This year for my daughter’s birthday, we got her a big girl bike. Shiny and pink with training wheels. If you live in our part of the country, you know that we are in the midst of an unending monsoon. It has rained for days. My daughter’s bike sits in the garage and she sits watching it eagerly, waiting for the sun to come out.
If you have kids in school, or you are a teacher, as I am, you also know that it is testing season. And anyone who has entered a school around this time of year knows that everything centers around the tests. Kids are prepping for the tests. Teachers are reviewing for the tests. Schools are holding pep rallies for the tests. My daughter came home this week chanting a test-taking mantra.
Teachers come up with catchy slogans and acronyms to try to propel students towards test-taking success. We show students how to “slash the trash” and “jail the detail.” We spend countless hours having students practice reading a question and selecting the correct multiple choice answer.
We are so focused on having students select the right answer that we have forgotten something. Learning is not about selecting the correct answer. Actually, if we pressure students to always find the correct answer, we may unintentionally inhibit learning–producing the opposite of what we wanted– not more learning, but less.
Real learning is messy. It requires vulnerability. To learn something new, students must be able to risk making a mistake–to jump in and try something.
Yesterday, it finally stopped raining. My daughter proudly steered her big girl bike out of the garage and into the bright sunshine, eager to hop on and give it a go. She strapped on her helmet and jumped on, pedaling slowly at first but gradually picking up speed until her long hair blew in the wind. After a few laps around the driveway, she took a turn too sharply and fell down hard. She laid in the grass and cried. We hugged her as she brushed the dirt off of her scraped knees. Then we discussed how not to fall off next time around the curve, and she got back on to try again.
Learning is like this. The student, whether young or old, is the bike-rider. They can’t be so concerned with doing it right (or choosing the correct answer) that they aren’t able to get on the bike and try to peddle. They also have to trust that if they try to move forward and make a mistake or fall, someone will be there to hug them, coach them, dry their tears, and help them get back on the bike.
Because getting back on the bike after the big fall is where the learning occurs– when we think about what we did wrong and learn from those mistakes. Teachers have to be permitted, once again, to create an environment in their classroom where mistakes are allowed– a climate of trust, where students know that if they fall or fail at their first attempt the teacher will be there to coach them back onto the bike.
Teachers who are constantly pressured and stressed about achieving certain scores can not create the environment necessary for cultivating real learning. When a student fails, they will be inclined to rush them along, discipline, or criticize. But students who are afraid of failing or discouraged don’t truly learn.
Do students need to know how to pass a test? Yes! Does there need to be accountability? Certainly! But for so long in education we have emphasized product over process. By teaching students to select the correct answer on a test, we have paralyzed many of our highest achieving students and incapacitated our most effective teachers, by telling them they must be right, at all costs. They learn to play it safe, to try to look smart instead of taking a risk in the service of real learning.
As a result we are failing. We are producing students who may or may not be able to select the correct answer on a multiple choice test but are ill-equipped for the work world where questions rarely come with answer choices, critical thinking is a life-skill, and failure at something is almost a guarantee. And when that failure comes, it will be be devastating because we are teaching students that learning is about perfect scores when really it’s about growth.
My daughter is still not a perfect bike-rider. She will probably not fall on that curve again, but there are bigger curves and hills ahead. My wish for her is that her teachers are rebels and that as her parents we can continue to nurture her sense of curiosity and adventure so that her will to jump on the bike and explore what’s out there is always greater than her fear of falling.
-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC