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The life test

The words “aptitude test” are enough to send shivers down the spine of any student or parent. Sure, these tests –– which include school entrance exams, IQ tests, and many of the standardized tests that students are increasingly required to take –– are no fun for kids, but what benefits and/or detriments do they really have? Does analysis of a child’s aptitude in their formative years do anything to steer them towards being healthy, productive adults?
The process of achieving any goal, from tying your shoe to getting a Ph.D., has two parts: the “how” (i.e., the process) and the “what” (i.e., the desired result). Our educational system focuses on the “how” part. You should learn how to do mathematics, construct grammatical sentences, write research papers, and do biology experiments. The assumption is that as you become proficient in these processes, the results will take care of themselves.

Mike Mann

The problem with aptitude testing is that it throws a wrench into things by creating a “what” that is not always connected to a meaningful life goal. Getting good grades on aptitude tests requires not only knowing how to do mathematics, but how to take tests well. There aren’t any options as far as results go. Everyone takes the same test, no matter their skills and weaknesses. After you take it, you either do well, or you don’t.
The implication is that if you are going to do well in life, you will get good grades on the tests. Aptitude becomes a substitute for vision.

Even Jesus was tested

Looking at life, however, shows us that things are rarely as black-and-white as test results. The average person goes through five major career changes in his or her lifetime.
We don’t simply pass from one level to the next, as we do in school. If school is like a ladder, where you go from one rung to the next, then life in general is like a jungle. To get to the top of the canopy often means swinging on vines, crawling through multiple trees, watching the monkeys swing around, and taking cues from what they do. To achieve a desired result, we must be open to lots of possibilities of how to get there.
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to create comfortable living spaces; with his focus on living space as the result he wanted (the “what”), Wright was open to new possibilities in design, ones that had never occurred to most of his fellow architects, who were still designing houses by rearranging sets of boxes.
While traditional architects were sticking to one specific process and going up the ladder rung by rung, Wright was navigating the jungle; he bypassed the tree of traditional architecture entirely, found an even taller tree, and climbed to the top of that one.
What do all these metaphors mean for your child? Basically, our educational system has it right with the “how” part. We need to learn how to do things, but the desired result isn’t set in stone.
If your child does poorly on a test, or doesn’t get into a college of choice, don’t worry; there is time. Apple creator Steve Jobs didn’t graduate from college; he started his computer company, made a bunch of money, and then got fired. He then changed focus and started Pixar. Jobs refused to be daunted by one failure; when he couldn’t get to the top of one tree, he found another tree.
For too many people, a good chunk of their life is spent developing what they happened to have aptitude for as teenagers. If we prepare our children to have aptitude in a variety of things and not just test taking, our kids will become more well-rounded adults well-prepared to navigate the jungle of life.
Imagine that!
Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.story, a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!” She is a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. This column was written by Mike.
© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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