Had I been asked the question above, I believe my answer would be sort of evasive. I’m not particularly in favour of using tests as the only way to assess learning, but I also have a hard time believing tests are all bad. What I believe in, though, is that there are well-written tests and poorly made tests – and I also believe that fewer and fewer people have actually learned how to write a test. Much on the contrary, it seems we, educators, are all onboard with the view that tests do very little to help learners go beyond the remembering stage of learning. What I get from most talks about tests is that we equate tests with standardised testing, and that as fewer teachers are brave enough to say that tests may be useful, we are witnessing a time in which tests are getting simpler and simpler to score, and, consequently, demanding more memorisation skills than learning from students.
However, as William Shakespeare said, “There is a tide in the affairs of men…”, and we have to take advantage of things as they happen, so I decided to take advantage of a recommended article by one of the members of my PLN I grew to admire due to her insights and always amazingly packed with important information yet straight to the point comments and blog posts, @ssuzip. And even though Susi hasn’t made clear what her opinion is regarding this matter, I’m going to put myself out in the open and grant any kind of criticism that may come so I can maybe change my mind on the topic, or at least have better arguments the next time I write or talk about it.
The article was published on The New York Times on January 20th, and it’s title is To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test. As you’ve got it by now, it is in favour of testing as a learning tool. What comes to mind is that most of our parents and grandparents were educated in a system that praised tests. Furthermore, and I don’t think this is only nostalgia, standards were higher in terms of actually learning what you were supposed to learn. There weren’t things such as ADHD, as Sir Ken Robinson pointed out well here, and the whole concept of an affective side to education wasn’t really that big a deal. Nowadays, with the decline of another very important institution – family – schools have to bend over backwards to try to cater for both the cognitive and affective growth. On the one hand, this has helped us see there are numerous benefits in taking the learner as a whole human being. On the other hand, well, it may at times drive us away from our main goal of teaching and making sure our students achieve what they can fully achieve. Now, if all teachers were just as the ones who are likely to actually read this blog, I’d be completely off my rocker to say such a thing. Nevertheless, no matter how hard our PLN is, we’re still far from being the majority.
Unfortunately, there are many teachers who claim to be against tests without having ever read anything from, say, Alfie Kohn to back them up. I myself can’t say I’m familiar with his work, but most people whose blogs I visit and who are firm in their opinion of abandoning tests tend to consistently citing Kohn. The problem is not saying tests are good or bad – the problem is not being able to reason on your own whether they are good or bad. Coming back to the article and my beliefs towards testing, I must say I saw myself arguing with the text many times while reading it. For instance,
“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”
The very first thing to think about there regards the concept of learning. Had Mr. Karpicke stopped at retrieving, I’d probably stop reading the article right there. However, I agree with his view of learning as the ability to using what we’ve already seen and being able to adapt and make effective use of such memory. Shall we compare it to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains and focus on the cognitive domain? We need to remember what we have learned, but this has got to come into being with some sort of purpose, which will lead us to the following step – making use of what we’ve just remembered. In this regard, the very first thing (and, unfortunately, the only thing in some cases) tests do is make us retrieve information. Moving on with the article, we find out that students who are going to be tested have the feeling they don’t know as much as they should. In comparison, those students who are allowed to create diagrams and concept maps for the sake of learning, but who know they are not going to be tested, have the feeling they know pretty much everything they need to know. It turned out in research that the result was exactly the opposite when students were asked to remember the subject one week later.
Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.
However, in order for such things to take place, we’ve got to be able to write good tests. It can’t all be about rote learning and memorising passages. Tests can be used in education; let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I guess the very first thing is keeping an open mind. As Howard Gardner, and education professor at Harvard said,
the results “throw down the gauntlet to those progressive educators, myself included. Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches, like concept mapping,” he continued, “are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.”
The final word on testing in education, in my humble opinion, is yet to be said. I am, however, not in favour of abandoning tests altogether. I don’t think tests should be the only source of assessment in the classroom, either. My final quote from the article comes from Dr. Marcia Linn, “Some tests are just not learning opportunities. We need a different kind of testing than we currently have.” I guess she’s just touched the crux of the matter. As a teacher, I have to say that I had to learn about writing tests on my own, and I did take the time to read about it and look for data on the matter. This is not what most people who started teaching with me have done, though. It seems to be a big gamble and, in this hit-or-miss game of ours, more misses are made than hits, which only proves to strengthen the view that tests aren’t beneficial for learning. Add to that the fact that tests have become a million dollar business, and you’ll see that most people who advocate for tests aren’t exactly worried about learning. This, obviously, make them an easy prey for educators who, once again, see others not only making money out of something they consider serious – children’s learning – but also see those people doing things that make us, educators, look bad. We want to help children learn, testing companies want to make children take as many tests as possible so they can profit from them.
As my final words, I add that I agree with Penny Ur when she says that tests are one of the many sources of extrinsic motivation that teachers have control over in class. Just as anything, it can’t be overused. If tests are well-written, they can certainly help in the learning process. To what extent? This seems to be uncertain at the moment, but if we don’t keep an open mind, we might end up doing more harm than good by abandoning tests just because we want to follow the trend.
