Entering high school, I had a choice between two tracks in the Math department: the traditional path (Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, and Advanced Placement Calculus) or the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP). According to our guidance counselors, IMP encouraged group work and problem-solving that emphasized critical thinking over individual memorization of mathematical skills. You started with IMP I and then moved through the following three levels, each of which integrated mathematical concepts into “real-world” and technical applications.
I chose Geometry.
What would, to Cathy Davidson (and to me, today) seem like the much more exciting option was by far the more worrying. I was more comfortable with the traditional classroom where you were evaluated on your own individual work through homework and on exams. I wasn’t alone either. IMP was widely considered by my peers as the program for those students who weren’t “smart enough” to succeed in the traditional path.
I can’t say, however, that I regret the decision I made, even if I recognize the problems with my (my peers’, my schools’, etc.) previous thinking. It wasn’t only that I was scared to break out of the traditional mode. It was more that it seemed like that class would work against me. Because Math was not the most interesting subject for me, I wanted the skills for one primary reason: testing. Not only for the more familiar testing that came with the average math classroom, but also for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). And not just MCAS, but the SAT’s. And, finally, the AP exam and college placement tests. Passing the MCAS was a graduation requirement, and scoring within the top 25% of your high school class led to free in-state tuition at state universities. Passing a certain threshold for the SATs was necessary for many universities, and the AP was crucial for the more prestigious colleges. Doing well on placement exams (along with AP credit) meant I wouldn’t have to take as many math courses at the college level.
All of these tests were built around a traditional understanding of mathematics. So, what would be the point of IMP? I didn’t see one at fourteen, and the tests certainly did not (do not) support the type of interactive, immersive learning IMP promised. As Davidson argues in Now You See It, although the job market today requires “attention to surprise, anomaly, difference, and disruption” (77), the educational system relies on standardized testing geared toward college preparation (75).
What I want to draw attention to in addition to this, however, is something beyond Davidson’s point about tests failing to consider new ways of learning among children, but how students are blamed for perceived failure. I’d like to take a look at this clip from Boy Meets World.
This episode of Boy Meets World, “Quiz Show,” aired in 1997, still eight years before I would begin high school (Episode Information). In the episode, Cory, Topanga, and Shawn participate in a knowledge game show that moves from testing traditionally academic knowledge to pop culture trivia. On the one hand, I can understand Mr. Feeny’s frustration as the quiz show begins as this:
And becomes this:
Yet, I am more interested in how the instructor blames the students for pursuing the wrong knowledge and using technology for the wrong reasons. At the same time the students are accused of wasting their time playing Mario (a game, which I’m sure Davidson would point out, encourages collaboration in many versions), the classroom is empty of any technology. The games that they play would lead to Davidson’s call for surprise (as did the transformed game show they participated in). Feeny’s classroom, however, doesn’t suggest any technological advancement, and as far as I can recall, computers weren’t featured on the show until the characters are in college. There may have been a website published every six seconds, but at no point is there a class project encouraging students to use those resources.
Mr. Feeny goes on to say to the class, “Shame on you. You deserve what you get.” I remember seeing a rerun of this episode a few months ago, prior to reading Davidson’s work, and my initial feeling was one of guilt, being a part of the generation fairly ruthlessly criticized.
The educational system blames students for its own failings – just as the standardized tests poorly designed to evaluate student learning point blame toward students instead of reflecting their own inadequacies. It’s not surprising that Feeny’s lecture opens by lamenting students’ supposedly declining verbal and mathematical skills. More than 15 years later, the situation is remarkably similar. My sister (who is 10) has to take many more standardized tests than I did. And IMP has been discontinued at my high school.