You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 49 - teaching to the test versus training for the test and how to win at the game of academic assessment.
Hello VIPs! I hope your week is going really well so far and that life is good for you and your teens. And if it isn’t, I hope things are perhaps picking up for you for this next quarter of the year. Because I know that for some of you, from your listener emails and from talking to some of you who have your teen in the 10WGT or Next Level, things have been a bit rocky so far in 2023, with family health issues, or bullying problems or receiving neurodivergence diagnoses or challenges with learning differences. And for me personally, as much as I’m fine and have nothing to complain about, I’ve definitely seen that 2023 has been pretty rough for a couple of people who I’m close to. So, I just want to acknowledge that. I know that although I always aim to keep things positive here on the podcast, times aren’t always good in life and if you have a challenge right now, I really do hope you are going okay.
So, with that said, let’s get into today’s episode because I’m going to talk about an issue that comes up a LOT in education, with teachers and schools, with parents and with students. It’s around education vs. assessment and this idea of box-ticking versus discovery and building curiosity and the joy of learning. And in particular, about the problem of teaching to the test.
Now, this is something I feel strongly about, but not in the way most people expect.
So personally, I would describe ‘Teaching to the Test’ as a situation where a teacher knows what is on a test paper and just focuses on teaching the content that is going to be tested and does it in a way that is literally giving students the answers so that they can just pretty much regurgitate them on the exam paper. Now, this probably used to be more of a thing when education back in the day used to be more focused on testing knowledge, facts and memorising that info, it’s not as easy to do today, but I know it can and does happen in some ways, shapes and forms.
Because these days, exams are less about regurgitating facts and more about how students put information, or, more accurately, put their knowledge and understanding of that information, across in relation to how the question is worded. But, that is literally a whole other episode - in fact it actually is. (Episode 3 - what exams are really testing - would be a great one to listen to if you want more on that.)
But, of course, teaching and testing in this way is doing nothing to set students up for long term success. It’s just getting them short term ticks on a page or a score on a report card and it keeps students reliant on teachers rather than independent. It also means that there is very little in the way of cognition or true understanding or grasp of the content they’re learning or memorising.
And once it comes to external assessment, the teachers don’t know what’s going to be on the paper any more than the students do. And of course, this sort of set up is also not providing any sort of training or development in the higher level cognitive skills beyond ‘remember’. That’s why I like to use the word ‘training’ for the work I do with students, as opposed to teaching. It’s a small nuance, but it can be a world of difference. I’ve come to think of it as teaching subject content and training skills - skills in how to perform academically using that subject. Because these days we have google to be able to tell us any fact or information we want. The skills actually required today are to be able to distill that information, put it across from a certain angle, make links between different info or perspectives, consider the implications, etc etc. And for those of you who are really on board with me, you might well be making links between all those skills I just listed and some of the higher levels of command words. Like explain, analyse, apply.
I had a parent recently liken this to the metaphor of giving the man the fish - which would be teaching to the test, versus teaching him how to fish. And I do really like this analogy, it totally works, but I want to add a little bit more to it.
I would say that teaching to the test is definitely similar to, but not quite, giving the man the fish. You’re not literally giving the student a grade without them having to do anything. But granted it’s probably the closest thing. It’s kinda like putting the fish in the pond and giving the man a net the size of the pond. He’s still gotta go fish, but as the teacher, you’re really not leaving anything much up to the student. They follow even half of what they’re told they’ll do okay.
And here’s how I would relate this to teaching - or the word I prefer - training the man to fish. And the woman, and any person to fish.
This is providing him with a range of fishing equipment AND training him in the skills to use it, AND training him in the recognition of different situations to figure out which lakes and oceans will have the most fish. Where to put his effort, where not to. How to do it for the maximum result. It’s about giving him proven training, a proven set of steps, to build the skills and techniques and working with him as he practises and giving him feedback, so he can figure all that out for himself. Some of it will click really fast with just a demo and an explanation. Some of it will require practise and repetition. So that he can be thrown into a situation, - I’m really having to stop myself saying thrown in at the deep end here, but that would be just pun-central - he can be thrown into any situation, not knowing where he’s going to be fishing, what type of fish will be available but being able to use the tools and techniques he has, along with the knowledge and understanding and experience of how to best use them. But, basically having him know that whatever the ocean, lake or pond, and whatever type of fish it holds, he’ll be able to independently figure out the signs of where to find the fish and select the right equipment for the situation.