English (or any other language people speak) is hopelessly unsuited to serve as our internal medium of computation.
Stephen Pinker – The language instinct
People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking, or to talk to each other about the nature of thinking, we have to use – what else, words!
Does language emerge? And what exactly does that mean? Sugata Mitra defines emergence as the appearance of a property not previously observed as a functional characteristic of the system. Meddings and Thornbury (Teaching Unplugged) define emergence as “the idea that certain systems are more than the sum of their parts and that a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity”. All right, then. Why is it that I am writing about this? Well, Karenne Sylvester has published a blog post asking fellow bloggers to share their views regarding dogme in response to some challenges she is putting forward every Thursday. This is the bit she used as a basis to encourage us all to post an answer:
If learners are supplied with optimal conditions for language use, and are motivated to take advantage of these opportunities, their inherent learning capacities will be activated, and language – rather than being acquired – will emerge.
I guess the more meaningful teachers make language use, the easier it will be for learners to recall it. Successful, long-lasting learning is meaningful and personal. Needless to say, I do believe that people learn in different ways – one man’s meat is another man’s poison. However, I must say I really like the sentence that Karenne wrote on her blog post, which was taken from Teaching Unplugged. I’ll even go further and say that I agree with it.
It’s not an easy thing for teachers to provide learners with the optimal conditions for learning – I guess it’s even difficult for anyone to define what these optimal conditions are. We may, however, give it a try. When I think of optimal conditions for language use, I think of any kind of setting that poises no threat to the learner or language user. This may come from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – basic needs, etc. But this might be too abstract for some. How about going for the affective aspect of learning?
If our learners are put in a situation in which they feel they may speak freely without the fear of being misunderstood, and if they feel the classroom is a safe environment for them to make mistakes, this classroom might be considered, as much as possible, a place that offers optimal conditions for language use. Learners have got to pass the affective feedback in order to receive cognitive feedback, as Brown has illustrated quite well.
If learners feel they’re in a place where risks can be taken, well, it’s only fair that they feel a tad more confident and motivated to speak. This motivation to utter anything, however, depends a lot on the value of the learning activity that’s going to be carried out by the teachers. At this moment, it’s paramount that the teacher knows the group he or she is teaching. It’s only by knowing your audience that you can cater for them successfully. Fortunately, there’s one thing pretty much all human beings enjoy doing – engaging in conversation. Granted, not all of them like talking about the same things, but if you find out what ticks them, they’ll become chatterboxes.
We use language to hold conversations. We only speak because we want to have a conversation, regardless of the final purpose of such a conversation might be – finding out something about the person you’re talking to, persuading your interlocutor, apologising, making excuses, learning something, etc. If there’s no need to have a conversation, we pretty much eliminate the need for language, don’t we? Well, if this is so, we’ve got to learn how to say what we want to say in a way that our interlocutor understands, and we usually “learn” first what is meaningful to us. How many teenage girls have already learned how to say, “I love you” in at least nine different languages at a certain time in their lives? Why do they do so? Because it’s meaningful for them at that specific moment.
If teachers go out with their adult learners to have a class outside the boundaries of the classroom, it is amazing how much language learners remember from such an activity. I have already witnessed that. And I would say that, in that particular moment, they were experiencing optimal conditions for language use in a meaningful setting that motivated them to talk to one another using a language they were all still learning.
I have one more anecdote to share before I finish this. This happened to my dad when he was travelling in Europe, more specifically in Germany. He had never studied German, but he could speak lots of different languages: Russian, Romenian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, French, English, and Portuguese. When they got to Germany, a local spoke to them in German, to which he promptly answered in German. He was stratled by his reply, as he never knew he could speak German – but there it was.
Is this a fact of language emerging? Or is it just the complicated intricacies of our language generating machine that we still don’t know much about at work? Language emerges in a way that we witness a learner who’s never studied conditionals, for instance, being able to utter a correct sentence using such structure. How did it happen? He’s probably been exposed to it before, or maybe his brain simply tried out a certain structure based on previous knowledge. The fact is that there was the need for a certain sentence, and the brain simply took care of it.
Language can be taught, it can be learned, consciousness awareness is also an important aspect to be taken into account, but language also emerges. Learners will go beyond the bits and pieces that they’ve been taught and will be able to come up with something original as long as we teach them it’s OK to try. It is language interaction that fosters language learning, not exposure alone. And interaction asks for originality, it asks for more than what was taught. It asks for a certain drive to speak and manipulate the language, which subsequently emerges naturally.
Will I ever change my mind? Oh, probably! Perhaps even after some persuasive comments to this post, but so far this is what I believe in.
More posts in response to this question:
- Willy Cardoso – Emergence
- Sabrina De Vita – Fear of the unknown
- Cecília Coelho – Nature emerges…naturally. Does Language?
- Nick Jaworski – An Emergent Curriculum
- Mike Harrison – Sometimes a prop is really the best thing
- Candy Von Ost – What does it mean to say language emerges?
