But how will kids know?

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.)\

This post is crossposted here at The Innovative Educator

13 comments to But how will kids know?

  • […] New Un-schooled post, about how I think skills should be measured and how awesome milkshakes are. […]

  • I absolutely agree! Real-world projects, and specifically those which involve having to do with other people (vs. filling a bunch of pages with words all on your own), teach you a lot more about what your skills are… This home-schooling blog is a great inspiration for me. While I will never home-school my children because I don’t know that I have the teaching and organizing skills, and because I also live in a country where home-schooling is against the law, I find a lot of the things you say offer good perspectives on education in general. If I have children, I hope I can manage to give my children some of the home-schooling experience outside of school.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by IHE and Nathan Chow, davidwees. davidwees said: But how will kids know? http://bit.ly/flGJyB #edchat #assessment […]

  • “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.”

    You are completely right here…I was homeschooled and didn’t take a test until I was in College. Throughout my education the focus was not on memorizing data, but on developing skill and most importantly a curious mind that wasn’t just satisfied with regurgitating answers.

  • Daniel

    Sorry I posted on the wrong blog entry first time, my bad.

    How do you know? You ask them. Can your child read? Ask them to read something. Can they do long division? Ask them to do long division. Do they know the capital of North Dakota? Not so important really with the internet now, but if you think they should have this on instant recall, then ask them.

    My kids go to a Montessori school and this is one way I handle these questions.

    People confuse a lack of testing with a lack of assessment. Kids in Montessori get assessed all the time, just in a comfortable way as they build mastery of the stuff we want them to know at their own pace and in a way that makes them feel good about their individual progress, not lousy because they are in some stupid class competition…

    The biggest problem is that people understand that it makes complete sense that in order to get a drivers license, you do take a written test, but that means squat if you CANNOT ACTUALLY DRIVE, so we put drivers behind the wheel and make them prove you are not going to plow into pedestrians if we give you a license and you can actually park the car on the street and not someone’s living room. But when it comes to a narrow range of academic skills, we should have these contrived, controlled, lab rat activities that simply prove you knew how to take a test and tell us very little about the mastery of skills and abilities.

    When you get to the workplace, does your annual performance get judged on what you did 6-10 work days of the year? If you are a pro football athlete, then maybe, but for everyone else, we look at your body of work and performance over the course of the year, which makes total sense because everyone has good days and bad days. If you are a good or great performer, then 90+ percent of your days you were probably doing a good or great job.

    Is it any wonder kids ask all the time, “what does this have to do with the real world and working?”

    And I might as well mention that more and more, collaboration and teamwork, not individual performance, is what is needed to succeed in life and the workplace.

    Consider this post from Jonah Lehrer about the advancement of human knowledge


    with these striking paragraphs

    “While the most cited studies in a field used to be the product of a lone genius – think of Einstein or Darwin – Jones, et. al. have demonstrated that the best research now emerges from groups. It doesn’t matter if the researchers are studying particle physics or human genetics: science papers produced by multiple authors receive more than twice as many citations as those authored by individuals. This trend was even more apparent when it came to “home run papers” – those publications with at least 1000 citations – which were more than six times as likely to come from teams of scientists.

    I think this research helps explain why the era of the lone genius is coming to an end. If our current lists of global thinkers seem paltry, it’s because the best thinkers no longer exist by themselves, toiling away in a vacuum. Instead, they require the constant feedback and knowledge of others. We live in a world of such complexity that our problems increasingly exceed the possibilities of the individual mind. Collaboration is no longer an option.”

    I am glad that my kids are learning how to work in groups and teams, but I am sad and angry that this is only available to kids whose parents are blessed to be able to send them to a private Montessori school. There are way too few public Montessori schools out there.

    I will get you that guest post soon, promise.

    • kate

      I love this comment! And thank you for mentioning group dynamics and teamwork. Something we should be thinking more about. I wonder what the age of information, and increased connectivity through technology, will mean for the socially interactive learning of new generations and, ultimately, for the workplace. Unschoolers get criticized a lot for not being “social” enough. But the concept of socialization is so problematic! Hanging out with peers only means successful socialization on a certain level, in a particular way. Working appreciatively and respectfully with other people is something else entirely, and it seems difficult to foster, especially in groups of children.