So, whereas teaching to the test is giving no useful strategy or skills that can be carried forwards beyond that test at that time, or that fish meal on that day, TRAINING students FOR the Test is setting them up with skills and strategies that will be useful in every situation, in class, in homework, in assignments, in exams. It’s basically sharing with them what the game really is and how to play it. And I believe every student should have this training. They should know what the game is that they’re playing and be able to play it to the best of their abilities. Not by guessing or hoping.
Because, fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at this, assessment - both formative and summative - formative being where it’s informal teacher judgements or summative with formally marked exams, tests or assignments, neither are about the more romantic view of education - about building curiosity or discovery. Even if an assignment tries to look like it by encouraging independent investigation or coming up with their own inquiry topic.
Even with that, I always recommend students choose a topic strategically - one that gives them best opportunity to perform and achieve the grade they want. Again, this is where the ‘training for the test’’ comes in.
If your teen wants to achieve results that match their knowledge and the effort they’ve put in to learn it, they need to know exactly what is being asked - in other words, what the command in the question requires and how to deliver it in the way the marking criteria demand - and how to create those opportunities for themselves.
This is the difference between learning and performing when it comes to academics.
The learning is the subject content - the knowledge part of the study success formula.
The performing is the application part of the formula. Knowledge plus application equals success.
And whereas some people might disagree with assessment and the way it is run, and I’m sure we can agree that there is no perfect way, but if you’re here listening to this, then I’m presuming that you’re with me here and accept that we have it so we may as well turn it to your teen’s advantage, I do also think it can be useful to also find ways that this might actually be a helpful lesson in life. Which is kinda the whole purpose of education overall, to set up young people for success and happiness in life.
Because I think this situation is the same in many aspects of life.
I often have parents tell me how they’ve realised that this whole idea of application or responding to command words or meeting marking criteria, is at least metaphorically similar to what they have to do in their jobs. Maybe distilling information into a format the end user can absorb, or providing a service to a client by first of all determining their demands, perhaps figuring out what the public wants in a particular type of product and creating a new product design or features that meet their wants, or even just being able to figure out the most effective way to tick the boxes they have to in their job to keep everyone happy!
I know that the romantic idea of education is to instill a love of learning. To evoke curiosity. To guide children through a journey of discovery. But I think we all know that’s not all it is in high school and college. Maybe there are moments of this, which is awesome, and I really hope that I’ve given students some of those moments during my teaching,
but it’s also genuinely about how to put across what you have in the required way - how to give people - examiners, or clients, customers if we choose think about it that way - what they want, in the way they want it. I do believe that is a skill and one that can be valuable.
Not at the expense of learning, but alongside it.
Which is why I’m here to help students - and you as their parents - take the system we have today and work with it, and win with it.
So, is ensuring academic success about teaching to the test? No. But I also don’t think it is just about teaching them the info and leaving everything else to chance. Like giving them all the fishing equipment and a book about oceans and lakes and leaving them to it.
I think it’s about training them to be skilled, confident and self-sufficient. So they can take any task, even if it’s in a subject they don’t love learning about and get some pleasure at least from performing well in it.
And I know that in the systems we have right now, academic success is about being able to catch the fish the examiner has asked you for, and for your teen’s personal success in keeping a life balance it’s also about doing it in the way that’s most efficient and effective. And I actually even think there is future value and future benefits from learning the skills, strategies and techniques to doing that, at least some of the time.
So that is my version of the inconvenient truth I guess.
I’m about taking the system we have, that students are in right now and how I can help make it work in the favour of more students, have them use it to their advantage. Not cheat it, not manipulate it, but use it in a productive, successful and confidence-building way.
I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this and your experiences with this. As always, I’d really welcome your feedback. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be sure to personally read and respond to any emails around this. I always enjoy hearing from listeners and knowing that you’re out there and that hopefully this podcast is making a difference to you and your teen.
Have a brilliant rest of your week and I’ll see you back here next week for another episode. Take care, bye!