Monday, November 29, 2010

the plague of "10 best" lists and why testing in school is starting to make sense (again)


Put aside for a minute the hot-buttons that usually pop when we get to talking about education – because this is a different pair of pants. Though many claim our current educational norms of timed tests, regurgitative homework, and rigid curriculums to be antiquated as shit, when I see the apocalyptic flood of “19 great ways to ____” and “10 best ______” type articles on the internet, I start thinking that we might actually be right on point. By being far enough behind the times, our educational philosophy might actually be ahead of the curve.


We hear that an education should in large part equip tomorrow’s workforce to succeed in tomorrow’s economy – an idea which is certainly tough to fuck with.


So when the western world transitioned from an industrial economy into a post-industrial economy, using tests as the main form of student evaluation became as inappropriate as Gary Busey’s twitter feed. Because back in the factory days it was mad important for workers to be able to accomplish distinct tasks in specific amounts of time; Charlie Chaplin had to screw the bolts into those nuts before that shit moved to the next wrench-wieldin’ Biff on the assembly line. Tests made a lot sense in this world – spit me back this information in this amount of time – as the tests were appropriate indicators of the student’s future success in THAT economy.


But as times changed, and the workforce sped from the factories like fresh-off-the-line Toyotas with faulty breaks, using tests as the go-to form of student evaluation began to make less and less sense.


The new economy was about collating ideas and constructing convincing arguments (arguments like: “although I accidentally sent an email to our biggest client calling her a dick, it wasn’t really my fault…”. Still mad boring, still a 9-5 job, but the question became: why are you testing me on facts, Professor, when I can just use my sweet calculator, google that shit, or worst case start a Yahoo Ask thread?


Which is where we are now - maybe. But I’m not sure that our river is still continuing on from that old factory mindset as much as it is straight up oxbowing in on itself, returning to where we have already been.


Look something up on the internet that is not a fact, something more vague, something that is related to doing something: increasing traffic to your blog, creating a successful internet marketing campaign, growing delicious tomatoes. Most likely you will find your way to an article that answers your query with an “8 steps to ___” or “10 great ways to _____” type article. They're more common than Lonnie Rashied Lynn.


The listed three examples are representative of the complex, post-assembly line problems for which we apparently need a more modern education to solve. Charlie Chaplin couldn’t develop a multi-faceted strategy for a marketing campaign; he was cogged out – only trained to manage his specific task.


But with the ever-increasing popularity of articles featuring numbered lists, the open-ended problems are being further and further replaced by highly replicable, step-by-step processes.


And while these lists themselves don’t equate to the reindustrialization of our problem solving, we should see “the 5 questions you must ask in an interview” article as a leading indicator of what is to come.


And if this is what’s ahead, it seems like fact-centric timed tests might not be so far from appropriate.

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