Music to Our Ears: A Test We Should Teach To

We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid — not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again. – Eve L. Ewing

Our school recently hosted an exceptional orchestra festival. In my welcoming comments to this talented collection of students I concluded with a wish that, no matter what obstacles the years ahead may present, our sincere hope was that they would continue to play music. It was fascinating watching this ensemble rehearsing. Observing the complex and dynamic collaboration, creativity, expression, and problem-solving involved in this deep learning process, I was reminded of the words of Ewan McIntosh who recently wrote:

“That music is struggling to maintain its place at the core of so many schools … is worrying. The rigour, grit and soul that’s required to [be] a musician is the same stuff that we try to teach our students in every other class. Music remains, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best areas to learn those real twenty-first century skills, each and every day, and to do so with not only an immense smile on your face, but the faces of everyone around you.”

The biggest threat to the things that are of greatest importance to our children is a sad recognition that test scores and grades are the gateway to university acceptance, and therefore a misconception that they represent the ultimate determinant of “success”. We need a new conception of success. Our universities and colleges need to lead the way. Schools and – in particular – teachers, are doing their best. Education should not be about grades or tests. It’s far more important.

If we asked parents to articulate the single most important thing they want for their children, I wonder how many would mention Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale; higher mathematics, perfect grades or SAT scores? Some would, no doubt. But most parents have greater priorities. I have an 11th grade son who is currently studying for the IB in a school that actively encourages him to play sports, study the arts, engage in service to others, and consider the importance of his personal wellbeing. This is a tough balancing act for a school that also needs to produce results. But – when all is said and done – what is a result? Moreover, what is an education for? Is it, as Carol Dweck suggests:

“For pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners? Research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed [achievement] mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb— not a place to create and learn.”

I care more about who my child is than what his test scores are. I want him to be happy, healthy, reflective, and adaptable to a changing world. I want him to be kind, thoughtful, resilient and successful … whatever that means for him. His school provides for these priorities and works hard to protect and endorse them. Yet, schools are increasingly being asked about test scores for 12 year-olds and for evidence of college readiness indicators for students who are in the midst of adolescence. We often find ourselves reassuring parents who are worrying about the wrong things. This is not easy work. I am fortunate to work with colleagues who believe in the judicious use of data who are wisely cautious about the slippery slope to ranking and factory, conveyor belt outcomes. The data that technology can now provide us with about individual students can powerfully enhance the learning process in the context of meaningful growth. When these metrics define our ambitions and constrain student choice and voice, dominate teacher focus and energies, become an obsession and anxiety for parents, then we have lost our way. Increasing grade and test averages is possibly the easiest thing a school can do. But education is more than this. Surely Chomsky is right when he says:

“Education is [about] developing your own potential and creativity. Maybe you’re not going to do well in school and you’ll do great in art. That’s fine. What’s wrong with that? It’s another way of living a fulfilling wonderful life, and one that is significant for other people as well as yourself.”

Parents want what is best for their children. They sometimes need help and reassurance to understand what this means. It’s not easy being a parent in an uncertain world. This uncertainty requires creativity and adaptability, empathy and an ability to communicate a powerful story in the face of profound challenges: in other words, things that grades do not measure. Schools have a responsibility to be accountable when it comes to results. And this responsibility means that we must define what a quality education is and cherish it, protect it. How do we quantify the true impact of the 14 years of formal education that we impose on children?

We must never lose sight of the most important things. Like music. Like an appreciation of the arts. Learning that involves passion. Every time a student stops playing an instrument, acting in a play, or participating in sports because of the pressure for “results”, we are failing that young person and we are letting both parents and teachers down.

Where is the standardized test that measures happiness and human decency?  There’s a test we should teach to.

Eve L. Ewing. “Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts.” New York Times, April 6, 2017.
Ewan McIntosh. “The Day The Music Died (In Schools)”, Medium, March 7, 2017.
Christopher Chase. “Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Tests.” Creative by Nature, February 21, 2015.

Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery. Licenced under CC-BY-ND.