Standardised testing – Who’s at fault? System, teacher or student? Pt 2 Teacher/Student

” And something else that matters more, we’ve taught you how to think!”

Wise words from Miss Bonkers from the pages of “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!”, Dr Seuss'(with help from Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith) tribute to creativity in schools over standardisation. I open with this YouTube reading of this terrific story as I present my stance on the impact Teachers and their students have on the issue of Standardised testing. This is a follow up post to my take on the System’s successes and failures regarding this concern in education.

As teachers, we work our fingers to the bone to teach our children in the most creative and engaging ways possible. We spend hours each week resourcing quality materials, planning great lessons to get the most out of our students. Then state/national standardised testing time comes around and we completely change our teaching style and focus.

From teaching multiple strategies in Mathematics that will enable our students to be independent, ‘mental calculating’ problem solvers, we suddenly shift back to algorithms and arithmetic drills to prepare them for those quick response multiple choice tests that come by once a year. After months of sharing in the joys of literature and expressing creativity through so many media forms, we cram blocks of texts and lists of question and answer practice sessions into 3 weeks of preparation before the big Literacy test. Five months later when the results finally show up, we sit dismayed that all that effort we put in practising for the test led to little or no change in the previous years’ score. What we don’t get is that, despite the old saying, practice doesn’t make perfect.

If all we do is teach our students how to take a test by giving them superficial tips like ” two of the answers don’t make sense so it really just comes down to a couple of choices” ( not realising that we might sense that there are two stupid choices in the multiple choice options but a 9 year old doesn’t), little will be achieved for those who need to improve. If we think pointing out some key words and phrases that will probably come up in the test next week will make a difference when we can’t possibly predict every word that may appear, children will continue to stress and panic, selecting the first response that includes something they are familiar with. Why else would a child select the “Dogs chase cats” option after reading text that mentions animals of different sizes ( including dogs and cats) and the correct answer is obvious to us ” Animals come in different shapes and sizes?” What’s missing here is a lack of logic from the child…..and this is key to the problem we are perpetuating too often as teachers. We are not teaching the students to THINK.

Before a child can read a book, he can THINK about the book’s meaning, events and characters in conversation with their teacher or parents. Before a child understands what + and ÷ means she can THINK about what happens when you put two groups together or share lollies with your friends and families. Before a child can sort out the difference between isosceles and equilateral triangles, she can THINK about how to put blocks together to build a toy house. THINK about how Lego blocks can teach children about arrays and counting patterns. THINK about how we can argue about issues in their lives before a child knows how to construct a persuasive essay with paragraphs for each argument or even spell or write. As schools and Education departments, let’s start THINKING about a THINKING curriculum.

Phonics is important. Word recognition is vital. Being Level 28 by the end of Grade 2 is a must. It’s all pointless, though, if we have achieved all this without emphasising the importance of THINKING along the way. No Thinking equals no comprehension equals failed reading test. Rote counting is needed but not if the counter isn’t THINKING about what he is counting, why he is counting and is actually counting something. Any skill isolated from THINKING is not helping a child grow as a rational, problem solving student.

Dangerously Irrelevant’s Scott MacLeod, referencing a blogpost by Kevin ‘Doc’ Dougherty reflects on the importance of teaching above the test, not to the test. We need to get our students to struggle. Struggle leads to THINKING. THINKING leads to the ability to look at a question in a standardised test and logically work through a process that leads to a correct answer. I’ve been doing lots of focused standardised tests lately, not in preparation for the upcoming NAPLAN tests in May, but to identify student skill levels so we can plan differentiated programs for them. In watching the students, the number of times they are making irrational choices for answers is astounding. They’re not THINKING.

Yes, there is unfamiliar but relevant vocabulary in these tests that we have disregarded in the past. We are addressing that and exposing the students to a more sophisticated and varied language, struggle and all.As observing teachers, we are beginning to recognise that we are not presenting problems in our day to day teaching ( not test preparation ) in the variety of ways problems are presented in these tests. We are teaching down, dumbing down, teaching to the lower end of the scale, call it what you like. If we force feed every step of the process, explain every instruction without letting children struggle to work out what the instructions or questions mean, always present mathematical problems as numbers rather than written or visual problems, we let them down. We fail to teach them to THINK. So we are now making sure our presentation of problems, information and texts in general are varied and challenging.

So while it is an exaggerated work of fiction, lets look to Miss Bonkers and the school in Diffendoofer for guidance. Yes we need standardised testing to check progress and assess learning. Yes we need to see if our students are performing to a standard that is accepted across the country. But we do not have to teach the content of a test or how to take a test. We need to teach them how to THINK.

So, teachers, do you have good or bad Habits of Mind? Pt 1 – Control


Over the last 3 years, we have been working towards integrating Habits of Mind into our curriculum. We’ve had some successes but it’s been a challenge to maintain the momentum. Is it another layer to add to the curriculum and thus more work to do? Have we embraced its philosophy? Or is it a case of teachers needing to accept to what extent they have good or bad habits themselves? As I’ve posted earlier this year, I am a big believer in teachers being role models in learning. Maybe, as teachers and learners ourselves, we ( and I’m referring to teachers as a whole, not just myself or my colleagues) have to reflect earnestly on how developed our own Habits of Mind are before we can truly embed them into our curriculum. How can we expect our students to develop good Habits if we haven’t ourselves?

