Saturday, January 31, 2009

Case in Point: Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

There is a television show on Fox called Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader that seems to perfectly capture the irony of education today. In the show, adults compete with 11-year-old kids to answer trivia questions that are typically found on the tests these kids take during the school year. The questions include social studies, math and geography concepts. Here a some examples:
Rods and cones are found in what part of the eye?
- the cornea
- the pupil
- the retina

Which planet in our solar system has a moon named Titan?
- Saturn
- Jupiter
- Venus

What makes this show amusing to many is that quite often the students get more answers right than the adults do. Does anyone wonder why we focus our children’s education on trivia that doesn’t seem to be remembered or useful as an adult? Do the students wonder why they are tested on these facts when adults don’t seem to need to know them. I wonder!

In the Information Age we have very easy access to facts as we need them. This access has changed the way we adults behave. When we feel ill, we can look up symptoms on the internet to determine what may be the condition, the cause, and treatment. We still see doctors of course but they do not have the same absolute authority as before. They are not the only source of knowledge any more. Even my children’s pediatrician now walks in to the examination room with his lap top that helps to take constellations of symptoms and determine its cause, condition and treatment. They are not expected to have an encyclopedic memory of children’s illnesses and how to treat them. I am comforted that they have access to these tools.

In a similar fashion many people are starting to work on their own taxes this season using Turbo Tax and other such programs. We no longer need to rely on tax accountants as the sole source of meeting these needs, though we still value their specialized knowledge, especially when our taxes get complex. Even our tax accountants rely on sophisticated software to enable them to do their jobs more easily, efficiently, and accurately.

These examples show how the Information Age has empowered us. It has made knowledge common. It is shared and available for the greater good. Even very specialized fields rely on a repository of information, rather than the need to know everything.

If this is how life in the real world is now, is it necessary for our children to prepare for adulthood by memorizing isolated facts? No. But this is what standardized testing encourages. Our schools need to be places of inspiration and wonder. They need to prepare our students for adulthood by drawing out their innate and unique abilities, to cultivate a sense of curiosity, to broaden their understanding of the world. I want my children to understand how the body works as a whole and to be acquainted with vast and amazing universe we are a small part of. It is less important to memorize the names of moons and eye parts. A test should determine how well concepts have been assimilated. It should not be used to determine what to teach. That is backwards and counterproductive. Let’s not waste our children’s time in school.

Incidentally, if you did not know the answer to the example questions, you are not alone. The retina works with the rods and cones and Titan is a moon that orbits Saturn. I looked it up in seconds on the internet. I don’t need to know that kind of trivia in my day-to-day life and I bet you don’t either, unless you are an Optometrist or an Astronomer.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting points. My (almost) 3 year old is fascinated with the dinosaur museum right now and I'm amazed at all the random trivia facts we've picked up just because he's interested in dinosaurs -- but you're right, I don't think I'd want him to be tested on the teeth of a camerasaurus without the bigger context. Trivia for the sake of trivia, eh!