Don’t Be (Too) Evil

I am a world history teacher. I am also a modern learning advocate. Among the many things this suggests, it implies I recognize the damage that standardized testing does to our students and our educational system. As a popular infographic posted on 9GAG (of all places) argues, limited homework and limited standardized testing are likely keys to Finland’s educational successes. Whereas in the USA, and among schools with students who plan to study in the USA, we are treated to portents about how testing is killing learning and quite possibly sending an ill-prepared generation of students to college.

Thus, every year I find myself torn between my core beliefs and the current reality. When I taught in East Harlem, it was my job to help my brilliant, ambitious and marginalized students secure their futures by attaining scholarships to the best universities. Now in Brazil, it is my responsibility to do the same for a socially diverse group of students. As international school students, many are wealthy, but there also many scholarship candidates and teachers’ children among the affluent who are equally ambitious and eager to secure their futures. In doing so–by motivating, coaxing, coaching and mentoring these wonderful young global citizens of the Americas–I have also been securing our future by, hopefully, nurturing and molding a socially conscious group of leaders for the 21st and 22nd centuries. This is my sworn duty. My dharma.

Which means I have to help them ace the SATs.(The SAT subject test in World History, to be precise.)

And I know I am not alone. Many of us swallow our pride, step off our soapboxes and press pause on our positions each year in order to help our students successfully navigate the zeitgeist and get into the colleges of their dreams. Perhaps some of us also apprise them of the SAT optional schools, but most of us likely still deal with a group of students set on the MIT, Cornell and the University of Chicago set, and SATs remain a bridge to be crossed, if not seized and then demolished.

In my case, because I lead Learning and Leadership Advisory debates on the viability standardized testing, I grow increasingly paranoid as a SAT season progresses–as if I am about to get jumped by a gang of axe-wielding autodidact vampire hunters.


In the end, though, most of us well-meaning authentic education advocates took the SATs and the GREs and we turned out OK, right? The key, then, is to limit the damage we do by selling out to the ETS hegemony (with increasing challenge from the ACTs, however) by making SAT prep as meaningful as possible. I do not subscribe to the school of thought that says, “If they have been taught well and they are readers, they will do well on the exam.” That is bollox. We all know the SATs can be gamed, the exams are (debatably) still geared toward white males and wealthier students have an edge stemming from short-term advantages like prohibitively expensive private tutoring to gradual impacts like the amount of books in their households and the likelihood that a parent would be home (rather then working a second or third  job) to read to them. As I see it, once an educator has decided to cross the yearly rubicon and help students succeed on their standardized exams, he agrees to an unwritten covenant that states he will work to help his students do just as well as those with all the baseline advantages. But there is another unwritten contract we sign with the soul of education. This one states that we will help our students in the most meaningful way possible. Yes, we can drill and kill with the best of the Pavlovian salivationists at Kaplan and Princeton Review, but we can also achieve equal quantitative results, and longer-lasting, meaningful qualitative results by deploying tech-based, constructivist, modern learning strategies and methods.

Instead of reanimating and reviewing dead test after dead test, try out these methods I have used with success:

1. Flip your revision.

For me, and for other world history teachers, this should mean taking advantage of the brilliant work of John and Mark Green at Crash Course World History. Their series of 42 videos covers all of the relevant topics in the currently endorsed world historical narrative, with some elevated and humorous commentary addressing historical perspectives and fun revisionism.

