Monday, September 5, 2011

Apples and oranges and "smoots", O my!

There is a bridge over the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts that is approximately 364.4 smoots long. Yes, I said “smoots”; not inches, feet, meters, or any other standard measurement the global society is aware of. And, what is a smoot, you might ask? According to Wikipedia:

The smoot (smuːt/) is a nonstandard unit of length created as part of an MIT fraternity prank. It is named after Oliver R. Smoot, a fraternity pledge to Lambda Chi Alpha, who in October 1958 lay on the Harvard Bridge (between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts), and was used by his fraternity brothers to measure the length of the bridge.[1]

Mr. Smoot was 5’7” in height, and when lying down across the bridge, over and over again, was said to be the unit of measurement for this bridge.

What I described seems humorous, but a perfect example to consider the futility in understanding how you measure one object using a non-standardized unit of comparative measurement. It is not understandable in the world of science or engineering, it’s a prank.

In an article posted in the NYTimes this weekend by Matt Richtel[2], he attempts to outline the problem of investing in 21st Century materials and resources when assessment and accountability scores are not improving. Let's analyze this assertion by clarifying that the assessments being used to measure creativity, inquiry-based learning, and curiosity, are based on a 2 dimensional perspective of learning where rote teaching, lecture, memorization, and linear learning are valued. This column proves the absurdity of using a smoot to measure a bridge, or comparing apples to  oranges.

When you seek to view a landscape of lush beauty and a vivid panorama of rich colors, through dirty, cracked and discolored lenses one will miss the beauty of the moment. 

As I am sure a rational argument is always available for those that insist there is no value in funding all of these gadgets and resources if a child cannot read, the issue at stake is the faulty supposition he makes. He uses the assertion that unless there is quantitative data showing marked improvement in expectations of accountability, the public investment of funding may be for naught. He is suggesting we should be using "smoots" to measure a bridge!  You cannot use literacy and math accountability tools to measure creativity, curiosity, and inquiry-based learning. It's apples and oranges, and smoots, oh my!

In this day and age where accountability is the siren song of the politicos that have no other issue to rile the community’s anger with, to assume that the investment of funding to increase technological and instructional resources can be measured by assessments of linear accountability is fraught with problems of accuracy.

Despite the best efforts of “psycho-magicians” to create something usable, accountability testing in math and literacy skills are not designed to measure these things. There has been a lack of research and development in social science tools to adequately make this a fair fight. If true 21st Century education is to bolster these essential human functions, why are we continuing to assess through the discolored and fractured lens of competitive accountability?

Direct instruction, or linear instructional activities that focus on rote learning, and passive participation for students, thwarts the creative thinking and inquiry building that 21st century learning could truly inspire in students.

The use of quantitative assessments to measure accountability is a curse that remains with educators since the days of Thorndike who desired education to be a science instead of an art form. Results were needed to verify substance and credibility, regardless of differentiation, special education, multiple aptitudes of learning, and the eventual development of children into 21st Century learners.

According to Diane Ravitch, policymakers have always sought to hold school officials accountable for literacy and performance.[3] Using inappropriate data to prove American educational systems are not doing the job of educating children, is a losing battle for both sides of the argument. Anyone trained in social science research can tell you this.

I believe Piaget said it best, many years ago:

“The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done-people who are creative, inventive, and discoverers.”[4]

By the way, for those people that believe American education is poor, because of what a test is saying to the world, remember, it was a group of Americans that landed a man on the moon in 1969, or found breakthroughs in science, medicine, computers, aviation, etc. and made dazzling contributions to art, music, architecture over the past 100 years. I wonder if someone tried to thwart their imagination when coming up with these accomplishments?!

[1] Smoot. Wikipedia. Retrieved fromSeptember 5, 2011 at
[2] Richtel, M. (September 3, 2011). In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores. New York Times. Retrienved September 4, 2011 at
[3] Ravitch, D. (2002). A brief history of testing. Hoover Digest (4). Retrieved September 4, 2011 at
[4] Kuszewski, A. (July 7, 2011). The educational value of creative disobedience. Scientific American. Retrieved September 4, 2011 at

No comments:

Post a Comment