“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
Education is all about learning. But is learning authentically supported in our schools? Does a test-driven culture support or suppress learning?
We live in a high-stakes testing environment. Alfie Kohn and many other forward-thinking educators have been talking about this for years. Surveys and conversations with high school students indicate that students find school largely irrelevant to the learning that they need and that most relevant learning takes place outside of school. The recent film Race to Nowhere has also brought to the forefront the high-stakes, low-return educational system so many of our children are trapped in.
Over and over again we hear that students today do not know how to think and are averse to taking risks. As noted by Wendy Mogel, it is being played out more and more at colleges where universities like Harvard call these types of students “teacups” because they crack once placed outside of their comfort zone.
How could it be different? Students need to be in an environment that encourages and respects learning. Learning requires hard work; it requires a willingness to take risks and to accept that true learning sometimes involves tenacity, struggles and even failure at first.
In order for children to learn and to develop a passion for learning, we need to create an educational environment that promotes learning, not efficient test-taking skills, and we need to start by changing the conversation with our children.
I would suggest that we begin by considering the following simple steps. First, parents need to become aware of the questions we ask our children when they come home from school. Often, we ask general questions, such as “How was school?” or “How was your day?” General questions discourage meaningful answers. Try, instead, “Share with me one thing that you learned today in (a subject)…. or at school.” “Share a question you asked at school today.” Ask specific and focused questions that show an interest in the actual learning taking place.
When children have turned in a project, written a paper or taken a test, avoid asking “How did you do?”, or “What grade did you get?”, or “Did you do well?” These questions are about the product and the achievement and not the process. The more we ask about grades, the more we teach our children it is about the grade and not the learning. The more value we put on the grade, the more cautious children become in the learning. Doing well on the test diminishes curiosity and risk-taking; the test becomes the end in itself.
Inevitably, children learn to play the school game – “What do my teachers want?” “What do I need to ‘know’ for the test?” children will ask, or “Do I need to know this?” “Will it be on the test?”
We can start creating authentic learning environments by redirecting our conversations with our children to the actual learning and learning process while, at the same time, de-emphasizing our concern and keen interest in the grades.