I've been on the road a lot since the start of the new year. In fact, I'm writing right now from Terminal A at Boston Logan on my way home to CA. In my recent travels, I've found myself on quite a few brand new planes. Sparkling white trays, power outlets, touch screen entertainment systems and wifi that actually work, and discotheque lighting. It's all very modern and hip and with the times. But there is one feature that remains from a time long ago - a testament to our past and a relic that has been preserved: the ashtray. I was 17 years old when smoking was banned on airplanes. Rick Astley and Guns and Roses were at the top of the Billboard charts. It was 1988! Over thirty years since we actually had smokers on planes. And yet, there they are. Completely useless. Patiently waiting for the possibility that we will return to the glory days when people smoked everywhere - especially in airplanes.
It's not going to happen.
I've been more hopeful about the changing tide of education lately. More and more I see schools thinking more creatively and intentionally about the student experience - not just how to make it more humane and joyful, but also how to actually make it meaningful. And one of those ways is to really broaden the way students are assessed - both throughout a year or a course and in the final demonstrations of learning. There are still schools out there that cling to the traditional proctored final exam - where students sit neatly in rows in the gym and fill in bubbles or write in blue books or solve 100 math equations. Yes. Those students have crammed for days, endured sleepless nights, bitten their nails down to stubs in order to perform and demonstrate to teachers how much information they have taught this year. How much of this information will be retained after the exam? Hard to say. Even harder to say is whether students will see anything of their test besides the grade. Will they even know what they got right or wrong? Do they actually care?
More and more schools have awoken from a collective amnesia (and I do think we just lost our way for a bit) and remembered that the ultimate goal of school is about setting students up for a lifetime of success - a journey of learning, not just a march through required classes on a singular path to college. And in this awakening, schools are recognizing the total irrelevance of the final exam. It's the airplane ashtray of school.
The case for exams I often hear is "students will take final exams in college, so we need to teach them how to take them them." This argument feels almost laughable in this day and age. Even colleges are moving towards many more competency based assessments, final projects and more engaging and authentic measurements of student learning. Tests aren't hard to learn to take, by the way. Collaborative projects are much harder. And really, how many tests have you taken since you left school? How many times have you had to cram a lot of information intro your head and regurgitate it while sitting alone with no access to people or devices (not including standardized tests for graduate programs)? I can count on exactly zero hands. Meanwhile, I have to work on teams to solve complex problems every day. I have to negotiate with other humans, manage complicated projects with many moving parts and deadlines, data and human emotions. Traditional final exams (and might I even say most tests and quizzes) are simplistic, inauthentic, one dimensional and prepare you to do one thing - take a test.
So why do airplanes still have ashtrays? Apparently there is a small chance that some fool will still decide to light up on a plane and there needs to be a place where a burning cigarette can be properly disposed. That almost makes sense to me. More sense than final exams in an age where the purpose of school will increasingly be to turn out the very best humans who can manage complexity, ambiguity and three dimensional challenges.
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