Teaching Shenanigans

I hate tests. Always have and always will. I had a teacher in high school who said that a test was “an opportunity to show what you have learned.” I call Shenanigans. Most tests show nothing more than one’s ability to memorize data and spew it out as fast as possible. It’s not learning, it’s regurgitating.

Both my wife and mother are educators. Every year they grumble about the time wasted preparing for and administering standardized tests. It’s pathetic that training children for a test has become more important than preparing them for life.

While some schools are attempting both and other innovative programs are atempting to excite students about learning, most fail to acknowledge that the system is broken.

When I was in elementary and middle school and the dreaded two weeks of testing came, I didn’t even pay attention to the test booklet. I took my scantron and created patterns and thought of words that contained only A through E.

I hated history until college. Why? Because in college I learned history wasn’t about memorizing dates, but about actual people and real events. Likewise, I didn’t read anything but Surfer Magazine because in high school I had always been taught to look for a specific genre, remember a plot or memorize a quote for a test. It turns out there are enjoyable stories behind frozen dates and literary jargon—if only I had learned that at a younger age.

My favorite class in seminary was taught by Colin Brown. He came to class everyday with a briefcase of books. During his lecture he’d hold them up one by one and say, “this guy believes this and this man disagrees because of this.”  He’d add in some commentary, telling stories, and then move on. He too hated tests.

Dr. Brown studied in the UK where he, after defending his doctoral dissertation, had comprehensive exams covering six years of classes. After the experience he promised he would never force a student to endure anything close to what he had to suffer through. There are plenty of other ways for students to display what they have learned.

His promise inspired me to take the same vow. I wasn’t even sure if I’d ever teach a class that required grading, but I knew that if I did, it would be test free. Yet, here I sit, writing a Systematic Theology exam and study guide for my students at Josophat Mwale Theological Institute.

I am conflicted. My middle school self, coke bottle glasses and all, would probably hunt me down and kick me in the shin. The part of me that took the SAT three times is crying. Yet the country of Malawi has standardized testing for every area of collegiate study, including theology.

I want to prepare the students for the test; it is my duty to do so. But more than anything I hope and pray I am able to teach that the study of Scripture and Theology is not about producing scripted answers, but about asking the correct questions. If they don’t pass the test in June it will be depressing, but if they end up in a congregation without the ability to critically examine what surrounds them it will be catastrophic.