How School Testing is Crippling Children

It’s probably not the worst thing it does to them, but the end result is clear. How this happens is also very simple: we overwhelmingly test children without access to networked computers.

This is a grossly inaccurate reflection of how our economy works, in which most people has access, most of the time, to networked computers. The Army’s core educational tenet — train as you fight — is based on the observation that, when under pressure, stress, panic, or boredom (all common features of both warfare and the workplace) we ony apply those habits and skills that we developed in similar circumstances. Soldiers will behave however they “practiced” in combat-like situations. And pressure “knowledge workers” will, spontaneously and unconciosuly, approach their tasks as if they were school tests.

The result is plain to see: we have a workforce that, given access to history’s greatest store of knowledge, uses it sparingly if at all. Billions of emails are sent without background checks on their recipients. When analyzing process dynamics, our first instinct is to resort to memory rather than our mail archives. Managers are praised for carring large numbers of figures in their heads, a feat as difficult as memorizing a long epic poem… and just as useful. It’s no coincidence, and it has no little impact, that the highest-level decisions are taken away from keyboards and tablets, precisely the context where people are at their worst in terms knowledge and analytical capabilities. We systematically and endemically underuse the computing resources at hand, because we were educated through training situations that were essentially fixed during the Middle Age (non-Western educational systems, e.g. those of China and Japan, don’t fare significantly better in this regard).

Because paper is cheap and ubiquitious, we don’t force children to do their exams in their heads; we want them to use the written word, and hence we let them use it “when it matters,” that is, during tests. We should have long accepted that networked computers are indeed cheap and ubiquitious, and that by taking them away from children when we test them, we are raising them to be functionally crippled. Paraphrasing Mark Twain (and, yes, I just searched online for the source of the quote), a person who won’t use their computer to its fullest extent has little advantage over one who doesn’t have a computer at all.

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