Are you sure you’re focusing on what really matters most, or are you going to focus on the smallest part and assume that’s enough?
If you think that:
TESTING = TEACHING
Then you also think:
INFORMATION = KNOWLEDGE
TEACHER = INFORMATION SUPPLIER = ENCYCLOPEDIAS & INTERNET SOURCES
Which will soon lead to:
COMPUTERS > TEACHER
If you think others don’t value what you do, show them how much you matter. If others don’t care, you should care. Make your teaching count a lot more than test scores do. Real teachers know that:
TEACHING > ASSESSING > TESTING
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.
If you’ve missed challenges 1 and 2, and what got me into writing this series, you can read that here.
Challenge 3 – How do we shift our current educational system from a summative-based to a formative-based system? Is it possible to make such shift?
Tests are everywhere, not only in school. Tests, obviously, come in different forms. One may be assessed based on his performance, on how fast a task is completed, or on how well one relates with one’s co-workers. We’ve all seen, or at least heard of, performance assessment sheets. I was listening to a successful businessman talking on the radio about what is it that guarantees people’s jobs. He didn’t worry about painting a beautiful setting, his answer was a rather dry “RESULTS”. He even added that you can write many different books on what is important in the business world, or what you may have to do in order to keep your job, but it all boils down to the results you get.
In school, we’ve learned to equate results with grades. This isn’t necessarily so, and there are many examples of people who have, successfully, abandoned grading from their curriculum, as you can read here. Now, I’ve been reading Joe’s blog for quite a while now even though I don’t think we ever went past few tweets to one another once. I also think that the ultimate goal of education should be the learning of something, and that learning is not measured by grades. There are a lot of other ways for us to assess whether or not learners have grasped the necessary concepts in order to be able to understand more complex thoughts – if you’re thinking about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, you got what I meant.
The key problem, as I see it, at least so far, is that we’ve come to a time where testing is the only form of assessment known by most teachers and schools. Testing is just a tiny bit part of assessment, and there are many other forms of noticing learning, but none is as practical as testing. Testing may not be, on its vast majority, authentic, and they may lack validity and reliability, but it also depends a lot on who is preparing the test and how careful this person is. I don’t think the problem with testing lies entirely with testing, but mainly with those who are preparing the tests.
Teachers move on to standardized tests that fail to correctly assess learners for a couple of reasons, and one of these reasons may be time. I once had 15 groups of 48 students each. This meant I had 720 students to assess. In addition to that, these students were going to go through an entrance examination for university in which they’d be in fierce competition against thousands of other students for one spot at university. Their whole educational setting is based on preparing students to pass these tests. Now, they had to constantly be given feedback on how well they were progressing, and they also had to have an idea of the kind of test they’d face at the end of the year. Most students were looking for tips in order to do the exam faster, as they’d have to sit such exam for 4 hours and a half, and answer about 180 questions from all different subjects – English, Portuguese, Match, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, Arts, Literature, Composition, and probably something else I may not remember right now.
Testing is definitely not the best way to assess learners, especially if it’s done alone, but it was definitely the only way that most teachers here have to have the time prepare their lessons, correct students’ work, prepare exams required by the school, and deal with problems that may come up in the classroom. Oh, and, obviously, teachers have to try to keep their lessons close to students’ reality if they want at least this bit of their job to be engaging, which means they’ve also got to keep abreast with what’s going on in the world. I have already asked this question before, and I was given lots of things to think about, but I still can’t figure out how a teacher with 720+ students can use only formative assessment throughout the year. What makes it even a bigger problem is when the school doesn’t buy into the idea and teachers are kept on a tight leash and have very little room for changing anything.
On the other hand, I don’t think the problem would be solved if teachers could abandon grades either. I don’t want to be that the-glass-is-half-empty guy, but there are, unfortunately, teachers out there who wouldn’t even read their students’ work. I’ve had teachers like that, even at university. Teachers who care only about their teaching and going to the classroom and vomiting the content. It doesn’t matter if students learned or not, what matters is that they’ve taught what they were supposed to do. These are teachers who see their job as finished when they finish lecturing. Just as there are teachers who prepare tests on the go without worrying about reliability, validity and authenticity, there are teachers who simply don’t care about what their students have learned.
The challenges with education, as I see them right now, can only be overcome if we start attracting the right people to do the job. If people who want to be teachers get plucked off the classroom because they want to start a family and can’t make enough money to pay their bills, and if schools accept people who see education just as something they do in-between jobs, it will never be taken seriously. I do believe there are lots and lots of people who have become teachers because they believe they can make a difference. This is the reason why I became a teacher in the first place and I know I’m not alone in this. However, for each true educator out there, I seem to meet 5 people who don’t believe in what they’re doing and can’t see how powerful they can be in transforming lives, pushing students to their limits, showing people what they are capable of doing and helping they live their full potential. Are true educators outnumbered? Even if we are, we’re not giving up, but it surely makes it a lot more difficult to get things done.
