Saturday, January 11, 2014

Testing: The Enemy of Life-Long Learning

This morning, as I was watching my wife make pancakes for breakfast, I started thinking about the absurdity of testing.  Lori is an incredible cook, but has never once taken or passed a cooking test.  She just learned because she enjoyed it.  She tries new recipes, and we give her feedback on those recipes, which she then uses to learn more.

This got me thinking about how harmful a testing culture is for our students.  I'm not just talking about standardized high-stakes tests, but all tests that are designed to measure learning out of the context for which that learning needs to be used.
Photo credit:  Wikipedia

People always say, "We need tests because life is full of tests."  That's nonsense.  Life isn't full of tests.  It's full of assessments.  As an adult, I can count the number of tests I've had to take since college on 1 hand.  As adults, we do stuff and either succeed or learn to do something differently the next time.  If I make pancakes for my kids, I don't need to pass a test first to do it.  I just make them.  And if they are awful, I either fix the recipe or get asked to make omelets next time. 

That's life.  Trial and error.  

The vast majority of adults don't take tests, but we are constantly tested (assessed would be a better word), and we get lots of feedback. When we prepare kids for a world of taking tests, we don't prepare them for the real world which will require them to process the feedback they constantly get from their assessments. Testing forces them to see things as black and white, success or failure. It teaches them that either they know something, or they don't. It doesn't teach them to learn what they don't know. 

Testing teaches our students not to be the life-long learners that we so often preach about in schools, but upon which we so rarely focus our efforts.  

If we really care about our students being life long learners, we need to start assessing them in a way that encourages them to learn from their mistakes.  We need to move away from a culture of testing and towards a culture of meaningful, relevant assessment that mirrors what students will see when they leave our schools.  

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Michael. Your thoughts led me to my own blog post: http://www.irreverent-learning.com/2014/01/learning-confounded-standardized-tests.html.

    Standardized tests have never been the answer, but they seem more deeply embedded in our academic psyche than ever before. This is most certainly a case of the tail wagging the dog.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, for your post, and for keeping the conversation going. I left you a comment on your post with some additional thoughts that it inspired.

      -Mike

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  2. This is right on point Michael. Our assessment practices have to have some basis in how the world actually works.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Eric. I agree, and we need to separate "assessment" from "grading." They have come to mean the same thing in many places, but they are very different. Assessment should be about feedback for the learner. Grades are something we've invented to rank, sort, and judge kids. Parents, schools, colleges, etc. like them, but they do nothing to help kids learn.
      -Mike

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  3. A post after my own heart as I'm on a mission to transform point chasers to knowledge seekers. This goes for both students and educators.

    I like your quote "If we really care about our students being life long learners, we need to start assessing them in a way that encourages them to learn from their mistakes." I absolutely agree! Formative assessments are the backbone to student learning and teacher instruction. It allows me to keep my fingers on the pulse of each learners needs.

    Then there is this quote "a culture of meaningful, relevant assessment that mirrors what students will see when they leave our schools." Thus we have the double edge sword. Unfortunately, students attending colleges will only see summative assessments. However, this is why it is so important for secondary educators to focus on formative descriptive feedback. If students were to encounter this in every class of their educational career they would leave us knowing how to monitor their own learning because we modeled it with them day in and day out.

    Sadly, if educators only focus on the end test with little descriptive feedback along the way all we do is create a generation of students that believe education is something that has been done to them instead of for them.

    Thank you for the great post it has me thinking:-)

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  4. Hi Charity!
    Thanks for the great comment. Your point about college assessments is spot on. Unfortunately, colleges often have some of the most grade-driven, top-down, poor assessment and pedegogical practices around. I know this is a stereotype, and that there are amazing college professors, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

    When we picture college classes we often think of lecture halls with a few hundred kids listening to some expert speak at them for a class period. That's not good pedagogy, and there is no formative assessment to allow professors to change course to meet the needs of their students. Students are left to figure things out on their own, or fail.

    This is why I cringe every time I hear teachers talk about doing things in K-12 because "that's what they are going to see in college." If colleges use terrible pedagogy and assessment, why on Earth would we copy that?

    Which goes to your other point in that paragraph - If we teach kids to love learning, to monitor their own learning, to think critically and innovatively, etc. There is no college course they won't be able to handle. They will be self-directed enough to survive the poor pedagogy that's going to be thrown at them. Giving them bad teaching to prepare them from college won't help them; it will cripple them.

    Again, I appreciate the great comment. Thanks for reading and for taking the time.

    -Mike

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