Just make it up.

by danielagins

A major mental alarm just went off in my head and I am scared beyond belief right now. We are creating a generation of liars. Okay, that might be too strong – but not too far from the truth.

I am in the middle of grading some position papers from my 8th graders as our wrap up to my unit on the paradox of modernization. Admittedly this “paper” is more artificial in nature than I would like, as it is part of a lesson I had to design for my practicum class in my masters program (a lesson which I am seeing now, was designed rather poorly). Despite the heightened artificiality of it, I am seeing some stomach churning, rib stinging, cold-sweat-inducing issues that are totally removed from my specific lesson. These issues I am having such a hard time dealing with are directly related to the nature of “teaching to the test.” The test I am referring to is our state writing prompts. These prompts require students to take a stance on an issue presented, one in which they have very limited background information aside from the paragraph introducing the prompt. The students have 45 minutes to complete this persuasive piece, usually framed as a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or something along those lines. These prompts are then scored holistically based upon how well the student elaborates and uses persuasive techniques like, you know, statistics and such in their writing. Okay fine. Makes sense, right? We cite sources to add to the strength of our arguments. It seems like an important skill for them to have. Here is the problem – the prompts the students are asked to write for the state tests are out-of-the-blue topics. As I stated earlier, the only real background information given is in the paragraph introducing the prompt. So where do the kids get the statistics for their prompts? They make them up. That’s right. They imagine experts and statistics that will support their stance and include them. They lie. The more they lie and the more creative their lies are, the better their score will be. Viewing this with a behaviorist lens (Skinner, Thorndyke, etc) leads down a scary path indeed. Rewards in the form of acceptance (teacher, parent, societal) for high prompt scores derived from making things up to support your claims will not yield long term favorable results.

So what about reality? What about when they are asked to write a position paper where they have, say, an entire units worth of information at their disposal? It seems that they fall back to the tired and true (and continually reinforced) method of making things up that suit their needs. I dread the type of “informed” 21st century citizen this kind of education produces. I feel paralyzed and helpless in my attempts to change it.

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