Please say class isn’t about tests

Parent: “What’s the main thing you want students to get from this class?”

Teacher: “Test-taking strategies and study skills.”

My reaction: That sounds boring — and not relevant to anything outside of school.

Can you guess what class this is? No, not a Kaplan ACT Prep class. It is AP World History.

This exchange was described in a Washington Post parenting blog titled “Why I regret letting my teen sign up for an AP course,” published yesterday. It’s a sad reflection on what too many high school courses – and not just AP ones – look like.

Listen to a list of facts presented on PowerPoint. Read a textbook. Memorize, take a quiz, take a test and repeat.

The writer, Kate Haas, quotes her son saying, “I would enjoy learning about this if the whole point wasn’t to go through it as fast as possible and then take a kajillion quizzes.”

AP teachers are under pressure to get through a lot of material in a short time. I teach AP Micro, AP Macro and AP Psych, so I sympathize with this teacher. I know she didn’t become a teacher so that she could drill students on hundreds of isolated facts. No one does.

But no course should ever be reduced to this mind-numbing cycle; we have to stop it from happening, even when the list of “learning targets” is a mile long.

David Perkins, in his book Making Learning Whole, has a great metaphor for education: Little League Baseball. When you play Little League, he explains, you spend a lot of time learning routine skills like throwing, catching and running bases — but you also get to play the whole game, so you learn why these skills are important.

Students studying world history do need to learn a lot of facts, like who built pyramids and how Galileo’s findings impacted religion and what happened during the Black Death.

But a history class needs to be so much more. Students studying history, especially at a college level, should be building a deeper understanding of how humans have treated each other, why we so often resort to war, how we impact the environment, and how technology has changed us. That’s the main thing we want students to get from this course.

If students aren’t building an over-arching framework and if they aren’t learning to question and evaluate historical sources, they are missing the point – literally missing the forest for the trees.

I hope this teacher and others like her realize that they have a choice. They have resources, and they have colleagues around the country who can help them balance the AP course outline with the need to create an engaging, meaningful class.

School should never be about learning to take tests. If it is, we’ve lost sight of what matters.