I used to tell my students, “There isn’t any question you can come up with that you cannot find an answer to, or at least a good approximation of an answer to it, in the library.” In the past fifteen years, I changed the location of those answers to the Internet, since nearly everything in written form is rapidly being digitized. In the past year, I have been saying to my students, “I look up most answers to questions I have on my pocket computer.” And then I hold up my smartphone. “Look it up” is how we all educate ourselves beyond the school years.
Why do we have to memorize so much in school? Because that’s how schools have been run for millennia. A score or grade must be produced and memorization is said to be the key to that score or grade. But is it? The world does not work that way. Yes, memory is used in most jobs in the real world, but it is the memory of habit built up over weeks, months, or years of experience. When memory fails, the world says, “look it up.”
William Glasser makes this point in his 1969 book Schools Without Failure. The closed-book, memory-measuring examination, he states, is based on the “fallacy that knowledge remembered is better than knowledge looked up” (p. 72, italics omitted). “I would hate,” Glasser continues, “to drive over a bridge, work in a building, or fly in an airplane designed by engineers who depended only upon memory.” Good surgeons halt surgery to look up key steps in a procedure; the not-so-good ones—products apparently of “too many closed-book tests,” Glasser observes—rely on memory, sometimes “to the extreme detriment of the patient.”
The world says “look it up.” School says “memorize it,” even though decay rates after testing, without further use of the material, are exceptionally high. So why not use open-book testing in the schools? This is precisely what Glasser advocates, to teach students how “to use reference material quickly and efficiently.” It is what I have been doing over the past sixteen months . . . and no ivory-towered walls have come a-tumblin’ down.
In three different courses I have given ten open-book, open-notes exams (both midterm and final). Average scores have been higher than with the closed-book versions, but the grade distributions are not unusual; advanced study is still required to be successful at taking an open-book exam. My students certainly prefer open-book testing, though all or nearly all have never been exposed to it before and, as in all test-taking, a certain strategy has to be learned. I told my students to go through the test initially as if it were a closed-book exam, then go back to look up specific answers lest they run out of time looking up an answer to one question and find themselves unable to finish the test.
As Glasser concludes, “Faced with a problem in life, we marshal all of the facts we can; we don’t rely on our memories unless we have to.” Open-book tests teach us “to give thought to necessary reference material, and to utilize facts to solve problems, develop concepts, and explore issues. Closed-book tests defeat all of these objectives.”
Then there is the artificial and false nature of testing. As I have written before (Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, p. 158):
Testing is a contrived situation that seldom corresponds to the reality it is supposed to represent. Supermarket shoppers in one study performed arithmetic calculations far more accurately in the store than on a formal test. . . . And one boy, considered the dumbest in his class, was discovered by his teacher to be a paid scorekeeper in a bowling alley, simultaneously tracking the progress of two teams of four players each. The teacher promptly created word problems, requiring students to calculate scores for games of bowling. The boy could not do the problems.
Time to inject education with a little reality.