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The story is told that John Dewey, while visiting a classroom one day, asked the students what they might find if they dug a hole in the earth. Nobody answered. He asked a second time and again was met with silence. Finally, the teacher suggested that Professor Dewey had asked the wrong question. ‘What is the sate of the center of the earth?’ she asked her class, and all the students chorused, ‘Igneous fusion.'”

from The Schools Our Children Deserve, by Alfie Kohn (an endnote notes that “The Dewey story appears in Paul et al., 1989, p. 41.”)

I remember well the paralyzing fear I felt when asked a question like this as a kid. I would have been right there with the rest of the class sitting silently puzzled. Dirt, worms, plant roots, rocks, maybe some water, these would all go through my head, but I would be scared out of my mind that this was not what he was looking for and that I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the context of the question and my place in the world as a(n) _th grader. I remember thinking it was unfair to be asked a question that had several right answers, because in school there was only one that the evaluators were ever looking for. “Igneous fusion,” I would have chanted along with my classmates, thinking how stupid it was to have thought of those other things.

Every question felt like a quiz or a test. The only acceptable answer was the right answer. There was nothing to learn from a wrong answer except that I was as stupid as I believed myself to be.

I remember feeling silly paying attention to what I ate the day of a test. I remember thinking that if I just ate what I normally ate that I would have my normal energy. I remember being the most bored and tired and weepy during testing weeks.

I remember feeling a tremendous amount of guilt if I had to guess. First, I would feel guilty that I had to guess…that I didn’t already know the answer or at the very least have a good idea of what the answer might be. Secondly, I felt like guessing was dishonest. I felt that if I guessed right, that it would be a lie because I didn’t actually know the answer. But the teacher evaluating the test would assume that I knew the answer. There were times when I left questions blank in order to not feel like I was making a bad situation worse.

Tests made me feel like a senseless fool. Tests made me feel lethargic and unhealthy. Tests made me feel ashamed and they made me a liar. Even when I got enough answers “right” for it to be deemed ‘A’ work, I knew in my heart that I could have done better and that I didn’t really know all that much about the subject on which we’d just been tested. I was relieved that it was over and that after a few minutes I could forget and put it all behind me.

I only ever remember being proud about one test. It was a test on which I got 100% an A+. Only one other person got a perfect score on that test. But I knew that even though he was the smartest kid in the class, I knew more about the subject than he did. It was a test on fire safety and as the daughter of a firefighter, I knew that I knew this subject better than my teacher. Lord help me if I had even answered one of those questions incorrectly though, I would have been devastated.

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