Learning and Testing: New Models of Classroom Structure

The question of how to get students to learn “real-world skills” has always seemed to loom large over educational policy. Many teachers consider themselves failures if their students leave the classroom without ever feeling like what they were learning was truly meaningful, or applicable to the real world. At the same time, though, in this age of standardization, it’s almost unavoidable that teachers feel pressure to teach to a test. How do we balance these competing incentives? How do we make sure our students feel prepared for testing while still learning skills that will help them throughout their lives?

One remarkable answer to this question comes from Anthony Johnson, a teacher (from my home state of North Carolina!) who is attempting to solve this problem by remaking the entire structure of his classroom. Indeed, rather than feeling like a classroom at all, he tries to model his space after a city. Students take jobs, earn wages, run for office, and they buy and sell goods. In effect, students become participants in an economy. The assignments themselves are project-based, with the students creating products rather than focusing on tests.

You may be thinking, “That sounds all well and good, but isn’t it a little utopian? We still have to test our kids, and we’ll still be punished if they don’t reach the standards set by the state.” That, my friend, is what’s so remarkable about Anthony Johnson’s experiment in classroom structure. His students’ test scores have gone through the roof.

There are a couple big points that I take away from Anthony Johnson’s classroom. The first is that there is not a binary choice between market skills and test scores. Although it’s understandable that many teachers feel constrained by the demands of standardized tests, they don’t have to kill innovation in the classroom, and they don’t have to mean that students spend the entire year learning “test skills” rather than “real-world skills.” It turns out that critical thinking doesn’t divide itself that way. If you teach kids to be critical thinkers in a marketplace setting, where they’re learning real-world skills, you end up teaching them testing skills all along. That, to me, represents a breakthrough in how teachers think about testing skills, one that has the potential to end the constant problem of kids cramming for a test and forgetting the material as soon as the test is over, year after year.

The other big implication from this classroom is that, yes, project-based learning really can work, even for kids as young as fifth-graders. I went to a PBL-based magnet school myself, and I think that the personal growth I got from PBL was truly valuable. As far as I’m concerned, PBL methods are the best way to make sure that students are learning skills that they can take with them for the rest of their lives, not just for a test.

I think we need more teachers like Anthony Johnson, who are willing to take risks and try unconventional styles of teaching in order to make sure that their students are learning. We need more teachers who are willing to do this if we want to make the best of the never-ending glut of testing.

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