Those Teachable Moments in a Standardized World

Does standardized testing stifle teacher creativity?

Or are teachers their own worst enemy?

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question. 'They' have clearly never been a middle school teacher.

There is not enough patience in the world to repeatedly answer questions about your love-life (or in my case, lack thereof) and the significance of the number 69.

But one day, I was asked a question that changed my entire perspective on education.

"Why is it called the 'Middle East'?" asked one of my 8th graders.

The class broke out in laughter. What kind of question is that? Did he forget this is math?

In education, this is what we call a teachable moment--an opportunity to teach a valuable lesson to students outside the boundaries of lesson plans and education standards. Teachable moments can occur anywhere, anytime, and about anything. It could be an opportunity to teach students about conflict-resolution (after an argument between peers), sustainability (when students waste resources), or any topic raised by a very curious student.

As a social science major, this student's question on the Middle East was of particular interest to me. Immediately, my brain began recalling the history of European colonialism and its central role in creating the modern map. Of course, any topic about power-structure is exciting for a teacher because it can be very impactful--especially for young girls and students of color.

But alas, I restrained my excitement and remained responsible. I replied, in my oh-so-serious teacher voice, "Get back to work."

These days, standardized testing forces classrooms to run like clockwork. Teachers have far too much material to cover in far too short of an academic year. Actually less than an academic year, since testing is usually in March or April. And with many teachers' jobs contingent upon results, there is immense pressure to cover as many standards as quickly as possible.

Consequently, there is no longer time for the fun lessons that inspired many of us to become teachers in the first place. And sadly, the sheer amount of material to teach leaves no wiggle room for these opportune teachable moments. It's no wonder that 72% of teachers are against using computer-based standardized tests to monitor student performance and progress.

Needless to say, I couldn't teach about the Middle East in my math class.

Or could I?

I couldn't get my mind off this student's question; in fact, I found it rather important to talk about. Perhaps, if I tried hard enough, there was a way for me to integrate this topic into my math class.

After some scrambling back at my desk, I discovered multiple ways how. I could project a map of the Middle East and use scale to help understand its size. I could talk about the region's population using statistics and probability. And understanding cardinal directions is a map-reading skill that my students need for the Common Core.

This student's question on the Middle East is only relevant if I made it relevant. So I quickly put the lesson together.

Many teachers still believe that the interplay between standardized testing and creative lesson-planning is a zero-sum game. Admittedly, I did too. But after this moment, I realized that teachers can still plan the lessons they always wanted to teach--they just need to be extra creative by weaving in the standards. If anything, these lessons make our students more prepared for standardized tests since they utilize the real-world application of each skill.

Now I'm not saying teachers should just accept the current state of standardized testing. In truth, I believe there is a lot of room for reform. But at the same time, tests are a useful measurement for teachers on the effectiveness of their instruction.

Somewhere in this debate, I believe there exists a favorable middle ground for standardized testing. Unfortunately, the vocal disdain from teachers is stifling the discourse to get there.

So to all teachers: be creative. Teach those lessons you wanted to teach. Build standards around your creativity--not the other way around. Your passion, and therefore the standards, will speak volumes to your students. And of course, keep facilitating those teachable moments.

By the way, my Middle East lesson was a hit. Not only was I able to throw in some scale, probability, and map-reading, but I was also able to discuss the history of global power distribution and how it created the map we recognize today. My students had never been so enthralled with a lesson of mine before. And to be honest, neither had I.

At the end of class, I made sure to encourage my students to keep asking these types of questions, because that is the essence of learning.

Just maybe avoid the one about the number 69.