What should be done, then? Teachers were once respected by society, and this has got to happen again. Being a teacher should be something difficult, in the good sense of the word. Teachers need to be better prepared, they need to be given opportunities to keep learning, they need to be given freedom to innovate. Teachers are on the front line of any other profession out there, yet they are seen as unimportant in the long run. This means people themselves, despite saying education is the most important asset in a person’s life, don’t really believe in it. If education is indeed so important to everyone, why is it that teachers aren’t paid as much as doctors, lawyers, engineers, diplomats and politicians? If people truly believed their words when they say that education is the most important thing in a person’s life, they’d give a lot more on importance, value, and respect to those involved in education, and they’d demand better and better teachers. Is it a matter of changing, reforming, or even revolutionising education alone? Are we missing the big picture?
I’ve had a couple of fruitful days just now. Even though I’m as sick as one can be, I still had the chance to: i) participate (partially, unfortunately) in a 3-day seminar with Nina Lauder, ii) carry out a week of a teachers training course, and iii) attend a seminar by Herbert Puchta. The downside is that all this, added to my illness, has prevented me from being a bit more active in the online educational community. But I think we all should come to terms with the fact that we can’t do all we want to, huh?! Anyway, this has led me into thinking a bit more about teaching.
Many people have been questioning the need for a shift from a test-driven educational system to something that’ll allow 21st-century learners thrive and succeed in a 21st century world. Schools, as we see them these days, have been created to fulfill a certain need, and the question, “Why do we need schools?” had a very simple and straightforward answer. Hence, teachers and students were trained to function within the boundaries and limits of schooling set by those who felt the need to, well, invent schools as they are nowadays. It’s important to make this distinction, as the idea of school has been around for centuries, so I need to make it explicitly that I’m speaking of our current system of mass, standardised educational system.
In the past, people were schooled for different reasons, and teachers obviously had to behave differently. Can you picture Socrates picking up a piece of chalk and simply vomiting knowledge on his pupils? What if he tried to teach people to question authority in the early 20th century? Would he still be regarded as a great thinker and educator?
We all do things for a reason – why would we even wake up if we didn’t have a reason for doing so? For many years, people have equated teaching to testing and grading. That was the norm and very few people dared to criticise it. However, changes have happened and many more are afoot, and as educators, we’ve got to ask ourselves, “What is it that we’re doing and why are we doing it? What is teaching?”
Teaching is a lot more than assessing, and assessing is a lot more than testing. This is one of the first things I think we’ve got to come to terms with. In an attempt to try to come up with a couple of suggestions to answer the question asked, this is an initial list:
- Supporting – Teachers may still believe that their role is to merely transmit knowledge, but instead they’ve got to support their learners through the voyage of discovery and learning.
- Empowering – Teachers have to show learners they do matter and that they are capable of succeeding. A positive self image is very important! (borrowing from Herbert’s talk today :))
- Engaging – If learners are not engaged, how do you expect them to learn? Teachers have got to put some thinking into how to engage their learners in learning activities.
- Caring – Most learners seem to build rapport with teachers who care about their learning. I also like to say that teachers should care a lot more about their students’ learning than about their teaching. If there’s no learning, you might as well no bother to show up in class.
- Sharing – In the age of information, no one will ever have the chance to know everything there is to learn. Sharing is important both for teachers among themselves and also among their learners. Teachers shouldn’t see themselves as the almighty bearers of knowledge. Learning is a lot more fun when it’s done collaboratively.
- Nurturing – If we come up with a metaphor in which we view learners not as ‘empty vessels’, but as people who are capable of thinking and reasoning, it only makes sense that we nurture them – we’ve got to help them develop and make sure we provide them with the right conditions to do so.
- Assessing – Finally, we’ve also got to assess our learners. We’ve got to give them feedback on their progress, be able to understand what we can do in order to foster growth, and also show them they might not be living up to their full potential. A small part of assessment is testing, and as much as people may criticise it these days, I still believe well-written tests have a place in teaching.
I’m sure you can all come up with more ideas for what teaching is. What about sharing them in the comments below?
