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I Want Candy

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Like flowers in spring, those little tricks that supposedly boost student performance pop up every standardized-testing season. Some paint classroom walls a soothing pink while others, hoping to pump the adrenaline, lead pre-test physical exercises. In parts of Maryland this week, they’re handing out peppermint candies. And, as it turns out, there may be a good scientific reason. Back in the ’90s, a study at the University of Cincinnati concluded that the peppermint scent helped test subjects focus better on long-term tasks. Reactions at the 800-student Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring are mixed. “I don’t think [peppermint] makes you smarter,” one 11-year-old says, “but it clears your mind and makes you feel more confident.” An ETS research scientist suggests that, even if the science is questionable, the suggestion that peppermint helps may have a positive impact. But Paul Skilton-Sylvester, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, believes folks are missing the point. Using a Philadelphia specialty as an example, he comments (with due sarcasm): “We’ve found that test scores go up when there’s a steady diet of cheese steaks with provolone, in combination with exciting lessons that ask students to wrestle with important ideas connected to real world problems.” Chew on that.

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Our metric minds and data-driven hearts focus on band-aid solutions addressing a flawed assumption in the first; quality education = high scores. If this is our focus, then educational and psychological research will deem "learning inputs" worthwhile if and only if they raise scores. We are not encouraged to nourish the inputs really leading to better education - intrinsic motivation and social concern.

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