      Which is why I think the model of free schools is so interesting. You should check them out. Collaboration is essential in that environment. I visited the Manhattan Free School last week and am hopefully doing a piece about it soon, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic when I post it.

      The problem of public vs private is a huge one. The founder of the Manhattan Free School was adamant that all schools like hers should be what their names suggest– free. But it’s next to impossible to achieve right now, in part because they’re unwilling to participate in standardized testing.

  • Rob

    Dairy products have loads of calcium, right? So drinking more milkshakes should balance out any skeletal hijinks the diet Coke is playing on you. Just last week, someone said the same thing to me about regular Coca-Cola, so maybe it’s not all about the sugar substitute. Maybe, really, everything is bad for you, and we should not worry so much. That is my story and I am sticking to it.

    I certainly agree with the view that one should take testing only as one of a variety of assessment methods. This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with my Ph.D. supervisor, who has some views on assessment at the university level. One of the things he noted the other week is that sequestered tests are the only assessment method which has strong safeguards against cheating and plagiarism. If you assign a paper, they can pay someone else to write it. If you do group projects, you always have groups with slackers who ride on the coattails of overachievers who refuse to allow the project to be poor, even if they must do all the work themselves. And comprehensive oral examination is very, very time consuming.

    Moreover, in college, people want achievement to be normalized, because my BS from North State University needs to mean something, and people want to know what it means compared to a BS from Stanford University or Jackson Community College. It matters to accrediting organizations, high school students and their counselors, alumni who buy new buildings for the old alma mater, employers hiring graduates, and teachers who are looking for lecturing positions. It has mattered to many people ever since Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat started studying gambling games in the 17th century, which laid a foundation for statistics. And it’s important to me as a student because I want to be sure that the lazy kid who never shows up for class doesn’t water down the degree I am trying so hard to earn.

    At the grade school level, people care about this stuff because those are my tax dollars you are spending for that teacher’s salary, and we need to make sure we are getting our money’s worth. That is what No Child Left Behind is all about, right? Maybe it isn’t; I have spent much more time in college than I have in grade schools.

    All that is to say that this stuff has a lot of momentum, and moving away from testing would be a huge paradigm shift that would need to be proven in multiple high-profile settings before your average public-school ex-inmate could wrap their minds around it. My gut feeling is that the hardest to convince would be the ones holding the purse strings.

    Oh. Right. For a moment, I was looking back at your post, and the comments, and feared that everything I had just written was completely off-topic. All that is about why testing is important to many people, but the pertinent bit was what you said about testing being “for the kids”. It is true: this is a rather naïve view. Testing is for grownups and accountability. Feedback is for the kids. If, say, the kid ought to know the capital of North Dakota, I can ask them, or I can test them. If I need documentation to justify the funds I’m getting from the North Dakota School Board, then I make it a written test that can be audited. All little Jimmy needs to know is whether he got it right. Providing this response is feedback, and can be given whether it’s a written exam, an informal conversation, or a scale relief map of the United States (with capitals) done in homemade play-dough. But the sooner the better: the place where testing often fails students is when they take a test one week, and get the results back much later, after moving on to other subjects.

    I guess I will stop there; this is getting long. Wish there was a way to preview comments. “Hello”, by the way! I have been lurking on your RSS feed for about a month, and have been enjoying your thoughts. I was homeschooled K-12, and identify with the topics you write about. You have some poignant little essays, here. Keep up the good work!

  • kate

    I think it’s true that most things are probably bad for you. Especially if they’re delicious.

    You make good points about higher education. And about the way the world works in general. The problem is that, especially at the grade school level, children are being thought of too much as things. You know, things that should be functioning efficiently. Things that should be worth our money. Things that will help us compete more impressively in the global economy. It’s the wrong model, which is what I just wrote about today, in the post about revolution. Honestly, I feel a little silly just typing the word “revolution” here, because I tend to lean instinctively away from radicalism and try to find a way we can all just get along. But finding that moderate, middle path, seems to be hurting kids a lot, in terms of education.

    Some schools have done away with tests, and the kids seem to be healthier in those environments. There are more “free schools” than there used to be. More creative charter schools. More private schools that have completely different policies from the public ones. So things are definitely changing, and maybe we’re the slightest bit closer to changing public school. But I’m not incredibly hopeful. Because you’re right.

