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An argument for testing: Does opting out matter?

As an educational leader, I have been asked why I choose not to opt my son out of high-stakes testing. It’s because I don’t care about the tests nor his scores. In fact, I don’t really care about any of the assessments nor grades he’s given in school, high-stakes or otherwise. I care much more about the skills my son is developing and the knowledge he is constructing; and that learning takes place within every aspect of his life (home, school, play, etc.). It simply cannot be measured through any sort of test.

Our students waste a lot of time in school (and with homework) complying with compulsory tasks that do nothing to develop within them the skills they’ll need as they make their way in this ever-shrinking world – testing included. Opting out of a few high-stakes tests won’t change that.

As educators, we need to be in the business of facilitating students’ construction of knowledge.

This can be done by modeling, guiding, mentoring, and purposively facilitating learning opportunities around critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, perseverance, exploration, reflection, and other soft skills WITHIN and THROUGH disciplinary content (e.g. social studies, science, health, math, language).

Unfortunately, our schools have devolved into places where information memorization is valued over knowledge construction, simply because while students’ retained information can be tested and quantified, their knowledge cannot.

Lessons from the toilet II: Captive audience

As teachers, we often do not have control over what we must teach. But, we do have some control over how students engage in learning.

This story has an unusual opening. Upon shutting the bathroom stall door at a college campus I was recently visiting, I was greeted by a framed poster of information and upcoming university events called the Captivated Audience Notice (CAN). I’ve seen this method of communication before, titled the Toilet Tribune, the Potty Press, and other clever monikers. But, this particular version irritated me.

Captivate, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, means to hold the attention of someone by being extremely interesting, exciting, charming, or attractive. Allow me to assure you, none of the information presented on that poster was more than mildly interesting, and it was certainly neither exciting, charming, nor attractive — mainly because it was all irrelevant to me.

In my opinion, a better title for this series of posters would be the “Captive Audience Notice”. While I was not truly a prisoner in the stall, I definitely did not have a choice in whether to use the bathroom, and no real option to escape once I entered the stall. The only choice I had was whether to focus my attention on the poster. My willingness to read the poster stemmed more from the novelty of its placement in the bathroom stall, a location where there was nothing else to capture my attention for the few moments I spent there attending to other matters, than because I was curious about its content. I have absolutely no recollection of what was printed there. It merely served as something to occupy my mind in a situation where I was momentarily held captive by my body’s needs.

This got me thinking. How does the idea of captive versus captivated translate into classrooms? Are our students treated as prisoners prohibited from escaping under the guise of teaching them? Or, are we cultivating experiences that are extremely interesting, exciting, charming, or attractive to hold their attention to facilitate their learning? How often do students attend to something that is irrelevant or uninteresting, simply because they have no choice but to be in the classroom and once there, nothing else for them to do? How often are students’ curiosities piqued by something at school that is so exciting, they can’t help but pay attention? Are they being held captive by teaching or are they being captivated by learning?

A popular meme that appeared on my social media feeds lately shows the Most Interesting Man in the World accompanied by the following text: “I don’t always care about my grade, but when I do it’s at the end of the semester and even though I didn’t do all of the assignments, I’ll ask for extra credit now.”

It’s always presented as a shared experience for teachers to commiserate with one another in a light-hearted manner. But… wait… what if, instead, the meme read, “I don’t always care about learning what my teacher decides is important, but when I do it’s because I’m curious about the topic and decide I want to know more, not because I’m being bribed with points and a grade.”

because i am curious

To me, this seems far more representative of the actual, underlying issue here. And, it certainly paints students in a better light, though not so much the teachers who would prefer to blame them for their lack of attention, motivation, and engagement in assignments that are neither personally relevant nor representative of what is expected of them as modern citizens in our society.

Why do we resort to using points as bribes for compliance? Why do we blame students for not engaging with what we attempt to force them to learn when lessons are designed to fit standards rather than facilitate student growth toward personal learning goals based on individual interests and aptitudes?

As a part of my job, I am required to attend specific professional development opportunities. These are workshops or programs others have chosen for me based on what they believe to be important learning for a person in my role. Some of them are indeed relevant and interesting to me both personally and professionally; many (if not most) are not. Luckily, I also have a few opportunities (though, not many) to select my own options for professional development based on my interests, aptitudes, abilities, and self-assessed needs for growth within my role.

Can you guess which opportunities directly impact my personal growth and professional practice because I engage in and learn from them? Can you guess which opportunities I spend disengaged, either talking with those around me or focused on my laptop, working on activities that are more personally and professionally relevant to me? Can you guess which opportunities I am excited to attend and those I dread?