2. Make use of the many, many diverse materials available online. Different students respond well to different types of resources. Make them all available. I have found some of the most useful to be:

  • World History For Us All (My students have a love/hate relationship with “Globey”)
  • Bridging World History
  • BubbaBrain Review Games (Go to: Sophomores >> AP World History)
  • And the Granddaddy of all history website collections: Edtech Teacher’s Best of History Websites list. In a word, exhaustive.
  • But I tell you, nothing worked for my students better than the (arguably incomplete) The World in the Last 5000 Years video embedded below. It laid the chronology out for them better than anything they had seen. They went nuts. There was an identifiable mutinous air of, “Well, why didn’t you just say so? Why did you wait so long to show us this?? Dude, what IS wrong with you???” in my classroom all of a sudden. (I scanned the corners of the room for autodidact vampire slayers again…)

3. Diversify your prep sessions with interactive, constructivist, modern learning techniques. Here are three I like, and one I do not, among many, many possibilities. Remember: modern learning isn’t always about technology, it is about communicating, thinking critically and creating.

  • Two truths and a lie: Students pick a historical term and create two true statements and one lie about it. Then they challenge their peers in to discover the lie in small groups. The best trios are shared with the class.
  • Where in the world? Students create historically based pseudo-fictional anecdotes about famous figures and their environments. The anecdotes grow increasingly specific as they are read: the challenge is to see who can be the first to guess the historical figure.

Oh, boy. What a beautiful morning. I think I’ll head out to the public bathroom to take care of business, thinking it’s perfectly normal to clean up by wiping myself with a small rag on the end of a stick once business is done. Then, maybe I’ll have a healthy breakfast of roasted doormice and vinegar-laced wine before my appointment at the public baths where I’ll get a slave to rub olive oil alllllll over my body. (It’s a purely platonic thing–really.) Then, before lunch, I’ll go check out the Legions to see if they are ready to go. If everything goes according to plan, we’ll head up to Gaul for a few years and then I’ll be ready to make my move to take control of the senate. I hope I don’t get stabbed in the gut by my best friend.

  • World History Baseball: Just like playing the real thing, but hits and strikes are earned by answering or failing to answer questions of varying difficulty. Answer an easy question? Head to first. Answer a killer? Head to third! I also spice up the game by calling near misses foul balls and by letting the team that isn’t at bat earn extra swings by answering questions that go unanswered. This is about the only quiz game I use and I largely use it to get the students outside and running in the sun so we add some physical response to acquiring the necessary knowledge.
  • And…no Jeopardy. Never. Unless you create a system wherein all students become accountable by filling out question/answer sheets Jeopardy quickly becomes a review game dominated by one or two aggressive students in the rough vicinity a herd of passive bystanders. Also, for the time and effort it takes for the teacher to construct the game, the student practice payback is weak. Students should spend their revision time constructing their own activities, questions and answers.

4. Use technology based instruction and reinforcement via Twitter, Studyblue, Facebook, Buffer and blogs. 

  • Studyblue: A great online flashcard generator. Cards can be shared among class members and students can set up quizzes for themselves within the app. It even integrates with Evernote so students can import their notes directly onto flashcards.
  • Twitter (@wjtolley): During hunting season, I run a daily quiz of 5 relevant world history questions via tweet (join us at #iscwh until June 1st!). I use the Buffer app to schedule the tweets so that one appears just before school, one during our morning recess, three during lunch and one right after school. This keeps world history on my students’ minds–in a light, gaming way–throughout the day. As we all know, it takes consistent practice to learn something: this is a fun way for students to get that consistency.
  • Facebook: We share information, materials and announcements via a Facebook group dedicated to the review group. I also make a daily announcement about the winning team for the Twitter contest, and name a daily “MVN”–Most Valuable Nerd. (Competition can get heated…) Most importantly, I get former students to encourage current ones to stay focused, deal with the necessary evil and focus on the benefits of the experience. We may not like standardized testing, but knowledge is still power.

5. Above all, just as I recently did with my IB students in my final tips before their Papers 1& 2 and Paper 3, you should remind your kids that no test encapsulates who they are. It cannot define them, their abilities of their future.

This is something you will absolutely do…(hit play).

Author: williamjtolley

IB Coordinator, IBEN Workshop Leader, Examiner, and DP/MYP Teacher | Inquiry, Mastery & Culturally Responsive-Learning Advocate

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