Essay vs. Multiple Choice Thinking

January 12, 2009

by Tammy Drennan


Have you ever seen one of those tests that measures the knowledge of Americans? They’re always multiple choice, never essay questions (ya gotta have stats).


If I were to give a test, I’d throw the ability to compile statistics to the wind. My test would be 100% essay questions.


Here’s what I’d ask:


1. How did America become such a land of growth and opportunity in the 200+ years it existed before mass compulsory schooling became common?


2. Read over the journals or diaries of some American young people who lived from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. What do you think about their writing and the level of maturity in their thinking?


3. Thomas Paine’s long pamphlet, “Common Sense,” written in 1776 to convince Americans that they should choose freedom from England, was a runaway best seller when it was published. It was written at a time when there was very little government involvement in education; almost all schooling was a private matter. It sold more copies per person than the Harry Potter books ever did. Read it and summarize Paine’s main points.


4. Before the government takeover of schooling, education was a growing concern among citizens, and options for schooling were expanding at every level of education and society. Who were some of the major historical figures who were unhappy with this state of affairs and what reasons did they give for wanting to impose their own education ideology by way of government compulsion?


5. Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and Communist China, among other tyrannies, all considered government control of education essential to maintaining power over citizens. If a country finds itself in danger of losing its freedom and most children already attend state schools, what do you think are the odds that parents will remove their children before it’s too late? Support your answer with reasons.


6. Many people believe that education and values cannot be separated. For instance, if history is taught without judgments about the right or wrong of events or actions, children will come to feel that there really is no right or wrong. If science is taught without exploring the ethics of certain practices (i.e., cloning), children grow up with the risk of using science for harm. If literature is an exploration of the human condition, conclusions – and judgments — must be drawn about the authors’ world views. In other words, education has a purpose beyond simply knowing facts and gaining skills to make money. Do you believe this is true? If so, do you believe the government should make the decisions about what values should be taught in relation to the subjects being studied? Why or why not?


If my test-takers were short on time, I would ask them to answer, at length, just the last question.


We live in a time when the questions are always “What do you know?” and “How do you feel about it?” I want to know what people think about what they know.


It’s thinking that results in action. John and Jane Doe may know all about the drawbacks of state schooling and they may not feel very good about having their children in those schools, but until they actively apply their brains by intentionally thinking about the life-long implications of being educated by the state, until they start thinking about what it means to be educated, their knowledge and feelings will probably not result in much action, just a little regret.


Unfortunately, one of the gifts we’ve received from state schooling is the gift of not thinking, the gift of shrugging our shoulders and saying “whatever” when asked to truly exercise our brains. The only thing that’s important is making sure we fill in the correct bubbles on the tests so we can move on to the next stage.


Short-term memory is vital to our institutional schooling “career.” Long-term memory less so. Thinking – hardly at all. To any degree that thinking is necessary, we’re told what to think – no effort required.


It’s time to start answering some essay questions and thinking and coming to some conclusions. Conclusions are not etched in stone. As we learn and think and mature, they may change. If we reject them, though, we can be sure that our politicians and social activists will help us, via compulsory state schooling, to embrace their conclusions.


People who like controlling others think a lot – they think about what they want and how to force others to accept it. They count on lulling the majority of people into enough dullness to keep them from thinking for themselves. There is no better vehicle for control than compulsory state schooling.


The majority of people are not driven to control others. Mass schooling ensures that they are also not driven to resist being controlled.


In our busy world, especially one in which school consumes so much of our children’s lives, it’s hard to make time to think and discuss.


A good way to begin is around the dinner table or for fifteen minutes before you start that movie or for fifteen minutes before you get out of the car after school. Discuss a quotation or a news event or a decision made by someone you know or by a well-known person. Talk about school and how your children might learn if the school system collapsed. Read something out loud to your children – the Declaration of Independence, parts of the Constitution. Listen to a great speech or book on tape, a segment at a time. Discuss question #6.


Once you start your brain on a roll, it gathers momentum, and before you know it, you start to feel ownership over that brain; it starts to feel capable and independent, even free.


Do essay thinking, not multiple choice thinking.