Tangerines, Toast and Teaching to the Test

OK – I’ve realised that it’s all in the title; I reckon that if my title includes foodstuffs (the more alliterative, the better), my blog stands a better chance of being read. I asked my five year old (who is, as I’m writing this, drawing the world’s flags and labelling each one – paper and pencils all over the place), whether he could think of a food beginning with ‘t’. He answered, ‘Tangerine.’ Then I thought of ‘toast’ – et voila, I had my blog title – quite like the rhythm of it, too – alright, it’s a daft title but I hope to make a vague point, linked to it, a bit later on.

Tangerines and toast aside, ‘teaching to the test’ is one of those things that we’ve all probably done at one point or another. There will always be a temptation to drill what we know will be in the test, because the results may be indicative of whether or not we’re doing a good job (of drilling, not necessarily of the teaching of learning). I’ve known teachers who actively track exam questions year on year – they predict which ones will ‘come up’, and then teach, mainly to those questions. And our pupils too, are learning to ask, ‘Will this be in the test?’ – if it’s likely, well, then they’ll make sure they learn it. If it isn’t, they won’t worry so much.

What we are learning to do here, is to play the game – teaching (and learning) to the test – it’s not right and it’s nothing new, but it is understandable – if that’s the hoop, then I need to learn how to jump through it, right? Really?

But there’s also more to it than this. I have a problem with how we test; if our pupils have been learning through conversation, through discussion, through bouncing ideas around and exploring, it seems unfair that we would then test them in a way which is completely alien to this process. Why do we value data that is generated through silent testing, in the abstract, and in the absence of voice? I don’t want to change the way my pupils learn just because of the way they’ll be tested – but occasionally,  I have done because if that’s the test, then I want them to pass it – of course I do.

I’ve had some great conversations with a colleague about this – data from traditional testing pales into insignificance against learning that is evidenced and demonstrated in a variety of more creative ways, doesn’t it? Whilst there may be a (small) role for traditional test data, we all know how easy it is to pick holes in it (unless the data is really impressive – in which case, we won’t pick at it too much). Potentially, it just seems such a fickle process; if it’s good data, we’ll go along with it – if it’s not, we won’t. I have a feeling we can do better than that.

So…what to do? I guess we officially change the test.

If learning is dynamic, exploratory, vibrant, meaningful – embedded in conversation – in other words, a very human experience, then we need the way we test, to reflect this (assuming this is the way we feel pupils learn best…). The idea of teaching to the test then, suddenly becomes a good thing because we’re not haphazardly changing the way we want to teach to support the way we test, but rather, changing the way we test, to complement the way we believe our pupils learn best.  

Innovate testing – innovate teaching – innovate learning. Think it works if you say it backwards, too.

Anyway, I’m aware that I’m getting close to that looming final paragraph. Still trying to think of a way of bringing all this together in a way that links back to my title. Thought about saying something like ‘food for thought’, but that sounds cheesy.

I guess my point is, that whilst I may have learned how to come up with a vaguely interesting title (a hoop that I’ve learned to consider jumping through in order to pass the test), it isn’t necessarily reflective of the content, or quality(!) of the blog itself. It took me a few minutes to come up with the title. It took me ages to write the blog – and regardless of what judgements you make about what I’ve written (you may have been either pleased or disappointed that toast didn’t get much of a mention), at least you did take a moment to look beyond the title.

Incidentally, my five year old is still drawing his flags and labelling his countries. His learning is everywhere – literally – in the papers strewn around, the maps he’s drawn, the lists of countries he’s written and re-written – it’s in the conversations we have, in the facts he tells me and in the questions he asks (the ones he knows the answers to already – to see if I know – and the ones he doesn’t).

Whilst I may want to teach him explicitly what the capital of Venezuela is, in order to be able to answer that question when I ask it, there is absolutely no doubt that he is learning – and demonstrating it. And yet, he has no concept of what a test is or that at some point, he’ll have to take one in order for somebody else to determine his learning. The learning is his motivation, not the thought of a test.

Change the test. We’re here to grow learners.

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We know our kids, don’t we?

I’ve been reflecting on yesterday’s MOOC with George Couros, Katie Martin and Sarah Thomas. I found myself nodding along to much of what was said but in particular, there was a moment when George questioned the idea of measuring the impact of an innovative approach to learning. Agreed. We don’t need to, do we?

To ‘measure formally’ seems to be etched deeply into our thinking; it’s what we’ve always done – and I get it – sort of. As teachers, we have a responsibility, at the very least, to consider whether what we’re doing is making a difference and formal measuring seems to be the only completely acceptable method. Accountability. ‘Proof’.

The concept of measuring however, is a bit like the rather noisy and out-spoken Party-Pooper of Good Ideas, Creativity and Innovation – it’ll stick its oar in and spoil everything.

‘How will we know this approach is having an impact on learning if we don’t somehow measure it?’

Unfortunately, even if this question doesn’t get asked, the very thought that it might be, is often enough to prevent teachers from trying something new. It’s the spanner in the works before the ‘works’ have even got going. But – if the ‘measure’ is kept at bay, at least for a while, teachers just might feel inclined to give something new, a go. 

There is perhaps, another side to this, too. Yes – we know our kids – but does knowing that there will be data generated and recorded from current methods of measuring / summative testing, somehow prevent us from getting to know them better? If we remove the measure, would we have to become more accountable? Would they? If we couldn’t rely on the formal measure, would we naturally find ourselves talking to our kids more? Would we think more carefully about the questions we ask? Would they learn to think more carefully about their responses? Would learning-conversations deepen? Would we create new and innovative opportunities to better demonstrate learning?

I do realise that removing the formal measure, to some, might represent an ‘Andy Dufresne’ moment (the bit in Shawshank Redemption when he’s dug himself out – finally – arms stretched up in rainy liberation) – a little bit risky. But perhaps it could also represent an opportunity to really get to know our kids and realign what goes on in classrooms – away from measuring – towards learning.

Imagine.