I read an article a few weeks ago about all the ways kids cheat in school. I was prepared for a long list of terrible transgressions. About halfway through the list, I started to laugh out loud. I realized that almost all of the prohibited actions, such as getting help from other students and looking up material online, are things I require my students to do! As an educator who focuses on teaching students about innovation and entrepreneurship, I spend my time encouraging students how to find creative solutions to problems. They are urged to expand their frame of reference so that they can uncover a wider variety of solutions, to gain insights from everything and everyone they can, and to use all the tools in their midst.
I realized once again that most classrooms are not tuned to encourage innovative thinking. Students sit in chairs that are bolted to the floor, are given multiple choice tests with one right answer, and get in trouble for talking to each other in class. (I clearly remember spending hours writing “silence is golden” as punishment for asking to borrow a pen from a fellow student.) This couldn’t be further from the “real world” where problem solving involves drawing upon all available resources. Can you imagine a work environment where you are charged with solving a problem, and are prevented from opening a book, looking online, or talking to experts inside or outside your company?
The challenge is that schools are designed like factories: we put kids in one side and they come out the other end with a set of “grades” – not unlike a cut of meat! Traditional exams are designed to be easy to correct, not to reflect what the students have learned. I clearly remember a standardized test with the following question: "Where in the brain is the first place that information from the two eyes comes together?” As a neuroscientist, I could write a long paper describing the anatomy and physiology of the visual system. But, I could NOT answer this question. This question, like so many others on standard exams, simplified complex material to the point that it didn’t make sense, and it clearly did not test what the students knew.
Schools should be teaching kids how to think, to solve problems, and to be creative – not how to memorize facts. Many of the facts that students learn in school will change, aren’t relevant to their daily lives, will quickly be forgotten, and can be looked up easily. However, the ability to solve complex problems is always relevant. For example, instead of asking a student to regurgitate the structure of Vitamin C, to name all the US presidents, or to memorize “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – all assignments I recall well but cannot remember - why not ask them to describe how they might synthesize a molecule with specific properties, demonstrate how US presidents work with Congress, or write a poem about a topic of their choice.
Teachers also need not have all the answers, but can serve as provocateurs. I have the pleasure of working with amazing educators around the world, many of whom give students challenges for which they, the teachers, don't have the answers. Having been through similar projects before, they can provide tools, coaching, and guidance. The teachers get to participate in the learning process, and experience the thrill of discovery along with their students.
When it comes to evaluating students, we should consider giving problems without a “right” answer, giving challenges that require kids to work together, and we should allow students to use whatever materials they can find to solve these problems. They should come out of exams with the confidence that they can tackle other related challenges, And, they should NOT feel that it is “cheating” to tap into all available resources to solve problems that come their way.