Does Too Much Testing Create a Thinking Gap?

On a winter Monday morning in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the expressions on Linette Arroyo’s second graders’ faces matched the grey day outside. ...

Student-authored persuasive letters hang proudly outside Ramona Brito's 1st grade classroom at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn (Photo: Elisabeth Anderson)

On a winter Monday morning in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the expressions on Linette Arroyo’s second graders’ faces matched the grey day outside.  Hunched over their desks inside P.S. 24, they lifted their pencils and waited for the next word.

“Hope,” Ms. Arroyo said.  “I hope it doesn’t snow again.  Hope.”

Little hands rushed to scrawl out “hope,” or their best estimation of the word.  And like clockwork, they put down their pencils, turned their papers over, and looked up.

“Gum.  Gum is not allowed in school.  Gum,” Ms. Arroyo continued.

Write, pencil down, paper over, look up, repeat.  So went the spelling assessment, administered each September, January, and June to help second-grade teachers determine appropriate spelling group levels for their students.

By the 26th and final word, students slumped in their chairs and stared out windows; a freezing recess looked better than no recess at all.

“I’m sorry,” Ms. Arroyo whispered to a classroom visitor, “you couldn’t be here on a more interesting day.”

Interesting, no.  On task, yes.  And according to a growing group of education researchers and practitioners, a little too much on task.  One such professional is Diana Senechal, a former New York City public school teacher who is writing a book called Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education later this year.  Writing for The Washington Post in January, Senechal argued that students are suffering as a result of a widening thinking gap, the “unspoken assumption that children in urban schools cannot and should not sit still and think.”

Specifically, Senechal takes issue with the methods supported in a popular 2010 book by Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. While Lemov believes that students should always be kept busy with a clear understanding of each activity’s purpose, Senechal counters that such a task-focused ideology is ultimately dangerous to children’s cognitive development.  She believes the simple act of allowing a child a few quiet minutes to ponder a challenging question or formulate a point of view is imperative for honing long-term problem solving and critical thinking skills.

“I am not saying that students should sit still for long stretches at a time, or that lessons should not have a purpose,” Senechal explained.  “It is a matter of a minute or even a few seconds here and there – of stillness, of not knowing exactly what’s coming, of not having an immediate tangible result.  This is essential for advanced study, even at the high school level, but it has to start earlier.”

Now is a key moment to explore the thinking gap, because overcoming it will be important for the 41 states that have adopted and hope to implement the K-12 Common Core Standards, a set of guidelines that aim to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what children are expected to learn in school.  According to the findings from a forthcoming article in the April 2011 edition of Psychological Science by Deanna Kuhn and Amanda Crowell, the Common Core includes the standard that students become proficient in “logical arguments based on substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence,” but it’s not clear what “sound reasoning” should be or how it can be taught.

So the authors designed a three-year longitudinal study of 11- and 12-year olds, showing that the right educational approach can help them develop reasoning skills.  Kids who were given the opportunity to formulate their arguments and debate one-on-one with another student in a philosophy class showed growth in reasoning skills – measured by the sophistication of argument in two post-class essays.  – Those in a class that only included structured class discussions did not show that same growth.

While their study focused on middle schoolers, the authors believe the lessons apply at all ages.  “It certainly supports the idea that getting young people to think promises important dividends,” said co-author Kuhn, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University who specializes in cognitive development.

Just down the hall from Linette Arroyo’s classroom on that winter Monday, Ramona Brito’s first graders were working towards those dividends.  They were writing persuasive letters, which could be addressed to anyone and ask anything.  With little more than lined paper, pencils, and an encouraging word to get them started, Brito’s kids were left to reflect, imagine, and think.  Twenty minutes passed.  Some students drafted full letters; others were only finishing conceptualizing their ideas.  One little girl was asking her grandmother to bake a cake with her on Valentine’s Day.  She just hadn’t decided what kind of cake yet.

Brito believes giving her students thinking time is imperative.  “With computers and TV, they’re not really taught to think,” she said.  “Everything is so immediate. They don’t have time to reflect on what’s really in their minds.  They’re not used to it.  I think it’s important for them to do that, for the rest of their lives.  Think before you act, you talk, before you do anything.”

The kids knew this wouldn’t be their only opportunity to work on the letters.  Since they weren’t rushed, they took time to consider what they wanted to achieve.  A week later, Brito was sorting the final products, which her students had copied from their drafts onto pretty paper with bunny rabbit and teddy bear borders.  The letters would be hung outside the classroom for Brito’s self-proclaimed Publishing Week, and then mailed to the intended recipients.

Activities like these can provide big boosts to younger children’s cognitive control skills, a set of abilities involving processing and adapting to new information,  which are linked to achievement.  In a two-year study by a joint team from Rutgers University and the University of British Columbia that involved 21 pre-school classrooms, researchers found that students in a curriculum heavy on cognitive control skills academically outperformed those that did not.  These skills include inhibitory control (resisting distractions), working memory (mentally holding and using information), and cognitive flexibility (adjusting to change).

In other words, kids need time to think in order to learn.  Writing for the Educational Researcher, Anthony D. Pellegrini and Catherine M. Bohn explained that younger students have immature nervous systems and their lack of experience makes it hard for them to move quickly from task to task.  Giving a child a break before moving on to the next task increases his or her ability to complete that next task well.

But perhaps Diana Senechal, the former teacher, put it best.  “Yes, lessons need structure and purpose,” she wrote in the Post, “but they also need tolerance for the unknown.  One of the greatest aspects of learning is that we often don’t know where we are going, yet we sense some motion, out of which comes, slowly or suddenly, a solution, an idea, a beautiful and thoughtful performance.”

To read author Beth Anderson’s Q&A with Diana Senechal, visit the School Stories blog.



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