Is this going to be on the test?

I’ve been a teacher for 31 years.

Never in any of that time was it not the case that students wanted me to teach to the test.  “Is this going to be on the test?” is the single most asked question I have received.  If I were to tell the students the material was not on the test, the majority would have tuned out immediately.

There have been the few…a very thin layer indeed…who have actually wanted to learn the material deeply, who asked, “Why?” and weren’t content with “Because.” as an answer.  I have cherished each of those students.  They are the reason I have been able to come back to teach every year.  It is for them that I refuse to give up.

I still cling to my old ways.  While I am in no stretch of anyone’s conception what could be called a traditional type person, I trust in the fact that thousands of years of human endeavor have taught us how to teach one another.  It is not a new skill.  Trying to reinvent it, as has been done in recent years is absurd, to my way of thinking.  We might as well pass initiatives to reinvent breathing.

Last night about how it came to be that I had such exquisite handwriting, I posted

When I was a graduate student…
…I decided to learn mathematics the old way.  I took notes in my classes and when I got home, I copied them carefully into book blanks…sort of like how mathematics was learned by the monks who copied the old words over and over during the Dark and Middle Ages.

If I didn’t understand something, I didn’t write it in the book until I did.

Effort.  I succeeded through effort…with a modicum of inspiration.  It helped that I had some special gifts.  I can’t deny that being smart helps.  But I succeeded because I was willing to learn what was being taught.  That meant I was willing to learn more than was going to be on the test.

I would never have dreamed to utter the words, “If it’s not on the test, why are you wasting time teaching it?”  It has always made me cringe when those words have oozed out of one of my students.  They are the mark of the beast, the neon sign floating above that student which says, “I am not willing to work on this subject unless forced to do so.  I am willing to fail.”

As my heart sinks, I try to patiently explain to my students that I do not know what is on the exam, if indeed there is going to be one, until a few days before it is given.  I explain how it has come to pass that I don’t believe it is fair to them for me to know what the questions are going to be beforehand.  I tell how it is my job to tell them the story they need to learn in order to be able to pass any test on the material…and that I take this responsibility seriously.  I bear my soul.  Most of them roll their eyes.  I know I am speaking to the few.

What makes it so hard to struggle onward is that the question, “If it’s not on the test, why are you wasting time teaching it?”  If not in those precise words, that has been the interpretation I place on No Child Left Behind and the present higher education initiatives.  The difference with now is that the question is coming from On High. 

This administration is not filled with such knowledge-seekers.  When I look at George W. Bush, that neon sign is flashing above his head.  “I am willing to fail.”

Good job, George.  You have succeeded.

What is sad is that he has managed to bring the rest of us down with him.


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    • Robyn on September 8, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    …in Teacher’s Lounge.


  1. What makes it so hard to struggle onward is that the question, “If it’s not on the test, why are you wasting time teaching it?”

    sheesh! because life is a test, and you never know what’s going to be on it. this could come in handy, so stop squirming, and open your notebook.

    what a distressing state of affairs, robyn. we’re going to be countering the deleterious consequences of george bush for years to come in so many areas–public education is absolutely among them.

  2. I appreciate this very much, Robyn. And I am glad that you found your core to continue on when faced by this.

    But I just had an aha moment about this subject.  Tell me what you think.

    Asking whether one has to learn something is akin to toddlers grimacing in the face of tasting new foods. And then comes the inevitable, “Do I HAVE to eat this?”  “Why do I have to eat it?”  “How much do I have to eat?” “Do I have to swallow it?”  “EEEWWWW!” All before taking the first taste.

    That food is the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and you as teacher, are the chef who is preparing it for consumption, are making it tempting with brilliant color, are seasoning it with intriguing taste, are mixing the ingredients into an interesting texture, are basting it to unlock savory aromas, and are creating an irresistible presentation.

    Instead of giving a dry lecture emphasizing all of the reasons that the food is good for one, you instead, create drama, interest and involvement in exploring, tasting and savoring it.

    The ingester soon learns how much better he/she feels after eating it. She enjoys all of the beauty of the food.  The senses are engaged, and the food is looked to with anticipation. The recipe is learned, is changed to suit the individual’s tastes, and is integrated into the diet, meals and food enjoyment, thus improving the quality of life.

    The student eventually transforms from the passive consumer of the information to the user, and then ultimately the integrator and generator of new knowledge.

    That’s why you’re teaching it.  Thats why the student is learning it.

    How’d I do?

    • byteb on September 8, 2007 at 8:44 pm

    beyond the limited comprehension of Bush. Complex questions and issues are beyond his ken. He needs black and white in order to function. Black and white and white answers.
    Imagine teaching George Bush in college? Jeebus.

    • melvin on September 8, 2007 at 10:47 pm

    My semi-son used to draw all the time on big sheets of butcher paper.

    Then he started school. A few weeks later I asked him why he hadn’t drawn anything lately.

    “I’m not any good.”

  3. In my experiences, those teachers that I have had who “taught to the test” tended to lead the most dreadful of lectures. This includes my collegiate experiences (especially so, actually).

    One of my most influential professors in college was a professor in the history department (my major) that taught with such a frenetic energy that my notebooks were full of names, words and connective arrows (matching his scrawl across the many blackboards in the lecture hall) to such an extent to be nearly useless for studying purposes.

    But, in that first class with this professor, I learned more about political theory, philosophy and, most importantly, critical thinking, than I did in the vast majority of my courses to follow (except those half dozen other courses taught by this professor).

    This is the cost of NCLB, a loss of critical thinking, talented teachers being handcuffed by “staying on the script” and a generation of children growing without learning how to question “why?”.

  4. A professor of mine in graduate school not only taught me, he changed my life.

    He taught theology and I was in the midst of leaving all the fundamentalist christianity in which I had been raised behind. I took every course of his I could, but was still trying to make it all my own.

    So I met with him privately and asked him what I could read or what class I could take to continue the journey. Here are his words to me:

    “What you need is formation not information…and that comes through relationship and dialogue.”

    Then he offered to meet with me weekly to continue my journey.

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