Monday, January 31, 2011

But How Will Kids Know? – Learning without Testing

Kate Fridkis blogs at Un-schooled and Eat the Damn Cake.

People ask me how kids will know how good they are at something without tests. It’s a question I get a lot. Possibly because I go through life saying things like, “Can you believe how many tests kids have to take? How much better would the world be if they were drinking milkshakes instead?”

Milkshakes are so good.

OK, I don’t really think kids should drink milkshakes ALL the time. But I think they’d be better off drinking them than taking tests. Especially if they are chocolate peanut butter milkshakes.

I’m a little sad right now, because my mom just gave me this huge lecture about how I need to stop drinking so much diet soda, because it’s definitely going to kill me. I don’t remember why. Calcium was involved. Maybe my bones are going to turn to dust really soon. And diet soda was my healthiest option, since water tastes completely boring to me. She doesn’t know how close I am to drinking milkshakes all the time.
(Vanilla peanut butter is pretty amazing, too. Source)

But that’s not the point.

People explain to me how important tests are, for the kids. They emphasize that part. For the kids. You know, rather than for the maniacal pleasure of power-drunk adults who think tests are hilarious? Pick C., sucker! Fill in the C bubble on #29! You know you want to! DOO IT!!!!!!!! Actually, they mean rather than for maintaining the balance of society, which, they are pretty sure, tests are also good at.

I love the question about kids and tests. Because it’s really easy to answer. Which makes me feel smart.

I say, “Do you take tests?”

They say, “Not anymore,” and smile like, “You’ve got to be kidding…”

I say, “Are you great at everything you do?”

They say, “Um…No. Obviously.” And laugh uncomfortably.

I say, “How do you know?”

Here’s what I think kids should do instead of taking tests AND drinking milkshakes: They should work on real projects. What I mean by “real” is something that has an impact on a larger world than the classroom, the teacher, or a grade. This can mean things like a brief apprenticeship with a chosen expert (it’s amazing how willing and excited adults are to accept apprentices. Everyone loves to feel that they’re doing something important enough to teach), starting a little business, or putting together an art show that will have an opening, with everyone in the community invited. It can mean a huge number of things.

Interesting things happen when kids undertake real projects. They have specific real-life models for success to emulate, they feel very responsible for their participation and production, since other people will be impacted by it, their work is often fluid, so that when they do something wrong, they can correct it without that mistake defining the outcome of the entire project. They learn skills that apply to the real world, and they often actually learn them, rather than memorizing and forgetting, because they HAVE to learn them. Just memorizing how to lay a floor or coordinate topics on a newspaper page isn’t enough. And it doesn’t really work that way in any case. Because these skills are much more comprehensive than the sets of often disconnected facts that tests require students to hold briefly in their heads.

I took a lot of tests in college. I barely remember a thing I was supposed to have learned. I apprenticed with a local artist when I was fourteen, and I remember everything she said about light, because after she said those things, I had to teach them to a class of young children. And I had to demonstrate them myself, with paint.

I spent a day as a photographer’s assistant, and I learned immediately how bad I was at standing for hours on end, and how uncomfortable I was with answering the phone for his studio. I also didn’t like hauling the garbage out back and having to order lunch for everyone. He was taking photos of dogs in giant pink satin ribbon collars, their proud owners dipping in to fluff them and hovering anxiously on the margins. I learned so much about myself that day, and I never went back. I knew exactly how bad I’d been at practically everything that happened in that environment, and while I also knew that I was interested in photography, it was clearly not the right place to learn more.

It’s really, really easy to tell when you aren’t doing something well. But that information doesn’t always cause you to want to get better. It depends what the subject is. What the project is. What the reward might be. When the reward is another good grade and a higher GPA, it’s easy for students to get good at tests without having to deal very often with how good they are at doing things in the world. And when your world is about doing well on tests, what happens when you find yourself doing something totally different? Something that requires real mastery of a subject or practical thinking or creativity? You might figure out just how to handle the situation. Or you might not know how to fail and keep going until you get it right. You might not realize what a big deal it is to be responsible for other people. you might not have learned how good you are at… life.

(I followed this dragonfly around a stream bed for an hour or more before I finally got this shot. I took a lot of terrible pictures first. And I didn’t have to answer any phones at all.)


  1. Great zinger comeback to those naughty question-askers!

    As a teacher and education blogger, I've realized that I live in a school-related bubble. Until recently, I had forgotten how much "regular" adults DON'T think about standardized tests.

    We will never change from our numbers-driven education system if we don't start blab blab blabbing to everyone we know about how detrimental these tests are to real learning.

  2. Love it! I've discussed that question many times too, "Do you take tests?'

    It always makes me think of a great Einstein quote, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

    Thanks for sharing!

    - @newfirewithin

  3. This post rocked it! I would hire you in a heartbeat.

  4. DAMN RIGHT!!! Iam an English tutor (not a teacher) at community college in the Bronx.
    I help students preparing for a city test, the Cuny Writing Assessment test. While there were no students in the room, my fellow tutors and I talked about this issue. These tests are based on a question like this:

    they have to read an agumentative essay, summaize it, then write their opinon. Most of the students always agree with the essay because they think "the school is giving me this to read, so it must be true." I do not think the students are never even tought to have an opinion. Sucks.