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Put an End to Bubble Thinking

Standardized Testing Encourages Shallow Thinking

I have a sign up in my classroom titled “NO BUBBLE THINKING!” Bubble Thinking is defined as proposing explanations that offer simple, concrete answers to otherwise complex phenomena. History, my students discover, requires a more nuanced thinking. Students must understand context and multivariate causations. They have to understand that the same historical event may look very different from alternative points of view. I want them to raise their thinking to the next level of abstraction and to dig deeper for more complex understanding. That is, I believe, my job as a teacher.

Unfortunately, current educational policies discourage this kind of advanced, nuanced thinking. Indeed, it punishes such process.

Below is an e-mail discussion I had with one of my peers. As the department head, I was his go-to person for advice in this matter.

Mr. Andoscia,

One of the questions on our US History test asks “Which battle was the turning point in the Civil War?” I remember my professor in college was adamant about this being a controversial question and that either Vicksburg or Gettysburg were reasonable answers. Apparently the state of Florida has resolved this conflict, because our answer key says that Gettysburg is the only correct answer (Vicksburg is an option.) Should I consider giving credit to anyone who selected Vicksburg, or am I misremembering what my professor told me? Thanks for the help.

My response:

Funny, I learned it was Antietam. No, you are remembering correctly and confirming the profound inadequacy and absurdity of using standardized tests as a measure of historical knowledge and thinking. I would give credit for Vicksburg (Heck, Vicksburg and Gettysburg fell within a day of each other! How can one be determined as a turning point over the other?). I don’t know what the other options are, but this becomes a teachable moment. Find out who answered Vicksburg, Gettysburg or whatever the other options were, and have them defend their answers using historical facts and citing the text. Let them know that if they see this question on the EOC [End of Course Exam] they should give the “correct” answer, but teach them that the EOC is, in fact, a bureaucratic exercise imbued with false importance and not an historical exercise.

The proponents of standardized testing justify their actions with the theory that teachers, without accountability, will dumb down the curriculum. As demonstrated above, the opposite is true. Holding teachers and students accountable to the curriculum by using standardized measures dumbs down the curriculum. This same teacher above, in a later conversation, commented that he feels bad because he wants to do right by his students. He wants to teach them by expanding their knowledge base and by providing them the skill-set with which to use that expanded knowledge base. He wants to teach them how to think historically, not just assorted and largely subjective historical facts. On the other hand, if he doesn’t prepare them for passing the EOC, they may not pass the class regardless of their effort and progress during the school year; regardless of their nuanced knowledge of the subject matter.

This is exactly the reason why reliance on standardized tests constitutes a theft from our students, and consequently a theft from our futures.


Note: Yes, I know, I know. Gettysburg did not “fall”. It was defended successfully. These e-mails happen quickly. My apologies to all of the Civil War fanatics. We know how you are!

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