others. Test are useful in measuring certain fundamental skills, such as mathematics, grammar, reading, basic history and government, but far less useful in determining how well students will apply those skills in the real world. Winston Churchill was an indifferent student at anything that bored him, but ended up winning a Nobel Prize in literature for his History of the English Speaking Peoples and The Second World War, not to mention becoming prime minister of Great Britain.
Then there is the fact that, whatever the testing methodology, it will play to the strengths of some students and against the strengths, or weaknesses, or others, while not necessarily measuring true ability. Those who think swiftly do comparatively better on objective tests, and may do less well on essay tests requiring longer concentration and focus, while slower, but surer thinkers may not do well on any form of timed test.
Yet it seems that all too many of those involved in education in the United States, whether as teachers, administrators, politicians, or parents, are looking for a magic solution that will instantly tell who is learning well and who is teaching well.
There’s no such thing, not instantly. The results are there, but they take years to show up, when it becomes clear that significant numbers of students from a school, or students who learned from a specific teacher or professor, make their marks on the world in some fashion or another. In this impatient society, that just won’t do. We need to know… now!
And so, flavour du jour solutions come and go, and rather than adapting a system that generally worked well for white middle-class and upper class students to a broader range of students, that system is being replaced with another, every few years, because no one can tell what worked and what didn’t. New buzzwords and approaches inundate the educational community almost every year, and yet there’s little improvement in the overall performance of American students, even while the “reformers” ignore those schools that have actually gotten results because they don’t fit the current new idea or they try to replicate on a large scale the results of a phenomenal teacher, ignoring the fact that great teachers are individuals and cannot be cloned, just as great writers cannot be cloned.
Excellence is individual and unquantifiable; mediocrity is shared and easily quantified.