My good friend Katie Martin, author of “Learner-Centered Innovation,” and I were having a conversation about the importance of focusing on going beyond “test scores” in education and focusing on providing powerful learning opportunities for students. Standardized tests are a reality of most education systems, and I am not sure they are going away any time soon. I am not against “tests,” as I have seen educators use them to provide useful feedback to lead to the growth of students, but I am against over-testing.
My concern is when focus on whether a school is good or not based solely on test scores. Talking to Katie, I was reminded of this quote she wrote in the foreword of “Innovate Inside the Box“:
So if “tests” are the reality, which is often determined by people outside of education, what do we do?
I believe that if we focus on helping our students become great learners, they will be fine on the tests. But if we help students become good at tests, that doesn’t mean they have become good learners.
Years ago, I wrote about the idea of “School vs. Learning,” (which I discussed at length in “The Innovator’s Mindset“) and I know (based on the image below) that A) so many schools are doing a great job of bringing the “learning” column into their classrooms and B) the ideas on each side are not meant to be an “either/or” scenario. The image is intended to spark conversation.
As a moment of serendipity, after my conversation with Katie, I read this passage from “Atomic Habits” by James Clear that discussed the importance of developing habits over the laser-like focus on “goals”:
If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?
I think you would.
The goal in any sport is to finish with the best score, but it would be ridiculous to spend the whole game staring at the scoreboard. The only way to actually win is to get better each day. In the words of three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, “The score takes care of itself.” The same is true for other areas of life. If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.
What do I mean by this? Are goals completely useless? Of course not. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.
Could the above passage apply to “learning” and “tests?” I believe so. The way I think of it is that sometimes there is a reinforcement on memorization of content, that doesn’t lead to a deep understanding. But if you focus on understanding, the “memorization” will be easy. I know all tests are not merely about the memorization of information, but when we develop learners, not only will our students be fine on tests, they will be able to deal with any new learning that comes their way long after their time in school. That is always the goal.