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Marking Readiness

January 11, 2009

I want to come back to the question of why we educate because I find that thinking on this draws together the goal and practice of education.  To understand the nature and rationale for our current modes of education we must give attention to the ends towards which these educational modes lead.


The determinate factor for why we educate the way we do rest in large measure with values.  We design and direct our actions only towards those ends that we value, that we consider and believe meaningful.


Looking at education today it is clear to me that one of the things we value most is testing.  We test so that we can measure what a student knows, and that knowledge is measured according to prescribed standards.  Were these prescribed standards those that have been carved by nature they would be appropriate for the human child and unalterable.  But they are not.  They are standards that are continually flexing to the ungrounded values espoused by temporal notions of progress.


What we are progressing towards at the moment appears to be economic wealth with no set ceiling.  It is by the way what we are giving our attention to in the current “economic crisis.”  The language is revealing:  “How long will this last?”  “When will housing prices go up?”  “When will the markets return?”  “Who is going bankrupt?”  We hear talk of the auto industry, housing, oil prices, banks, lending companies, Wall Street, recession, collapse, job losses, savings and retirement.  Every single one of those terms emerges from questions concerning the dollar.


All our thought is set upon the purpose of economic restoration.


King Henry V:              Therefore let every man now task his thought,

                                    That this fair action may on foot be brought.


And how may that occur in our own particular crisis?  For that, minds will turn towards education.


What we want is assurance.  We desire absolute certainty because it profits absolute control.  Certainty arises from the measurable and predictable.  The two go together because if what is measured changes in unpredictable manners it cannot be certain.  Certainty comes from predictable repetitions that do not change.  To be measured then, the measured object must be static.


Education has instituted testing in order to measure its students.  What is it measuring?  I believe that we are in part, if not in whole, measuring readiness.  But this pushes another question, “Readiness for what?”  When our schools graduate a student what precisely are we saying that this student is ready for?


I often recognize schools of lower education (K-12) applying the phrase “college-prep” to their school’s mission and purpose.  They are answering that, “Our students are ready for college.”  But for what college and for what is that college making them ready for in turn?  Is it possibly for a pre-scripted part that contributes not to what it is to be a Man or a Woman, but to the progress of an economic ideal upheld and valued in our current culture?


The purpose for testing in today’s educational institutions boils down to producing a readiness for either adulthood or employment.  The two are not the same, nor do they go together.  The one attends to the meaning of our humanity, the other to the product of our labor.  (Another question that rises is whether we are applying the appropriate form of testing for the goal we wish to attain.) 


Before I became an educator I used to start colts for a world champion reigning cowhorse trainer.  My job was to take an unbroken colt (2 year old) and get them ready for the next phase of their training.  Sometimes that would take three months, sometimes one month.  It all depended on the horse.


At some point during a colt’s training (education) my boss would ask me, “Is the filly ready?”  He never asked me if they passed the test.  There was no test.  Yet there were various indicators that marked their readiness.  Before they could work on a real cow they had to be able to turn, stop, backup, know their leads, how to change leads, relax their neck, lower their head, position their shoulders, ribs and hips, pivot on their inside rear foot, tuck, spin, and leap among other things.  Some were always better than others with these things, but none of these things were exercises foreign to the nature of a horse.  Any horse could learn to do these things because they were things that a horse does naturally.  As a trainer I was teaching the horse when to do them and how to perfect them, or rather to execute them with greater precision and finesse. 


As the trainer I was the only one who knew where the horse was in their training and what they needed to learn.  When I was asked if a horse was ready, I was asked with a very clear and defined image of what a “finished” horse looked like.  That was the goal I worked towards in every horse I trained (hundreds of them in my career).


The question of readiness was not the same as that of passing a test.  In fact, there were days when a horse would perform well and then the next day act as if they had never learned a thing.  Others could go through all the exercises physically, but were still not ready mentally.  We trained a horse both mentally and physically, and only the one working with the horse every day knew “where” they were in their training.  A horse’s readiness was not the measurable result of a day’s set of tested exercises.  Their readiness was a state of presence that emerged from days, months, and years of training.  The mark of readiness was set upon the backdrop of a horse’s entire training and not upon the result of a single test.


Do we misread our students by looking to their test scores rather than to their education as the mark of their readiness?  Perhaps what we should be doing is asking a student’s teacher, “Are they ready?” 


Hamlet:             the readiness is all.




From → Education

  1. This is really good! Thanks for writing it. If you don’t mind, I’m going to incorporate it into a class I teach on the Integration of Faith and Psychology.

    When you have time, I’d like to hear your story of how you transitioned from Cowboy to Educator. What happened?

  2. I don’t mind at all, and please fill me in on how that turns out.

    I think this is the second time you have asked me about my transition (if I trully and really did?), so I take it that you are serious and I am beginning to feel the pressure to respond. It’s coming.


  3. Sorry to pressure you. I wasn’t sure you got my first note since I think I left it on your other blog.

    As for your posting on readiness, I started a continuation of your thought, pursuing what education should be about. If I ever finish it, I’ll either post it or send a copy to you.

    I’m intrigued by the notion that the purpose of education is the purpose of life…to reflect the imago dei.

    • I’m intrigued by the notion that the purpose of education is the purpose of life…to reflect the imago dei.

      The central question of classical education was and is, “What is Man?”

      Christianity proposed the answer, “Jesus Christ, the new (or second) Adam.”

      Thus, to carry on with the idea of the imago dei the purpose of a Christian classical education begins with the imago Christi oriented toward the imatatio Christi.

      This is one of the reasons why I am so excited about classical education.


  4. As an educator of young minds in Korea, I am always being struck by “what’s really important.” First and foremost, for my Director, it is having something to show the parents, which usually means test scores. This gets a little bit ridiculous when she says to me, “Sometimes we need to… give them a show.”
    My response is always, “How is that helping them learn?”
    There is a corollary and almost more heinous aspect to this when the kids actually come to believe that their test scores are their definition. They get scared. They will not try if they don’t know the answer, because their score will be bad. Sometimes (and sometimes more often than not), I am a bad teacher, and the other day I lectured my students on the efficacy of effort, because my homework has been “too hard.” I told them that they weren’t supposed to get good scores right away, because that would defeat the purpose of me. The only thing I required of them was doing, effort. Success would come with the effort, but they could not understand. These were fillies broken with bad habits.

    • These were fillies broken with bad habits.

      And bad habits are hard to break!

      Your quotes say it all and have directly hit upon the problem. The focus has been almost entirely shifted to the product of learning rather than learning itself. The problem is that students have forgotten how to learn because we no longer teach that.


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