I’ve already had my share of complaints and I also heard lots of teachers complaining about students who are in their classes but cannot follow what is being taught. If you teach English as a Foreign Language, you’re likely to relate to the case of the misplaced student. This is what usually happens: the student enrols in a language institute and genuinely believes that whatever the schools and its teachers say is the absolute truth. After three or four years, teachers talk about this particular student in the teachers’ room. “How come he came this far in the course? He should go back at least three levels,” says his current teacher. “I agree with you. He was already a very weak student in my class, but he managed to pass the test,” says one of his former teachers, a statement which is agreed on by most teachers in the room.
Phew! This means all we have to do is blame standardised testing and we’re all good. But this, to me, is like taking the back seat instead of taking the bull by the horns. If we, teachers, bear in mind the best interest of our students, we’ll make sure we tell them when they’re not making progress instead of playing the role of the nice guy and not saying anything. And the sooner this happens, the better.
I subscribe to the theory (if there’s such a theory) that one of the most important things in a classroom is rapport. Building up good rapport with students is paramount if teachers are looking for success. If you’ve established good rapport with your learners, they are naturally inclined to trust you and take your word for everything you say. Here lies the biggest problem – they’ll take your word (or lack of it) for being able to communicate successfully. If your students make mistakes (pronunciation, grammar and/or vocabulary) and you don’t correct them, they’ll all believe there’s nothing wrong with what they’re saying. And once they learn you haven’t been careful about your teaching, all that rapport that’s been built crumbles. Either that or other teachers will have a big headache when trying to correct fossilised mistakes.
I’ve had the chance, and still have, to work with students who are studying English in two different settings – in a regular classroom in which they use grammar translation and all they need to learn is how to read texts and everything is done in L1, and in language institutes where teachers work with the four skills. It’s occurred more than once for students to come to me to ask something another teacher had said simply because his or her trust in that teacher is broken. And it all happened after they said something they’ve always said, but this time they were corrected. “But I’ve always said it like that and no one has ever corrected me,” the poor student says. And this is true for many semesters, until a conscientious teacher gets that student.
I think I am fortunate enough so as to work with lots of conscientious teachers who realise their students can’t progress as long as they stop making such mistakes. However, these same teachers sometimes fail to correct a student in his or her very first classes in the belief that it wouldn’t be good for the student to be corrected all the time – we’re afraid this student will refrain from speaking again as everything he or she says is wrong. I don’t personally agree with that. Error correction is tricky, and, if done improperly, it might hinder students’ production. Hence, the need to develop the art of listening to your students and learning what works and, most importantly, how to talk to your students is to be sought by all teachers.
Finally, if teachers understand the value of correction from the very beginning, learners might try harder and avoid making mistakes that will, in the future, label them as misplaced. In most cases, it’s not the student’s fault, but ours. We may even have the best of intentions when focussing on the affective side, but this is bound to cause major problems in the future. If you accept the i + 1 and ZPD theories, you can’t expect to start correcting basic mistakes when students reach the advanced part of the course. It’ll save you and other teachers a lot of time in the future, and your students won’t waste as much time and money either.
The drawing you see above was what a student produced after I asked him for one of his drawings. But let me tell you how it really happened. One day, when I came to work, there was a student having some extra, remedial classes on grammar. He’d been having some difficulties with the use of a certain grammar structure, which wasn’t really what caught my attention. What did catch my eye was the drawing he’d made on the piece of paper he had in front of him. He’d drawn a very nice picture (in my humble opinion) and I decided it was worth praising him for that. So both I and the other teacher who were in the room asked him whether he’d like to have his drawings on the brand new school blog. As he was leaving, he said he’d do it, but not in a very confident way. We just looked at him and told him to think about it and whatever it is he decided, we’d be OK with. To my surprise, a couple of days later, he gave me two of his drawings, which were then published on the school’s blog.
This picture is the first thing that got me thinking about sharing some thoughts on a blog post. I’d already shared the picture on twitter and a friend of mine commented that it portrayed learner’s autonomy and independency, which I very much agree with. But then, as if this wasn’t enough, something else happened. I was teaching a class with 10 teenagers, who are either in high school or have just finished it and are about to start college. It’s an exam preparation course for the Cambridge CAE examination, and there was a listening activity on education and the role of teachers. I had decided I’d show them Sir Ken Robinson’s interview on the Bonnie Hunt show. Their reaction upon the ending of the interview was a, “Is there such a school?” in unison. Needless to say, the topic sparked their interest and they held a rather long but productive discussion about the topic. Now, we, teachers, have long been discussing education and the need for change. But it was comforting to see that kids also came to similar conclusions. This is what they said:
- There are many different talents that are simply ignored by schools.
- We are forced to learn certain things just because someone else considers them important. No one values nor allows for growth of what we can already do well.
- There are good teachers who are not allowed to encourage their learners because of schools’ policy.
