On the Stark Contrast Between Developmentally Appropriate Practices and an Era of Standardized Testing

Unfortunately, midterms are starting up again, so this reflection post will be brief.

This evening I attended a workshop held by the Neighborhood Schools Program called “Positive Environments: Engaging Activities + Stimulating Materials = A Great Learning Experience.” The talk (along with some fun interactive activities) was presented by Annette Kelly, a CPS consultant who also runs a non-profit organization that engages students in quality programming both in the classroom and in after-school programs. Basically, the workshop focused on – well, you guessed it – positive environments, engaging activities, and stimulating materials to make a great learning experience.

More specifically, the workshop focused on Developmentally Appropriate Practices and how educators approach children’s individual developmental needs and backgrounds. Most of the workshop participants (myself included) are currently undergraduates who work with kids in the community, though many of us (again, myself included) aren’t necessarily interested in teaching as a long-term profession. Many of us work and volunteer in low-income and underserved classrooms in the area surrounding the community, and thus could certainly relate to the discussion about environmental influence on child development. We spoke about the environments of family, neighborhood, and community, and how all of these settings distinctly influence every student’s cognitive, linguistic, physical and socio-emotional behavior.

When discussing these different influences and learning styles, I couldn’t help but think about how little schools can do nowadays to individualize learning for students based on these different influences and learning styles. For me, this is largely due to the ever-heightened importance of standardized testing. I remember reading an NYT article a while back about questions in New York State standardized tests about counting stalks of corn. In order to prepare students for these questions, schools in New York City were holding field trips to farms in order to show city kids what a stalk of corn looked like. This is just one example of how tests do not take into account students’ environments. Students may spend hours of class time learning to answer questions about an environment that is wholly unrelated to their own.

In the workshop, we also learned a bit about different types of learning styles (we focused on visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic, though there are arguably many more). One thing that all of these learning styles have in common, it seems to me, is that none of them is best suited by standardized testing. There is not a learning style named “bubble-graphic” in which students learn best by coloring in small circles for hours at a time. However, there are learning styles that are starkly go against this practice. In particular, we spoke about kinesthetic learning, and I couldn’t help but think how much of a negative impact the rote memorization and silence method of “schooling” must have on students with this learning style. Even students who are auditory learners, which is pretty common, must go nuts sitting silently hours on end in order to complete practice tests, what schools are being forced to call “learning.” The sad thing is that some of these kids must actually grow up thinking that this is learning. How is any kid supposed to develop a love of learning in such an environment? Honestly, I don’t know.

In the end, this workshop gave me food for thought, though not necessarily a lot of optimistic thought. It’s comforting to know that there are professionals out there who understand the developmental needs of students and create quality programming based on this knowledge. But it is quite discomforting to know that these professionals have very little say in the metrics that control our classrooms and dictate how students are being forced to spend their time.

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