There is a whole world outside the narrow box of traditional school tests.Photograph: © Leklek73 | Dreamstime.com
Today's students live in a high-stakes testing culture. They are under internal, peer, parental and societal pressure to constantly perform through a never-ending series of assessments. In many ways, blitzing these tests has become the primary focus of childhood and adolescence. The dominant narrative is that in this highly competitive world the only way to access a successful and rewarding life is by coming out on top at each stage of testing.
The problem is that most of these tests aren't assessing the skills that our kids will need to succeed in the future world of work.
The WEF Future of Jobs report emphasises the current and accelerating demand for high-end cognitive skills including analytical thinking and innovation, active learning, collaboration, creativity, originality and initiative, complex problem-solving and critical thinking. Not only are we not testing for these skills, but the focus on maximising performance on traditional content testing means that there is no time available in school to develop them at all.
As documented in the film Race to Nowhere, high-stakes testing can lead to a whole range of problems - bad physical and mental outcomes for students and teachers, wide-scale cheating, teaching to the test, cramming and the almost immediate forgetting of content, shallow learning, and limited time for reflection, discovery and creativity. Ultimately, not only are we testing the wrong things and creating a culture that is hostile to deep learning, the testing itself is almost meaningless given that many Universities now need to provide significant remediation for many new students who arrive without even traditional entry-level skills.
Of course, helping our kids develop and master the skills above is not just a question of changing what and how we test. Both the content and methods of learning will also need to change, but moving the focus away from standardised testing in order to enable these changes will not be straightforward.
Critics of traditional educational methods complain that naturally creative and inquisitive children enter school systems designed for an earlier industrial age and very quickly have their natural creativity stifled by a "mass-production" approach to learning. Any residual motivation to explore and experiment in their learning is then further suppressed by the intense focus on test performance, and the jettisoning of any subject or learning that does not directly impact their scores. This is not an environment conducive to developing a life-long love of learning nor the capability to explore, adapt and create, all of which will be essential to successfully navigate the future.
The skills and capabilities required for future work are not easily developed in isolation, and certainly not after an entire school-life focused on studying for test-taking. In a chapter from the book, “Higher Education in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, (Ed. Nancy Gleason), Rosaline May Lee and Selena Yuan Yanyue from the School of Entrepreneurship and Management at ShanghaiTech University, document the challenges they faced in attempting to introduce innovation and entrepreneurial skills to students via a course in "Design Thinking".
The course was included as a mandatory core component of the Entrepreneurship and Management school. The initial response from students ranged from "Why do I need to study design?" to "What a terrible waste of time!" Although the skills included in the course were key elements of an entrepreneur's toolkit, the students were primarily concerned about "whether the class would help in their majors, provide a skill to improve the odds of obtaining a job, create a credential to facilitate admission into a graduate school, and the effect of the class grade on their GPA".
The course was then realigned around students' own experiences and curiosity in the hope of inspiring a class project that would connect them more directly to the power and benefits of the process. As such, the solutioning aspects of Design Thinking were emphasised. However, this focus reinforced the students test-driven tendency to look for the single correct answer. The students' apparent inability or unwillingness to explore the problem and look for new insights (a fundamental purpose of Design Thinking) resulted in them driving directly to a standard solution addressing obvious and explicitly expressed needs and still questioning the fundamental value of the exercise.
In the latest iteration, critical thinking was added as a core component of the course, the focus was moved away from solutioning to the exploration and reframing of problems and an emphasis was placed on teamwork in order to reflect real-world conditions. Perhaps driven by the competitive nature of their education and/or the absence of teamwork up to that point, the students often expressed "frustration with teamwork, insisting they could work more efficiently as individuals". More critically, the students tended to focus on achieving consensus as quickly as possible, rather than using differing points of views and perspectives to open new avenues of investigation.
Although the final version of the course received much more positive feedback from students, with many demonstrating critical thinking capabilities and several continuing on with their projects after completion, the authors found that without reinforcement from the broader education environment, their efforts to stimulate their students' creativity and critical thinking quickly diluted once they returned to their regular studies.
No doubt, there are factors unique to the Chinese education system that drive some of these outcomes, but it is ironic that as China places increasing educational emphasis on creativity and entrepreneurship out of a concern that despite Western 15-year-olds' limitations in test-taking, they have been more innovative, many Western countries are enabling cultures and approaches which are now stifling this very capability.
The bulk of future economic and jobs growth will come from innovation and entrepreneurship. To ensure our kids are ready for this future, they need to be immersed in creatively learning and applying content to solve problems throughout their school lives. This will require an escape from the narrow "box" of intense standardised testing. Kids will need to feel comfortable taking risks and learning new things free from the fear that they will fall off they high-speed lane to success by taking an interesting detour.
Testing and assessing what students know will still be important to ensure they are learning successfully and academic standards are being maintained, but there are many other ways of assessing mastery including formal presentations and work portfolios. In many ways this signals a return to more traditional means of assessment, where teachers are directly aware of the progress a student is making through their daily interactions, rather than via constant formal testing, and small, personalised and immediate course corrections can be made in the natural flow of the classroom.
Finally, as parents, it falls to us to ensure our kids are focusing on what is important and provide "air-cover" from the more excessive and negative aspects of this current obsession with testing. We need to reassure them that actual learning is more important than test scores, that trying new things and taking calculated risks is essential at school and in life, and that they should not only follow and broaden their passions, but actively develop them into a purpose that can sustain them emotionally and financially throughout life.