- Anne Hodgson – Dogme – Schmogme
- Sue Lyon Jones – Unanswered questions that continue to dogme…
- David Warr – For those who know…
I’d been thinking for a while about my first post to the blog. There are so many things to discuss in the field of ELT, and a lot of it is already discussed by many bloggers in a way that I’m not sure I’d be able to do. However, after a very interesting evening with my friends, something in particular caught my attention and I decided to blog about it. The question that this evening’s situation made me wonder about is: how often do teachers really observe their learners and take them and their needs into account when planning their lessons?
I’ve seen many teachers discussing what they did in their classroom, some of them even like to boast about the wonderful activities they came up with and used in their last lesson. More often than not, I’ve seen teachers (not only in my work situation) worrying a lot about what to do in the classroom without really caring about what their learners might really profit from that lesson. And these teachers are more than aware of the fact that learners don’t necessarily learn what you teach. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they just did? But we’ve got to face reality and deal with the fact that our lessons are not always successful. But then, what can we do about it?
I remember that when I started teaching, I’d always follow the coursebook and the teachers’ manual was holy to me. Fortunately (or at least I like to think so), time has changed my perception of what we should do in a classroom. To put it in a nutshell, teachers are in a classroom with learners. Teachers and learners are people. Hence, teachers should be able to develop their people skills if they want to enhance their chances of successfully achieving their goal – that their learners learn. After reading one of Adrian Underhill’s texts from Scott Thornbury’s collection of texts – his old website – I guess I also feel my life as a teacher has had a similar progression.
I’m not here to say that Dogme has changed my life and that I abide by it and believe it’s the one and only solution to teaching. As a matter of fact, if I correctly grasped the principles of Dogme, I’d simply be going against what it really is about. I’m much more in favour of an enlightened approach, or an eclectic approach to teaching and learning, as Brown, Richards and others have put it. In my opinion, we’ve certainly (supposed to have) reached a post-method era. No one method can be considered to be the right method, and the more knowledgeable the teacher, the better he’ll be in terms of deciding what is appropriate to their learners at any given moment.
However, how could we do it if we have everything already figured out before we meet the most important “part” of the lesson – our learners. This in now way means that planning a lesson is a waste of time. Much on the contrary, as I think that by planning a lesson and carefully thinking about each stage of your lesson, the teacher can make informed decisions about what to change during a class. However, we must always bear in mind that our learners are people, and should be treated as such.
What I mean is that it doesn’t really matter if you have planned a fantastic activity if your students are feeling low, or if they are lively engaged in a discussion about something that happened 15 minutes before the lesson started. Teachers have to observe their learners in order to better respond to them. I guess one of the most important things in a class for me is having a good rapport with my learners. This means they can trust me enough so as to let me be part of their world, and tend to respect me and listen to my opinions and, most importantly, listen to my teaching much more willingly.
What has that got to do with what happened to me today? Well, think about your friends. Think about the many moments you have shared together. You may know a person for a long time, but still not be able to predict someone’s reaction to something you may consider insignificant. Why does that happen? We’re dealing with people, that’s why. And we have to respect what they think and believe in. We may even disagree with what our friends think, but we can’t assume they’re 100% wrong and we’re 100% right. We have to learn to see all shades of grey on life.
Coming back to our learners, it’s important to me, as a teacher, to try to understand what my students are possibly going through. I can’t simply expect to teach them unreal past conditionals if they’re much more concerned with a work meeting or a physics test in the next morning. Actually, I always try to listen to what they have to say prior to trying to teach them anything. First of all, there’s a good chance I can actually take advantage of what they are going to tell me to create a link with the topic of the lesson. Second, well, if they’re not ready to learn, I need to try to get them in the mood. I still haven’t been informed of a magic switch to turn on and off a person’s feelings and worries. If anyone has learned how to do so, please let me know.
We sometimes don’t notice that what we do or say may have a negative effect on our learners. Sometimes I’m under the impression that teachers only worry about the cognitive feedback they give their learners, and totally forget about the affective feedback. How can I expect a student to speak or write if he or she doesn’t like my reaction to what is said in the classroom? Whenever I put myself in the shoes of a learner dealing with a teacher who doesn’t think I may react to things differently, I always have the same thought, “if that happened to me, I’d never stay in this classroom”.
As a teacher, I’ve trained myself to use a lot what my learners bring to class. I like working with language that emerges in a class. I like it when we work together to change learning into something that’s meaningful to them even if that means I won’t be able to cover everything I had planned for that lesson. As a matter of fact, I have already changed my lesson plans many times and the results have always been wonderful. I’ve read it from a couple of different sources that sometimes the lessons which do not go according to plan somehow feel like they’re the best lessons we’ve taught. And sometimes, when we do everything we had planned for that lesson, we leave the classroom with the feeling that the lesson could have been better.
The bottom line is, teachers should never forget they’re dealing with a whole human being, not simply a machine who’s attending a lesson to learn a new skill. And if teachers learn how to really listen to their students, they can definitely change their lessons into memorable moments of sharing, growth, and learning.
Reading what I wrote, I believe I digressed a little. However, I really had to vent my feelings about certain things. This is why I decided to post it anyway. It’s only the first post, and I’ll try not to stray from the point as much in the other posts, I swear!
Anyway, how do you feel about the text?