    College is a different beast. I have to think about it more. I feel like I should have something to say :)

    And hi!

    • Rob

      Heh. I think about higher education because I’ve been here longer than most high-school dropouts have been in grade school. (2yrs. dual enrollment + 2 yrs. community college + 3 yrs. BS + 4.5 yrs. PhD. I’m ready to stop being a student for a spell.) I think I learned more about public school last year, when my wife started teaching in a middle school, than all my previous years of education. It was fascinating.

      Nothing I wrote was meant to say, “That’s the way it ought to be,” but rather, “That’s why they have momentum.” There are so many reasons for so many things, and I delight in figuring out what the reasons are. I think that “thinking of children as things” is probably a big part of the problem. No amount of paradigm shifting will improve matters unless it includes humanizing the pupils. That is probably one of the reasons that homeschooled children grow up with a good self-image (both physically and intellectually): parents are more likely to regard their own children as valuable, worthwhile humans. And it is easier to communicate that to a child if the message isn’t being split 30 ways. :c/

      Revolution is warranted, I’d say. Most developments in the field of education have amounted to reform, which is less jarring and thus more-easily accepted and implemented. I have not yet decided what would be better, so I do not know what revolution should look like. For the time being, I am just observing and mulling it over. I definitely think conversation is in order.

  • college is a different beast, mostly because it’s been our standard measure of success. it’s been the ultimate goal, the dream that makes people crazy enough to lose themselves. and most everything seems to rely on college admissions, not even college. so we end up doing a ridiculous song and dance k-12, in the name of learning, so that we will stand out to a uni. a uni that we may or may not graduate from. and a degree that we may or may not get a job with. and as a result – college debt surpassing credit card debt. we are a silly lot.

    if we can change the mindset about college, if we can unearth more info on uni’s, like Stanford even, seeking out the highly qualified home-schoolers because of their inquisitive, self-directed learning styles, i think we can help the masses see the new story. that they can now define their own success. and public ed can be there to facilitate that.

    let’s do it Kate. let’s do change public ed. let’s save some people. let’s change the world.

  • Kelley

    Alot of great thoughts. Revolution is the proper term to be used because the system is no longer effective, reform is not enough. Professional educators know there are changes needed, but the money is what is driving the testing. I agree with Rob at the university level, testing is one of the best assessment tools. Hopefully, university are not allowing money to drive there testing procedures. I know teachers in Florida who have been so frustrated by the F-Cat because they spent most their instruction time preparing students for it. I think evaluation is one of the best tools to use for non university students. It takes the pressure of having to pass test to prove students comprehend the material being presented. Enjoying blog, great food for thought.

  • What a great post! I was a great test taker in highschool and college… I hardly remember what classes I took – much less what I was supposed to have learned in them. I hope I can help my kids to do better!

  • You reminded me of my sophomore biology honors class. I had the ‘weird’ teacher that 2/3 of her students hated. She didn’t believe in homework, and only gave us the tests because she was forced to by the department. She got fired at the beginning of the second semester (she finished out the year), and immediately stopped giving a crap about what she was supposed to do. (Admittedly, she hadn’t cared that much before, but was trying to follow the school’s rules because she loved teaching and maybe wanted to keep teaching there.) My class got so much more interesting. We had huge, long discussions about bioethics that went on for days. Instead of a final exam or presentation, we had a mock global summit about climate change where each group of 3-4 students represented a different point of view. I was a member of the ‘global warming doesn’t exist’ group. We had no assigned homework for all of second semester. You could study however you wanted for the tests (which she had to give.)

    We did better than the historical average for the class on every single test. Almost everyone from my class is still friends with the teacher, and we hang out with her when she’s in town. Most people from that class are now biology majors, and we all did ridiculously well in biology AP.

    Sorry for the long post, but this post reminded my of that class. We learned so much from the non-assessing part of the class, but the teacher was forced to give us tests to assess our knowledge. We did well, but it didn’t change the fact that we felt people were defining us by our test scores, even though we knew that there was more to us than that. Everything I learned in that class, I learned through discussion and projects, not tests.

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