Not Everything Good Is Measurable

Feb 23, 2017

One day, when my husband got home from work, he joined me at the kitchen window to watch our children. "What are they doing?" he asked. 

"Digging, of course.”

While searching for a new house, my children had had one request: a place to dig.  

“What do they want with a hole? When will they know to stop?” 

I looked at him and shrugged, unknowing.

After a few months, we had a hole that the Burke children were quite proud of. “It’s a great hole,” they tell their friends. “We have the best hole!” they exclaim. It isn't terribly deep, probably just over two feet, but it has a diameter of about four feet. Lots of small children can hide in it if they ball up. 

What intrigues me the most about the dig hole, as we affectionately know it around here, is what the kids do with it. Sometimes they use it to accomplish more tasks that I don’t understand. They almost filled it up with acorns this fall. They discovered that slipping around on thousands of acorns in a hole is great fun. After they emptied out the acorns, they filled it up with leaves. This made for a perfect place to bury themselves. 

If we define our children’s education solely by measurements then our children may think that there is a point where education is finished.

They play countless imaginary games in it. It has been the hideout for good guys to tunnel to other worlds, a storeroom for their secret treasures, a trap for bad guys (and they were delighted when they watched an actual trespasser almost fall in the hole one day).

The work of a child is fascinating. What seems like meaningless work or just child’s-play to adults is really a powerful way for them discover this world and to think about other worlds. 

As a home educator, feeling the weight of the responsibility of my children’s education, I can get concerned about doing enough. I hear my friends’ anxiety when we discuss choosing the right curricula that will teach the children everything they need to know. We stress over the number of books we’ve read and the scores on standardized tests, and as we measure the children, we measure ourselves. We determine to do better, to do more, to finish ahead of everyone.  

In North Carolina, where I live, third grade is the first year for high stakes tests in public school. Friends tell me about their eight-year-olds crying every day before school. They tell me about the weekly practice tests, the threats of retention and summer school, the concern from the teachers over their own professional evaluations influenced heavily by the test results.

When I was a public school teacher, I was expected to have every minute of instruction time accounted for, and everything that was part of the scope and sequence had to be covered in 180 days. There was no time left for idleness or invention, for the students nor for me. My job description was to keep my students' minds engaged, to fill up their mind with everything they need to know based on the state's standards. I worked hard to ask them the right questions that would lead to the right answers. The most important thing, we were told, was that the students must do well on their tests, that everything important to a child’s education can be measured. 

But how do you measure what a child does in a hole? How do you measure the stretching of their imagination? How do I measure the growth of virtue and the roots of truth in a child’s heart? Do I need to? 

Education is not about passing a test. Education is not about achievement. If we reduce it to measurements, we discredit the importance of beauty, of truth, and of virtue. In Teaching from Rest, Sarah Mackenzie says, “Remember how far we progress in a book does not matter nearly as much as what happens in the mind and heart of our student, and for that matter, in ourselves.” 

When we share laughter and conversation at the dinner table, we can’t see how our family is growing in love for each other. When we read aloud to our children, we cannot see what is happening in their imaginations. When we study Latin, we cannot see the growth in character that comes from hard work. When we memorize poetry, we cannot see a love of beautiful words developing. Much of our job does not generate measurements. Much of the work of a child cannot be measured.

Thoughts For When Students Prefer Hunger Games to Homer

Classical teachers become classical teachers because they have fallen in love with the Good, and,

The third-grade test high-stakes test doesn’t really measure what the student has learned. The SAT’s don’t tell us the most important thing for our students to learn next. The number of books read in class doen’t measure the ability of the teacher. Graduation doesn’t automatically equate an educated human.

If we define our children’s education solely by measurements then our children may think that there is a point where education is finished. Our children who struggle may give up, thinking education isn’t for them.

Maybe we’d improve education if we all became a little more comfortable with the holes that are part of our children’s education and a part of our own education. Not everything good is measurable. Not every measurement is beneficial. 

A few weeks ago, a family visited us at our home. “What’s the hole for?” my friend asked.  

“Anything they want it to be.” I’m comfortable with the metaphor in my backyard.  

Jessica Burke

Jessica Burke

Jessica Burke lives in Greensboro, NC with her husband and their four children. As a family, the Burkes have traveled to more than 14 countries and have survived some adventures they won’t tell the grandparents about.