Reflecting on education ‘back in the good old days’

I guess I’m an old lady.  Driving to and from work, I keep thinking, “Back in the good old days.”  Recently in Professional Development my colleagues and I had the opportunity to play with the sample Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.  After such a hullabaloo about gathering government intelligence through the SBAC, I was very pleasantly surprised at how refreshing it was.  It makes me feel young again, because it is so nostalgic.

Back when I was a small fry in District 91, the teachers at Temple View Elementary had these remarkable devices.  They never needed recharging, exercised hand-eye coordination, were easily repaired and were very economical.  They were called “flannel boards.”   “Chalkboards” were more high maintenance because they required regular outdoor pounding of their delete hardware.   Helping verbs, times tables, states and capitals, and correct spelling were memorized.  Penmanship was a graded subject.     I was one of the students with a typewriter at home, which my mom let me use on occasion.  My dad engineered nuclear reactors with his slide rules, which were off limits.  The house had a built-in spell-check called a “dictionary.” Along with the “dictionary” I got to use the search engine which we called the “World Book” whenever I wanted.  The whole family could use the “World Book” engine simultaneously for different searches without sharing keyboard or monitor.  Even more people could use the search engine called “the public library.”  These tools were inferior to today’s devices in one glaring way:  They couldn’t think.  So students and teachers and everyone else had to take up the slack.

Thinking, and learning to think, were time consuming, sometimes boring and often downright unpleasant, especially the learning-to-think part.  But no pain, no gain, right?  We were expected to have strong bodies and even stronger minds.  As a teenager I would be handed a $20 for a fast food order that cost $1.32 and complete the transaction with a mastered skill we used to call “counting out change.”  I was able to know what 10 percent of my income was without help.  The first calculators were then debuting at a cost equivalent to a fifth of the price of a car, which was worth it to my father, but not to my employer.  Finding out something you didn’t know or didn’t remember used to require no electricity outside of the neurons to process information and the muscles to turn the page.  It was easier to just learn it permanently, and not have to hunt down the book and find the right page, so that’s what we did.  Viruses like the one called “mumps” could damage downloaded memory.

Well, that was a long time ago, back when schoolmates repeated a grade from time to time.  Most second graders and all superintendents knew how to spell “then” and I could type “superintendent” without glancing to make sure it wasn’t underlined in red.  As I looked at the SBAC with colleagues the ages of my children, I felt nostalgic while they “oooed” and “ahhed” over the innovation of presenting complex problems instead of multiple choice questions.

Last month our students were taking the SBAC.  They return in dismay.  On student complained “I had to scroll through a whole book to get the answer.”   When I showed another class “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, which my spud farmer grandfather used to recite, they weren’t sure that the “whole book” was longer than the poem.  “You have to do all this stuff to figure out the answer,” the students complained.  “You have to read the whole thing.  I had to scroll up and down and up and down to do it.”  I asked, “instead of scrolling, would turning a page back and forth have been easier?”

All answered in unison with a resounding “Yes!”

I wonder if those two dresses with the latest skirt length are somewhere in my closet, or did I give them to charity a decade ago?  Perhaps my students’ great grandchildren will be educational pioneers by reciting “The Ride of Paul Revere” or “The Cremation of Sam McGee” as part of their college entrance exams.