I theorize that students who are held captive by teacher-driven, teacher-centered, unengaging, uninteresting, and irrelevant content deal with their forced captivity in one of three ways: misbehavior, compliance, or a mix of both.

Students who misbehave are disruptive. They talk to each other. They bother other kids. They get up to go to the bathroom when they do not need to go. They sharpen their pencils until all that is left is a tiny, sharp point and an eraser (and then they sharpen the eraser). They doodle. They text their friends. They sing. They tap their pencils as if playing a drum solo in a heavy metal band. They hold a pencil between their thumb and forefinger and wave it up and down so it appears to bend. They make funny noises. They stare out the window. They think about what they plan to do when class is over. They interrupt the teacher. They daydream. They watch the clock. They post on social media. They ask questions that were already addressed. They frustrate the teacher.

I, myself, am guilty of many of these behaviors when faced with being forced to “learn” content someone else has selected for me. How about you?

Conversely, compliant students follow the rules. They stay in their assigned seats. They remain silent during work time. They use their time wisely. They make pretty posters. They diligently take notes. They follow all directions. They listen the first time. They memorize. They copy from the board. They develop flashy slide shows. They repeat facts. They do what they are told.

My hunch is that the these compliant students are mostly comprised of rule-followers who do what they are told because it is how they were taught to “play school.” They may be motivated by praise, points, and grades, but they are not engaged in learning. They likely get very little out of what is being taught; thus, although their behavior may be preferable because it is easier for teachers to manage, their learning is no better than that of their misbehaving peers.

While it may seem like the ideal classroom situation to have rows of dutiful students, silently listening, scribbling down notes, following directions, memorizing information, and repeating facts, in reality, these students are held captive by teaching. The students who comply do so because there is nothing else to attend to.

In my experience, when people are captivated by what they are learning, they behave appropriately (and by this I mean fittingly, according to the learning situation) simply because they are interested in a topic that is of personal relevance. They are excited and motivated to learn more. They identify what is important enough to learn and what is not. They decide the best way to do the learning. They determine their own modes through which to make their learning visible to others. They determine whether to make their learning visible to others. They explore new avenues of learning just to learn more. They seek out new resources. If a prerequisite skill exists that must be attained in order to facilitate their learning, they will master that, too. And, they stop learning about something that is no longer of interest to them and move on to the next topic.

Being truly captivated by learning is hard work! No matter the topic, it requires creativity, reflection, determination, problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, self-assessment, perseverance, and the transfer and translation of knowledge into new situations.

These are the kinds of skills our students deserve to have as they leave our school systems. These are the kinds of skills their potential employers will be requiring. These are the kinds of skills people need to succeed, no matter the path they choose. And, as educators, it is our job to provide them with opportunities to develop these skills.

How do we really want to educate? Do we want compliant students who either do what they are told or misbehave because they are held captive by teacher-driven, teacher-focused instruction? Or, are we willing to facilitate students’ captivation in their own learning?

As teachers, we often do not have control over what we must teach. But, we do have some control over how students engage in learning.

If we want our students to leave school with the requisite skills necessary for success along any path they choose, we must provide them with opportunities to think for themselves and make decisions about what is important to learn and when and how to do the learning. Only then will students truly be captivated by their learning and not held captive by our teaching.

A theory for invisible learning

Note: This is the second of a three-part series on a new theory for invisible learning.

Theory for Invisible Learning

When Cristóbal Cobo and I set out to write the book Aprendizaje Invisible (“Invisible learning”) five years ago, we sought to take a 360° and 3D view of the educational landscape—with an eye toward the future. We found the gap between formal learning and informal and non-formal modes of learning is becoming increasingly apparent.

We initially structured invisible learning as a metatheory, which recognizes that most of the learning we do is “invisible” —that is, it is through informal, non-formal, and serendipitous experiences rather than through formal instruction. We learn alone, or in a group, through individual and shared experiences. We learn more through experimentation, exploration, and through the consequences of enabling serendipity. Even though we cannot measure the knowledge in our heads, the consensus is that the vast majority of our knowledge is developed through invisible or informal means (see esp. this classic article by Jay Cross).

Invisible learning is not a theory for learning, itself. It is an end point or state of learning that emerges when we remove structures that control or direct our experiences. Therefore:

The Theory for Invisible Learning is that we learn more, and do so invisibly, when we separate structures of control that restrict freedom and self-determination from learning experiences.

The purpose of controlling an educational experience is to make learning visible. It is built on distrust of the learner – the false assumption that students will not learn unless they are told what to learn. In this sense, invisible learning is the end product of a theory which predicts that learning may blossom when we eliminate authoritarian control or direction of a learning experience by an “other” (i.e., teacher).

