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Opinion

Column: ‘Need for speed’ may dominate classroom life, but parents can pump the brakes during summertime

Standardized testing
Modern classrooms prioritize speed over pretty much all other concerns, but students should be allowed to take things a bit slower during the summer, columnist Patrice Apodaca writes.
(File Photo)

Ahh, summer: An idyllic season of long lazy days at the beach, casual backyard barbecues and outings to the county fair. The pace is slow and expectations are muted; fun tops the daily agenda.

That’s the traditional, rose-colored picture of summer, at any rate. But, like just about every other aspect of family life these days, even our classic views about summer have become tainted by our obsession with going fast. An entire season devoted to a slower pace is now considered by many parents to be a luxury that their kids can’t afford.

At some point in our rush to mold our children into high achievers we’ve sapped some of the joy from summer. Kids are no longer allowed to have a moment of boredom. Instead, they must pack as much “enrichment” as possible into their days off from traditional school, lest they be left behind in the stampede toward some conventional metric of success.

This sensation of being in a race, even during summertime, is a hangover from the academic year. Throughout our education system we have come to prioritize speed over pretty much all other concerns.

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Granted, this emphasis on speed is sometimes necessary and useful. But, in many ways, it is misplaced and detrimental as depth, substance and even mental health become casualties of our compulsive fast-track mentality.

Take timed tests. In some cases, they make sense. It is often argued that students need to learn certain facts to the point where they can regurgitate them automatically.

That’s why elementary-age kids are forced to memorize addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts, for instance. Once these facts can be summoned quickly and accurately, students are able to move seamlessly to more complex computations — or so the thinking goes.

And it’s not just math. Some in the education community contend that students also must learn to write and spell not only accurately, but quickly; that way the act of writing is so automatic they can focus their brains more on content. Of course, it’s telling that this argument is often presented in the context of strategies for succeeding on timed tests.

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And therein lies the issue: Timed tests aren’t just one of many tools used to assess students’ absorption of subject matter we deem important. No, they rule over all of education.

Standardized testing consumes K-12 educational resources, overwhelms the best intentions of beleaguered teachers and saps students of their inherent passion for learning. Though it varies state to state, by the time students are high school seniors they’ve probably taken so many mandatory standardized exams — just a spitball, but I’d guess at least 100 — that they regard education more as a game to be won while the clock is ticking than a means of attaining knowledge and understanding.

The outsized importance we have given to these tests means that speed has become valued above all other considerations, despite repeated warnings that our “fast-is-best” system is actually detrimental to substantive learning.

Let’s go back to math. Early on, we identify kids who are “good at math” because they compute quickly. Though there’s nothing wrong with encouraging fast learners, what ends up happening is those kids who are slower — often merely because that part of the brain hasn’t developed as quickly — become discouraged and find themselves left behind, even though their lack of speed tells us nothing about their ability to reason, think deeply and grasp complex ideas.

That’s a shame, because with time and the proper resources these “slow learners” could excel. Instead, we’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy that dooms some kids to lifetimes of thinking of themselves as dumb. It’s also easy to imagine that our preoccupation with speed over depth and complexity is a key reason for the U.S. lagging behind the math performance of students in other countries.

Indeed, six years ago the Atlantic magazine thoroughly debunked the “I’m bad at math” myth, which it called “the most self-destructive idea in America today.”

There’s another aspect of focusing predominantly on speed that’s worth considering. It creates the impression that mistakes are bad and need to be avoided at all costs. Not only is that counterproductive — working on tough problems and concepts, failing and trying again until a breakthrough finally occurs is where the magic can happen — but it also contributes to anxiety, which is harmful to learning.

It’s understandable that parents might worry that their children’s brains will turn to mush during the summer, or that it will be too hard keeping them from endless hours on the internet or watching TV. They might think that maintaining a fast pace is the only realistic option — that, in today’s competitive world, students can’t risk losing knowledge and mental acuity during the long break.

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Slowing down doesn’t equate to doing nothing or learning nothing, though. It just means a more easygoing approach that is less structured and hurried.

Reclaiming a bit of the slow-lane lifestyle in the summer might not alleviate the need for speed that dominates the school year — but it wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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