My 'vocational test'

As a high school student, I once took a ''vocational aptitude test'' designed to help me select a career. I liked math. So when asked whether I would rather (a) read a history book, (b) kick a soccer ball, or (c) solve a mathematical puzzle, I chose the latter. But I also liked playing in the high school band. So, question after question, I highlighted everything musical and mathematic. When it was over, our puzzled guidance counselor described my future - as the business manager for a music group.

I've pondered that incident, as a steady stream of articles, reports, and speeches about reforming the nation's schools has flowed across my desk. Surely that test was a well-meaning attempt to help me. It correctly assessed my interests; it matched them with available careers. In fact, it was reasonably successful in what it set out to do. So what was wrong?

Simply this: It tested only the quantity, and not the quality, of my choices. It counted the times I replied in certain ways; it never asked what the replies meant. So it never encouraged my counselor to examine what attracted me to math and music. It never led us to recognize, for example, that both are especially dependent on fixed laws and rules; that each demands long hours of solitary thought and practice; and that each allows creativity and self-expression only after a complex symbolic language has been mastered. The test never predicted that those math-and-music qualities might flow out into a hundred different careers - one of which, apparently, could be writing prose.

In a recent speech before the National Association of Independent Schools, Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes what the makers of my high school test seem to have needed. The goal of education, he told his audience, is ''to help all students gain perspective - to help them see the connectedness of things.'' What the test most needed was that sense of underlying interconnec-tions, that willingness to find relationships where there seem to be only dif-ferences.

On that very point, the current debate on education is most encouraging. In a recent speech at Brown University, John Ratte, headmaster of the Loomis Chaffee School, noted that the flurry of recent reports on American education have a common theme. Reform, he told his audience, no longer appears to lie (as it did in recent decades) in ''nationwide curriculum innovations, new school structures , new ways of using time, or new ways of grouping students.'' Needed instead, he said, is a focus on what rather than how - best provided by teachers who are so ''confidently rooted in a subject'' that they can ''show high school students the commonalities of learning.''

The commonalities of learning, the connectedness of things - the current debate, seizing this high and noble ground, is at last beginning to talk not of quantifiables but of qualities. And rightly so. In this age of statistics, we're swamped by numbers. We find the great question of perspective - the ringing So what? - is too easily lost.

This emphasis on qualities rather than quantities is, in part, a clear reassertion of human values in the face of technology. More than that, it's also a renewed insistence on saying So what? to the data - on finding significance where otherwise there is only detail. The willingness to ask that question, in fact, is what separates education from vocational training.

Making a habit of asking it, we come face to face with ''the connectedness of things'' and ''the commonalities of learning.'' If the reformers insist that every reform move each student closer not simply to a satisfying vocation but to an understanding of connectedness and commonality, it will have been much more than a mere debate.

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