Removing structures of control opens possibilities. The end outcomes or goals of an experience are neither dictated nor determined from the start, but instead emerge as learning develops. Such experiences include free play, self-organized learning communities, authentic problem-based learning, and experimentation to acquire new knowledge.

Theory for Invisible Learning is focused on the development of personal knowledge: blends of tacit and explicit elements that embrace a portfolio of skills such as cooperation, empathy, and critical thinking as much as retaining facts. The implication is that there is no master template for enabling invisible learning, but rather we need to attend to the formation of an ecology of options for individuals to find their own ways. This suggests a growing need for bottom-up approaches to learning. By removing the rigidity of top-down control, and placing trust in learners, invisible learning can be made visible.


Posts in this series

  1. The need for invisible learning
  2. A theory for invisible learning
  3. Approaches for enabling invisible learning

Learning in Knowmad Society: Making invisible learning visible

Preface: Today, the Waag Society (institute for art, science and technology) released a new publication, Spelen leren, lerend spelen (“Playing games, learning games”). I have a short article article in the magazine, which was published in Dutch. Here’s an English translation:

In 1980, Seymour Papert predicted that computers would fundamentally transform education –and ultimately make schools, themselves, redundant. 30 years later, computers in schools are the norm, but we are still teaching the old way. Why?

In education, we have a hard time disentangling technologies from our conversations about innovations in learning. Too often, we place technologies in the forefront, which end up obscuring authentic knowledge formation. We often take the best technologies and squander the opportunities they afford us. Our knowledge-based societies demand a deeper change in our culture of teaching, and, particularly, in the ways in which we learn (and unlearn).

Moreover: The impacts of accelerating technological and social changes on education are enormous. Today’s stakeholders in our youths’ future must prepare them for futures that none of us can even dream are possible. We need to rethink and explore all the “invisible” (non-formal, non-certified, but equally relevant) ways of learning in a world where personal knowledge development, comprised of both tacit and explicit elements, is rapidly becoming more valuable than commodified, industrial-style information delivery. How can we create innovators, capable of leveraging their unique imaginations and creativity?

In the Invisible Learning project, we sought to research and share experiences and innovative perspectives, focused on rethinking strategies and innovative approaches to learn and unlearn continuously. We highlighted the importance of critical thinking of the roles of formal, informal, non-formal and serendipitous education at all levels – which can contribute to the creation of sustainable processes of learning, innovating and designing new cultures for a global society.

In the Invisible Learning paradigm, “just in case,” rote memorization is replaced with learning that is intended to be personally meaningful for all participants in the learning experience. Moreover, the application of knowledge toward innovative problem solving takes primacy over the regurgitation of previous knowledge or so-called “facts.”

Education in the Invisible Learning paradigm enables students to act on their knowledge, applying what they know to solve problems – including problems that have not been solved before. This contextual, purposive application of personal knowledge to create innovative solutions negates the value of non-innovation-producing regimes (i.e., standardized testing).

The purposive application of technologies can help. Our questions around educational improvement should therefore not be around what to learn, but rather about how we can learn. And, how we can make what we learned invisibly visible.

Review: 21st Century Skills (by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel)

Book: 21st Century Skills: Learning for life in our times
Author: Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel
Publisher: Jossey-Bass (2009)

Some ten years into the 21st century, I find it amazing that we are still having conversations on what skills are necessary to succeed in this new century. We’ve explored some ideas of what skills are relevant before (see this, this, this, and this, for example), and there appears to be a general consensus that there are needs for skills development in creativity, innovation, smart use of ICTs, and social leadership. This is exactly in line with what Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, co-board members on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, identify (lifted from the book jacket):

  • Learning and Innovation Skills: Creativity and Innovation, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, and Communication and Collaboration
  • Digital Literacy Skills: Information Literacy, Media Literacy, and ICT Literacy
  • Career and Life Skills: Flexibility and Adaptability, initiative and Self-Direction, Social and Cross-Cultural Skills, Productivity and Accountability, Leadership and Responsibility

What makes this book valuable to practitioners, however, is that instead of building up chapters of reasoning for why we need to adopt the P21 skill set in education, they focus more on what each of these skills mean. Moreover, they tie in examples of the skills in practice with an included DVD, containing real-life classroom examples.

While the book excels at understanding each of the P21 skills and their implications, it falls short on how to build these skills in broader contexts – i.e., as a replacement set for NCLB standards. For this, the text could have benefited with an invitation –and mechanism– for its readers to join the conversation on adopting and embracing new skills for the 21st century. Instead, leading the conversation seems left to us: Where shall we begin?


Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.