Thursday, June 30, 2011

Charlotte Mason on competitive examinations

As I continue to read through the works of Charlotte Mason, I’m now approaching the end of volume 2, Parents and Children. I have skipped many parts which are theologically contrary, but my attention was caught by chapter XX, which talks about competitive examinations. I was struck by how much of what Charlotte Mason wrote back then rings very true for today. Here are a few select paragraphs I would like to share with you.

“The fact that successful examination of one sort or another is the goal towards which most of our young people are labouring with feverish haste and with undue anxiety, is one which possibly calls for the scrutiny of the investigating Why?”

“The tendency of the grind is to imperil that individuality which is the one incomparably precious birthright of each of us. The very fact of a public examination compels that all who go in for it must study on the same lines.”  (emphasis mine)

“As to the manner of study, this is ruled by the style of questions set in a given subject; and Dry-as-dust wins the day because it is easier and fairer to give marks upon definite facts than upon mere ebullitions of fancy or genius.”

Here I must make the remark that the further I got in my school career, the more popular multiple choice questions have become. The lion’s share of our final high school examination were multiple choice questions, and even more so in university. The Israeli psychometric exam, which determines at least half the chances of the student in getting into university, is based entirely upon multiple choice questions and how quickly one can answer them. The result is that people are learning not to know, but to guess correctly. Many of the lessons that aim to prepare students for such examinations actually focus around how to guess which answer might make more sense. Multiple choice questions are a breeze for teachers to go over, but they leave absolutely no room for individual expression or for correct and precise wording of one’s ideas.

“The child wants to know; wants to know incessantly, desperately; asks all manners of questions about everything he comes across, plagues his elders and betters, and is told not to bother, and to be a good boy and not ask questions.”

“When Tommy goes to school, his parents find themselves relieved of the inconvenience of his incessant Why? They are probably so well pleased to be let off that it does not occur to them to ask themselves, Why Tommy no longer wonders Why?”

This way of being engrossed in competitive examinations is especially sad in young children. I have tutored 4 and 5-graders, and when I have tried to spark their interest in things not strictly related to their textbook, I was told, “this is not going to come up in our examinations next Tuesday; we must concentrate on the examinations.” Natural curiosity was either totally driven out or at least deeply dormant in those children, replaced by the pressure to excel in exams.

“Once upon a time… there arose a pedagogue to whom was discovered a new and easier way. The morning had seen the poor man badly baffled by the queries of boys who wanted to know. How was a man, who was pretty well done with fresh studies for his own part, to keep up with these eager intelligences? … Eureka! A discovery… no need for cane and imposition, for emulation is the best of all disciplinarians – and steady-going, quiet work, without any of the fatiguing excursions into new fields to which the craving for knowledge leads.”

In an average-numbered class, which in Israel is between 30 to 40 pupils and sometimes more, the poor teacher is indeed forced by circumstances to concentrate on the minimal requirement of ensuring attendance, keeping the class quiet and minimizing discipline problems. Streamlined, easy-to-regulate tasks are therefore a must.

I believe the reason it seems schools have not gone very far in the past 100 years, is because standardized, institutionalized education has these penalties in its very definition, in the system upon which it is built. Studying in large groups means a) wasting a lot of time b) not giving the child the individual attention he deserves c) proneness to mediocrity. It could be argued it’s still better that everyone learns at least something and doesn’t turn out completely illiterate, but many children fall between the chairs and don’t reach even a fraction of their potential.

“We absolutely must get rid of the competitive examination system if we would not be reduced to the appalling mediocrity which we see, in China, for example, to have befallen an examination-ridden empire.”

The younger the child, in my opinion, the more harmful is the system which conditions him to cram and not to learn, to pass instead of gain knowledge and method of learning.

I will leave you with Charlotte Mason’s conclusion, which is beautifully worded.

Both parents and teachers have the one desire, the advance of the child along the lines of character. Both groan equally under the limitations of the present system. Let us have courage, and united and concerted action will overthrow this Juggernaut that we have made.”


Nina said...

I couldn't agree more! I'm a homeschool graduate, and although I've had to take several standardized tests over the years (successfully, I might add), I am so thankful that I have been spared from the attitude of mediocrity and herd mentality that is present in the public school system. Unfortunately, I know many who have gone through the system, and have seen the damage it can do.

In my opinion, the advent of "mediocrity" and the loss of intelligent inquiry is only the beginning of the problem. The last quote you shared is perhaps the most important in my mind. Many educators in the current system are free to feed their students any ideology or philosophy they please, and the children have no choice but to take in the instruction without question in order to regurgitate it for exams. This, to me, is the ultimate consequence of dumbing down children. It is tyranny to ridicule the very natural question of "why?". By buying into what a few say is the collective good, we are giving up our individuality and abandoning the quest for Truth. I can only pray that more people will care enough to realize these things, rather than doing the easy thing and looking the other way. Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

During lectures in high school, the most common question asked was "Is this going to be on the test...?".

If it wasn't going to be on the test, then it was considered worthless. Students would not write in their notes. People would forget about it as soon as they heard it.

It is sad. And it isn't the teachers or the students fault. It is just the way things have become.

Where I live, North Carolina, standard tests start in the 3rd grade around age 9. And they really start getting ready for them in the second grade.

Leah Brand-Burks said...

Excellent post, Anna! It's amazing how well-written, thoughtful works can transcend the ages, isn't it? When you wrote:
"Natural curiosity was either totally driven out or at least deeply dormant in those children, replaced by the pressure to excel in exams."
I was so very saddened! And indeed, my own husband recalls his parents, at one point, forbidding him from asking "What if" questions, and they home schooled! But despite this (or maybe because of it), my husband is an extremely intelligent, imaginative, and very innovative person. But others don't fare so well when their curiosity is suppressed for so long.

Amanda said...

I simply couldn't agree more. I homeschool and as I have researched the history of the American Educational System, I am shocked that anyone of faith can, in good conscience, keep their children enrolled in public school. I do not know how similar our education systems are, but regardless home is THE BEST place for education.

As the famous (American) educator John Holt said so well, "‎"I want to make it clear that I don’t see homeschooling as some kind of answer to badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were."

Jim said...

I completely agree with your observations and conclusions and thank your for your post.