The topic for this diary was inspired by Dragon's Top Comments diary from a couple of weeks ago. Originally this was just going to be a comment, but I wanted to expand more on the topic of thinking and school.
As a child growing up at the end of the 20th century, I was among the last of a generation of children who weren't inundated with standardized tests that had to be taken constantly. Sure we a few them over the course of my elementary and Jr. high years, none in high school, but nothing like what goes on now. And really none of them had any impact on passing classes or graduation. I always scored in the 99th percentile which, and this is going to sound really snobbish, irked me because I always wanted to know how no one ever seemed to be in the 100th percentile. How could that be possible?
Anyway, this diary isn't about that. It is about my development in critical thinking culminating with a story about one of my favorite college professors.
Follow me below the curly-cue for more.
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One of the first things I remember learning, that at the time seemed to be of little importance, was cursive writing, or penmanship as listed on my report card. I didn't have the greatest penmanship in elementary and hated how it killed my report card every year. It wasn't until Jr. high school when I realized how intricately linked writing and learning were. It was such an eye-opener for me that to this day I still practice my penmanship and even took a calligraphy class once. (I'd like to do that again.)
Varied learning was, and I hope still is, a huge requirement in NY State that through Jr. high school, students were required to have at least half a semester of art and music class as well as every other day gym class. In our Jr. High, we were also required to have a half semester of each home ec and technology classes in both 7th and 8th grades, the two grades that made up our Jr. High school.
In high school to qualify for a Regents diploma, necessary for any top college in NY State, we were required to do a least one year of either music or art as well as at least one semester of some sort of technological based class. I took an electronics class, but other things were offered. Again gym was a requirement all years on alternating days.
In all of the normal academic classes (e.g. math, science, English, social studies, etc.), most years ended with a Regents exams. The Regents exams started as exit exams in 1878 to be sure students had the proficiencies to enter college. They later evolved into the current subject-based exams all NY State students know and loathe today. (You can read more about the history of the Regents exams here [pdf file].)
While the Regents exams are standardized as far as every student takes the same test on the same day in the same year, they are actually more than that. All Regents exams are written through a collaborative process "of many educators over time,
a collaboration that reflects a baseline of knowledge on the subject." Most exams are written three years prior to them being given and different people work on different years exams. This allows the tests to stay fresh and keeps potential cheating to a minimum. The exams themselves are not what you would think of as normal standardized tests. While each one does have some route memorization components, all exams have concept-based questions that allow students to demonstrate comprehension of the topics being tested. For example, math Regents exams have sections where students are required to show their work. These parts are graded in a way that gives partial credit for correct work even if the answer is wrong. For example, suppose I am doing a quadratic equation where I misplace a negative sign early on in my computations. Because the rest of my work is correct, I would only lose points twice: once where I missed the negative sign and once for the final answer though I would be given credit for the rest of my work. In other exams, essays are a major part of your grade. These parts are graded collaboratively by the teachers in the school that teach those topics. By having the exams set up in this manner, teachers are able to teach topics in a way that develops critical thinking skills and cannot just "teach to the test." (The information for the preceding paragraph comes from the pdf linked above, my cousin, a former American History teacher and administrator in NYC, who happened to help write my American History Regents, and my own personal experience.)
Thanks to varied education I received, I came to college ready to apply my new skills to the advanced courses I be taking. I ended up at a small Liberal Arts college in Jacksonville, FL. What I found there was, what one might call, a tale of two colleges.
One was the College of Arts Sciences. For the most part the C of A&S had what I expected find at college, idea-oriented and deep probing courses. Lots of time spent fleshing out ideas, doing term projects and little note taking or memorization testing. Of course, this depended upon what professor you had. To ensure I had good professors, I used recommendations from other students and professors I liked.
The other college was the College of Business, or as I liked to call it, the College of Student Athletes. On our small campus, the College of Business seemed, to me, to be made up of a majority of student athletes. The three most popular majors were, in no particular order, marketing, which needed the least amount of accounting credits, international business, made up of almost every athlete recruited from overseas and business administration, the one general major in the business school. Based on a totally anecdotal experience, the College seemed to attract a lot of students who thought there was no need to apply oneself since a Wall Street job was in the waiting upon graduation. As such, most of the core classes were taught with the bare minimum of applied thinking. I state this based on my regular conversations with my adviser and accounting professor, who continuously agonized over how long it took to get through topics since few students did their homework, and my quantitative analysis professor, who stated the only students who showed up for review sessions were the ones who already had A's in the class.
I based this on one other reason. I was the College's lone business tutor, a job I got after tutoring math for a couple of semesters. Apparently there had been a demand by the College of Business to find a tutor for the College. Since I was the only tutor currently working who was a business major and we had enough math tutors, they hired me. It didn't hurt that I was one of only about 15 accounting majors the school had. Most of the students that came to see me were looking for help with economics or accounting, the two toughest tracks in the College. And many of the ones who came wanted me to essentially do their homework for them by making that the subject of our sessions. Infuriating. I was supposed to be there to help reinforce concepts or at least get them to understand them, and they wanted me to do their homework.
Anyway, to get this diary back on track, I want to tell you about one of my professors in college. There was an Economics professor from whose classes many of my tutees came. For three years, all I heard about him was he doesn't teach anything out of the book and his tests are based on nothing people learned in class. He was universally hated by the business students.
One of the classes I had to take for my accounting major was Price Theory, one of his classes. Within 15 minutes of the first class I knew why everyone hated him: he made them think for themselves. Term papers had little direction but a subject to write about, no limits or minimums on length. Tests were mostly theory based with little regurgitation questions. It was the best class I took in the College of Business. He inspired me to think more discerningly about economic theory and not just take things people say or write as gospel. I found much of the class designed in a way many of my classes in the C of A&S were designed. I still remember the first time I spoke to him in his office during the first week of class. He took pride in being hated for making his students think independently. He knew that was his job. Without this necessary skill, his students would not be the functioning members of society that would be needed.
After the class, I kicked myself that I didn't take it earlier and add an Econ major to my already heavy course load for my double degree. I wish I had taken more of his classes. While he is more conservative politically than I am (really how many people aren't), we pretty much saw eye to eye when it came to economic theory. One required reading we had was Saving Adam Smith: A Tale of Wealth, Transformation, and Virtue by Jonathan B. Wight which I think should be required reading for anyone who touts The Wealth of Nations as the economist's bible.
I am grateful I was able to take his class. We still remain friends to this day. And with what's going on in the world we still have ample opportunities and topics to discuss. Thanks to the critical thinking skills he had a part in developing in me, we stand as equals in our discussions.
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