Homeschooling parents desire to give their children a better education than the one they received. However, we often fall back on the same methods that were used in our education, particularly in the area of assessment. Instead, let us pause and think about a true education and how our assessment can serve our purposes. The word education comes from the Latin verb educere which literally translates “to lead out of.” What are we leading them out of? In classical, Christian education we are leading students out of darkness, out of error. We want our assessment to serve our mentorship and discipleship of students. How can we use assessment to lead our students out of error?
Most of us had the experience of cramming for a test and promptly forgetting everything we learned. In contemporary society, we have embraced the multiple-choice test (preferably with bubbles that can be colored in). We have accepted the notion that we can efficiently and blindly sum up a mass of students in this way. However, those kinds of assessments separate school from real life. If a student memorizes biology terms solely for the purposes of passing a test in order to temporarily please a teacher or parent, what have they really learned about biology? Instead, what if our goal for the study of biology is to encourage students to revel in the amazing details of creation and to consider what they mean? What if we encouraged high school students to go beyond memorizing organ systems and focused on what they learn about the Creator by understanding how those systems work together?
In Classical Conversations, we want to guide students from knowledge to understanding to wisdom. It is not enough for our high school students to simply memorize organs in order to pass a biology test. We want them to think about how those systems reflect the mind of the Maker. It is not enough for our students to learn how to construct syllogisms in logic or even to memorize the rules of validity. We want them to be able to engage our culture by recognizing the unsound arguments of others and presenting sound arguments of their own.
It is also not enough for our students to learn about science, Latin, math, history, and literature as separate subjects. Instead, we want our students to see the big ideas that transcend these subjects. We want them to learn to think in an integrated way.
At this point, we have established two important goals for assessment: 1) to assess how far students have moved out of erroneous thinking, and 2) to help students think about God’s world in an integrated way. Now, we need a new methodology for assessment.
Some of us took essay exams in college that were called “blue books” in honor of the blue paper covers. This method allows students to express their ideas and teachers to evaluate that expression. In the Challenge program, we are beginning to recover this lost form of assessment.
For example, a Challenge III blue book might integrate history, literature, and philosophy as follows: “Define man. Compare/contrast your definition with those of three of the philosophers we have studied this year. How did Shakespeare define man? Give examples from two of our plays. How did the Founding Fathers define man? How did this affect the framing of the Constitution?”
Students cannot cram for this kind of assessment. Instead, they are encouraged to reflect on the discussions they have had together for an entire semester across various subjects. They are encouraged to reflect upon how their studies in different areas have all contributed to a better understanding of humankind. They are encouraged to weigh the ideas of thinkers who have gone before them. As they reflect and add their own thoughts, they have truly entered the classical conversation.