- We’d all like to study in a school that values us for who we are and not for our grades on tests.
I didn’t interrupt them once. Then one of the kids said that the problem is that even if schools wanted to change and teach students based on their individuality and personal skills and interests, such schools would go bankrupt. He said that unless the means of access to higher education changes, students and teachers are bound to be trapped in an educational system that values academic achievement over anything else. (I wish I could remember his exact words, but that’s the idea.)
Just to make it clear, in Brazil state run schools are known for their poor standards and low level of education. Any parent who can afford to pay for private education will enroll his or her son or daughter in a private schools based on that school’s results in the last entrance examination to universities. If we know this, we can easily understand why that student said that any school that tries to break away from ‘the rat race in education’ is likely to go bankrupt. And it’s not only parents that wouldn’t want their kids to go to such schools. When I asked the kids whether they’d like, at this very moment, to change schools and go to a school that is not known for its passing rates on the entrance examinations, they all said they wouldn’t. (There’s something about this here.)
The question then is, are we caught up in a catch-22 situation? Is this a dead-end road? Well, if I believed there was no solution, I wouldn’t be a teacher. As a teacher, I have to believe there’s hope and fight for change. We can make a difference in our students’ lives. We can inspire and motivate by deed and by word. We can get them to realise that, yes, they can make their own decisions and thrive.
*Many thanks to Vitor, the student who drew the picture and let me use it here.
There is a school in Brasília that seems to be interested in approaching learning from a more ‘humanistic’ and ‘holistic’ perspective than what the current Brazilian educational system forces other schools to do so. They are concerned about arts, sports, music and creative thinking (as far as I’m concerned) than the other 99% of schools are. It’s almost as if Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of how schools should be like had come to life.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all schools could actually teach for life instead of teach for the test? I mean, it seems to me that it’s common knowledge among most educators that standardized tests don’t deliver what they claim to deliver – if you do well on the test, it means you have learned the subject. (You can read a lot of great posts on that here and here, to cite just a few people who will lead you to many others)
And my answer to that question is, yes, it would be wonderful. But I recently heard a story from a student from the school I mentioned in the first paragraph above. She had been studying in that school for quite a while and was really happy with her routine. It all changed on her second to last year of high school. As kids grow older, so do their social circles (hopefully), and no longer did this particular student live with people from her school circle. To make matters worse, she had already learned of the standardised test all Brazilian learners are submitted to and which defines whether you’re going to college or not.
Reality hit hard on this student when she had a chance to compare her “knowledge” on physics, for instance, against her friends’ who were also going to compete against her for a place at university. It suddenly hit her that, if she was to succeed, she’d have to change schools and go where they actually abide by the system – they teach for the test. And so she did. Needless to say, she’s feeling miserable, but one’s got to do what one’s got to do, right?
The aim of this story is to pose a question: how can teachers be responsible for changing the system when there are no teachers in charge of thinking education? I mean, even though we may want to change the way our students learn and value their personal characteristics, we seem to be in a catch-22 situation. What I mean is, education is, ultimately, between the teacher and the learner. However, these two elements are under pressure from many different angles: schools policies, state regulations, ministry of education, and society as a whole. If teachers start this change, students will fail the big test they are forced to take in order to have better chances in life. If teachers choose not to do anything to change this situation, they’ll end up frustrated as they know what they’re doing doesn’t really help much in real life.
I’m of the opinion that we should re-think schools, and education in general. But when we’re in such a sad situation as this, I think the easy way out is a top-down change. If the ministry of education don’t change the rules for university entrance, parents will insist on enrolling their kids on schools which are well-known for their high “pass” percentages. If schools and their teachers fight the system, no matters what parents say, they’ll end up with no students – all parents want to give their kids a good chance to succeed, and if by that they need to go to a good university, they’ll take their kids to the schools that’ll better prepare their kids to get to such universities.
The situation is even worse when you learn that state schools are left to their own devices by the government and no matter how hard principals and teachers try, they can only do as much. Besides, if the salary is significantly less than what private schools pay, there isn’t much to keep good teachers in state schools.
To sum it up, it seems that our little friend will have to put up with the fact that, in order to go to university, she’ll have to be taught for the test – reality check. It doesn’t seem to matter that the kind of education she was getting before was preparing her better for life. In order to be able to “get a life”, she needs to pass the test.
How would we solve this if change doesn’t come from the top? I mean, teachers can and should do their share – pressure the government for change. But if things remain the same, the good teachers, the ones who care about teaching for life, will actually be putting their kids at a disadvantageous position. And this will be true as long as the yardstick we measure our kids against is a test.