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Learning at its Best

A Sample of Insanity

Sample C on the AIMS test asks which resource would be best used to find the population of Tunisia.

“Is that the population before or after the revolution?” a girl asks.

“I’m sorry. Even for a sample question, I’m not allowed to answer you,” I say.

“So you can’t be a teacher and at least clarify a bad question?” she asks.

“What’s an encyclopedia?” a boy asks.

“It’s like wikipedia, but it’s in big fat books,” another girl explains.

“That can’t be the right answer. The numbers wouldn’t be up to date,” he says.

“I think it’s a trick question. Anyone knows you would go online. I think the CIA keeps a page like this that has all the population numbers of other countries,” the boy responds.

“You could just Google it,” a girl says. “Or if you want to be different, you could use Alta Vista.”

“I wouldn’t Google it. I would post it to Twitter and see what each person answers and then compare the sources,” a boy says.

“No, just Google it,” the girl says.

I cut them off, reminding them that even in a sample question, we have to keep answers to ourselves. It’s my job to remind us of the sample question. On most days, I would encourage students to find their own method of solving a problem, but today it’s about uniformity.

When I share the correct answer as encyclopedia, the class laughs.


Not minimal laughter, either. But true laughter. Robust laugher. Straight from the belly laughter. I think they were waiting for a C-list celebrity to jump out and tell us it that it’s all a trick and that we’re being video-taped for a reality show.

“First of all, who would ever want to know the population of Tunisia and second of all who, after asking that question would run to the nearest location of an out-of-date encyclopedia? Seriously, that’s insane,” Google Girl says.

Yep, it’s insane; and while it’s true that we have no C-list celebrity or video camera, we’re putting on a hell of a reality show.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


20 thoughts on “A Sample of Insanity

  1. It’s stories like this that we must all share – over and over again – until the Emperor knows that he is indeed naked.

    Great post, John!


    Posted by Joe Bower | April 18, 2011, 11:26 pm
  2. Great post!

    A reason why I will often break the rules and let kids use smart phone / I-pod Touches to look up answers to questions they raise. We will then at least discuss the source they are using

    Posted by teacherken | April 19, 2011, 6:58 am
  3. I laughed out loud at this. But it was nervous laugh, the kind you find yourself in the middle of when you don’t know if something is really funny or truly tragic.

    Posted by Roderick Vesper | April 19, 2011, 9:12 am
  4. Great post. Great story. We seriously need to rethink assessment.

    Posted by emergentmath | April 19, 2011, 9:22 am
  5. Great post. I posted a picture last week of a pull-down map that had Zaire on it. I also leafed through an encyclopedia in the building that had dozens of pages dedicated to the U.S.S.R as a current entity.

    The example you just wrote about certainly illustrates why teachers need to examine what we do through a modern lens.

    I think sometimes people go off the deep end bashing tests, because a large majority of the questions are timeless and appropriate, but questions like these make us all look bad. These kinds of questions hurt us because kids won’t trust or respect us when we look silly.

    One side note: there is a great teachable moment here. I can’t think of a better way to introduce critical thinking than this. If the students are told to have an objective view of this test and think about who the authors are and what they believe, the kids would probably be able to deduce that encyclopedia is the “right” answer.

    It is like teaching science on some level. We should never tell students “this is the right answer” we should ask, “What do scientists currently believe?” That what we really want them to know anyway.

    Posted by George Haines | April 19, 2011, 9:24 am
  6. Wow, this perfectly highlights why one answer type test are just silly. Books and ever changing data just don’t go together anymore…… why not just use these tests as a way to start discussion. John shows perfectly that his student have a understand of resources and where and how to look for them. They also show that even tests are outdated the minute they are written if all they are testing is facts.

    thanks for this!

    Posted by dloitz | April 19, 2011, 12:48 pm
  7. Awesome post! We forget the lunacy of trying to measure things not worth measuring, i.e. conformity.

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | April 19, 2011, 3:39 pm
  8. Would any of your students blog about this from their POV(s)?

    What do you want to do locally and at the state-level after hearing a conversation like this? How can we highlight this incident and get our leaders to react to it?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 20, 2011, 6:49 pm
    • I think the political and social layers make it difficult for them to take up the cause publicly. At some point, perhaps. They’ve blogged about it before. They’ve written legislators, too. However, they repeatedly hear no feedback and grow frustrated.

      Posted by johntspencer | April 20, 2011, 7:40 pm
  9. i love this story–in a sad absurd way of course! I supervise student teachers (aka interns) at a 4 year university. Last year one of my best and brightest called me in a panic. SHe said her 2nd graders had not gotten the math lesson for that. She said she had some great ideas for re-teaching it, deviating from the textbook/curri
    culum. I asked her, “So are you asking me if it’s ok to deviate from a standard lesson which clearly didn’t work so that you can teach it in a way that is meaningful and helpful for them? And you are asking me if that’s ok????”
    She said sheepishly, “yes”
    “What would be the point of teaching it any OTHER way. You need PERMISSION from ME to teach them the way you believe will best reach them??”
    She said “yes, is that ok?”
    This is what beginning teachers are facing-they are too afraid to even teach in meaningful ways if it deviates from the bad, poorly designed textbook that doesn’t know these kids from a box of rocks.

    Posted by obannon | April 20, 2011, 8:54 pm
  10. John, this is a story well told. Now what are you/we going to do so that we stop participating in the insanity?

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 22, 2011, 8:54 pm
    • So far, all I can do is:

      1. Not teach to the test. Teach as authentically as possible. Avoid test review packets.
      2. When my students succeed on the test, despite not being taught to it, I continue to point toward constructivist teaching.
      3. Call lawmakers, participate in reform groups and write. I can express my voice.

      The list above feels weak. Why not just refuse to administer the test, for example? Why not start a march or a protest?

      Perhaps it’s wisdom. Perhaps it’s courage. Perhaps it’s complacency. Perhaps it’s recognizing that my place is within the classroom.

      It’s a deeply personal battle.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | April 23, 2011, 9:40 pm
      • John,

        I appreciate your honest reflection. It’s not an easy question, we have so many things to consider and prioritize. I do think at some point in the near future there will need to be collective resistance to insane structures such as these tests. Until then, putting one’s neck on the line through refusing to administer a test for example, probably is unwise and would lack impact on the problem.

        With hope,

        Posted by Adam Burk | April 24, 2011, 11:26 am
      • Love this story. I have awful memories of taking standardized tests. I never did very well on them. I would get bored, be paranoid about not finishing on time, be worried I color in the circle sloppily and get the answer wrong. I would also start to look at the patterns of letters on the answer sheet and think, “wow I have 5 letter A answers in a row, that doesn’t make sense, no one would write a test like that.”

        Posted by Deidra | May 11, 2011, 9:27 pm


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