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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: “Multiple Choice” Culture

How youngsters are groomed for the consumer society.

The most alert observers of educational trends have for some time noticed that for the purposes of evaluation, especially in the US, the multiple choice test has taken an unassailable dominant position. Many have examined its deficiencies and dangers, but many more defend multiple choice questions (MCQ) because they make their lives either easier (when grading tests) or more profitable (when publishing tests).

Now a new reason has emerged for critiquing MCQs. In one particular case, the mother of a second grader detected a serious problem in her son’s homework. She discovered what she believes to be racist innuendo in one of the distractors (the name for a wrong answer in an MCQ). Here is the question:

Source: Pop Sugar

Which leads to today’s 3D definition:

Multiple choice:

A popular format for questions used for the purposes of testing and learning, carefully designed to restrict creative and critical thinking and reduce knowledge to standard, uncritically examined formulations

Contextual note

This question made the news because this mother detected something potentially offensive in the wording. To her politically correct mind, “master” = white and “slave” = black. Whether this was the intention of the author of the question is debatable, but the sin of using words that might possibly be offending was enough to create a stir. “How I read it is that masters are better than slaves, and therefore white people are better than black people.”

The notions of “master” and “slave” are concepts that describe a power relationship, without specific reference to race. Slaves have existed and continue to exist in various human societies. The reality of slavery in human history provides a living metaphor for the systematic abuse of power. At his recent speech in Davos, George Soros, for example, complained about the excessive power of Facebook and Google: “The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe, but in fact, they are slaves to preserving their dominant position.”

The focus on race — provoked by the trigger word “slave” — distracts from the real problem with this text: the nature of the question itself and its ideational content. The “right” answer — that a masterpiece is “a thing that is done perfectly” — is contestable. The greatest masterpieces are never perfect. They are compelling, often thanks to their imperfections. If there’s a deeper cultural bias to be detected here, it’s in the notion that perfection is a legitimate goal and that a class of masters, whatever their race, routinely achieves it.

What effect will this produce on the learner? Pavlovian psychology teaches us that the reward attached to getting it right will reinforce the belief that the statement is true. When and how will the child manage to unlearn this “imperfect” information? This highlights a general problem with MCQs. They frequently present poorly formulated, simplistic and even false statements as “correct.”

Historical note

The debate about the value of MCQs has been raging for some time, but, as Wikipedia notes, “despite being sometimes contested, the format remains popular due to its utility, reliability, and cost effectiveness.” In other words, it appeals to the lazy and venal. And it has become an accepted institution within the world of education.

The very notion of multiple choice emerged in the US in the 20th century and accompanied the rise of consumer culture. It reflects the logic of the free market, powerfully conditioning young learners’ worldview. Life in consumer society is an endless sequence of purchasing choices. Those who succeed are those who make the best choices in their own interest. The ultimate definition of an individual is a person who constructs an identity by choosing among the items that other people have mass produced.

In this case, the producers are the authors and publishers of tests and sometimes the teachers themselves. Though their intention is to consolidate knowledge, they are actually grooming learners to be consumers who will dedicate their lives to selecting the best products offered to them by competing companies. Shopping is the ultimate multiple choice.

MCQs have a lasting effect on the status our society gives to knowledge itself. They encourage a model of right/wrong binary logic and discourage and even punish the appreciation of nuance. As one astute critic, Terry Heick at Edutopia, points out, resorting to MCQs to test or to teach has an even more insidious effect: it seriously alters the “tone of learning,” a concept that merits further reflection.

Could it be then that educational institutions and teachers who rely on MCQs are quite literally tone-deaf?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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