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'Why we need to rethink the way we assess our students' (sponsored article)

The purpose of education shouldn't be to pass tests – it should be to prepare young people for tomorrow's world

Why we need to rethink how we assess pupils

Education is becoming increasingly standardised and generic; we seem to be sleepwalking into a nightmare of universal measurement and assessment, not just of students, but also of teaching itself.

This approach worked for churning out the legions of workers, administrators and managers needed for our industrial past, but is woefully inadequate for the myriad challenges and opportunities facing young people today.

It’s time to completely rethink how young people are learning, and as Alvin Toffler, an influential American writer and futurist, said in his 1970s book, Future Shock: “By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

It's time to question the role of our education systems: are students learning how to learn, or are they learning how to repeat information in order to pass tests? Given the national and even global preoccupation with league tables and measurement, it looks like the purpose of education is the latter.

As Graham Brown-Martin, pi-top’s chief education and product officer, says: “If we accept that the purpose of education is to train young people to pass tests then talented and qualified teachers are an unnecessary luxury.” We know they’re no such thing, so we should also realise that young people shouldn’t be trained just to pass tests.

So how did we get here?

American psychologist R. Keith Sawyer observed this about schooling in his paper Optimising Learning: Implications of Learning Sciences Research (OECD, 2008):

  • Today’s schools are designed around reasonable assumptions that have not been tested.
  • Knowledge is a collection of facts and procedures for how to solve problems.
  • The purpose of school is for students to learn those facts and procedures.
  • People are thought to be educated when they know a lot of facts and procedures.
  • A teacher’s role is to impart these facts and procedures to students.
  • Simpler facts and procedures are learned first, then more complex facts and procedures.
  • Success is determined by testing students to see how many of these facts and procedures they can remember.

This "tell and learn" model of schooling is called “instructionism” by learning scientists because it assumes that the core activity of the classroom is instruction by the teacher. It is also often referred to as the “standard model” for education. 

Yet this and the way we assess our students has little relation to how the world works. Released into the workforce, you don’t take a test to check you’re doing your job correctly. You’re given a review, an appraisal, an evaluation, a development plan – why don’t we assess students in the same way?

How do we get assessment right?

There is an alternative to the instructionism - it’s called constructionism. Constructionists believe that education is a reconstruction of knowledge where learning is based on experiences, often within a social context.  Learning by making, in other words.

This approach means that teachers are facilitators rather than instructors, teaching students how to learn rather than directly what to learn. It stimulates key future skills such as problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. Students who use active learning techniques such as experiments or real-world problem-solving can ‘create’ more knowledge. If they’re encouraged to think and talk about what they’re doing and how their understanding is changing, students become expert learners.

The end goal of assessment has to support the student’s learning outcomes, take some administrative workload away from teachers and enable the school’s leadership to prioritise providing a well-rounded education rather than achieving targets.

The late Joe Bower, middle school teacher and blogger in Canada said: “We need to start trusting teachers. There is absolutely no substitute for what teachers see and hear every single day they teach, and they work with children while they’re still learning.

“Quite frankly, if you’re telling me you need a test or a grade to find out what the kids are learning, my response or question back to you is, what have you been doing? Have you not been working with them? Should you not have observed the learning while they were learning?”

There are other options, too. How about alternative methods, like self and peer assessment? Presentations and teamwork? Project-based assessment? A greater emphasis on formative assessment over summative assessment, to enable students to learn from their mistakes rather than failing a test and not having another opportunity? These options provide better and quicker feedback for students, improving the path between teaching, assessment and learning outcomes.

Ultimately we need to change what our aim is with assessment. It shouldn’t be aptitude test results, it shouldn’t be getting to the top of a league table, and it shouldn’t be to hold teachers and school leaders accountable for the failings of the education system. Some of the most important things we want to teach our children – problem-solving and critical thinking, for example – are nigh on impossible to formally assess. In an education system that future-proofs our students, measurements alone won’t be enough.

Our aim should be to allow students to flourish, no matter their ability. We need to be learner-centred rather than result-centred. Of course, we should develop core academic skills, but we also need to build collaboration, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills – skills which are required for a future we aren’t certain of.

The jobs of the future are the ones that robots just can’t do. These jobs will need creativity, social interaction, understanding, resourcefulness, originality and collaboration. We’ll need people to invent solutions to our immediate, urgent and future problems, and we will need to be able to do that across borders.

Surely the true purpose of education is to teach children and young adults how to take on these challenges and to learn how to learn. That’s our mission at pi-top.

Find out how pi-top teaches students how to take on life’s challenges, collaborate, problem-solve, think critically, be creative and to learn how to learn.