With sixteen official Habits of Mind as outlined by their “creator”, Art Costa, this would become an extremely long post, even by my rather wordy standards. I’m going to split my reflections into several posts, using the S.U.C.C.E.S.S categories shown in the image above. Today, I’ll focus on the “Control” Habits.


As a learner;– do you consciously make an effort to stay on task during meetings, PD sessions etc, when the content is dry, irrelevant or “boring” so that you are still focused when something enlightening, useful or interesting is shared?  OR… do you just tune out like that frustrating student in your class who never listens to you?
– do you recognize your struggle in understanding a new pedagogy, concept, educational framework and look for alternative methods of learning until you have developed a level of comprehension you are satisfied with? OR… do you just claim you’ve never been good at that subject and never will be so avoid it like that student in your class you always complain doesn’t try hard enough?

As a teacher;– do you allow your students enough opportunities to re-submit work until they have shown they have grasped the understanding both you and them were aim for? OR… do you reinforce the idea that assessment is a ‘sink or swim’, one chance or you fail opportunity to prove you learnt something?

– do you provide enough time for students to struggle, problem solve, collaborate on solutions, challenge conjectures and answers? OR… do you jump in with the answer so you can move on to your next planned lesson, thereby teaching them that you are the source of all knowledge so its not worth persisting?

– do your students see you working on problems you don’t have the answer to, trying a variety of methods to achieve success, tackling complex problems over a number of days OR… do they only see you present the answers to everything?

Managing impulsivity

As a learner;
Do you…

          • prepare and follow a plan for completing the set task?
          • take in all information?
          • listen to all points of view?
          • weigh up all the evidence (both pros and cons)?
          • reflect on your emotional and logical response to what has been presented?
          • re read, listen to or review notes (written or audio)?
          • ask clarifying questions?
          • investigate/consult alternative sources of information or opinions?
          • And then act
OR… Do you react negatively to the first statement you disagree with and ignore everything else said regardless of its worth, accept the first source of information as accurate fact, adopt every new idea without investigating background information (pros and cons), rush through tasks with the goal of completion rather than achievement. let your emotional state affect your ability to participate meaningfully or rush headlong into a task without any thought of what it will achieve and how you are going to achieve it?

As a teacher; Do you have a set of procedures to follow that allow you to manage challenging behaviour in the classroom rationally and consistently OR… do you react inconsistently to inappropriate behaviour thereby giving students mixed messages about expectations in the classroom?

Do you rehearse possible answers to possible scenarios/questions that may arise during challenging/controversial discussions/lesson sequences OR… do you just react insitinctively to students’ questions without knowing the consequences of your answers and so modelling to the children that its acceptable to say anything?

Do you have a culture of “wait time” in the room so children are comfortable with taking time to record ideas or collaborate with others  before they respond to questions OR… is it a competition to be the first to answer a question or  do you jump in to answer the question before any student gets a chance to?

Taking responsible risks

As a learner;
Do you –

          • Investigate new apps and programs without help, discovering functions by experimenting with menu options and icons?
          • Trial all possible strategies in Mathematics over a long period of time to find out which strategies work best in different situations?
          • Experiment with new skills and activities you have never attempted to see if you can master them at a level you are comfortable with?
OR….. do you just keep doing the same activities and stick with the same interests you have always done and stay within your comfort zone, go running for help from the “expert” so he/she can show you how a software program works, stick with one method or strategy even if it isn’t always efficient or successful?

As a teacher;

Do you –

  • expose yourself as a learner who needs to find out how to do something in front of the class?
  • make mistakes in front of the students and look for solutions on the spot rather than making sure everything is perfect in your lesson?
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in problem solving that requires testing out multiple possibilities?
  • Encourage students to try out many strategies even when they are not competent or comfortable with them so they can become more accomplished at using them?
  • Experiment with newly advertised pedagogies over an extended period of time to give them time to show evidence of improved learning?
OR… Do you use a one size fits all strategy for all students, stick with the one pedagogy that you believe has worked in the past, only present tools you are an ‘expert’ user of so there is no risk of students seeing you struggle, only present problems you know the answers to or make sure you know everything about what you are about to present and don’t allow any divergence away from your plan for fear of being lead away from your comfort zone?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m no perfect role model either. While I am persistent and like to experiment, I don’t necessarily go outside my comfort zone much ( although it is a wide ranging zone in most mainstream classroom – in my extension programs, my students see me struggle) and I still have my days when I don’t follow a consistent management plan.  the point of this reflection is to challenge the teaching community to analyse their own “habits of mind’ before expecting children to just develop them. Practise what you preach. The Habits aren’t just some content to learn about. They have to become part of your being. We have to make sure they’re part of OUR being.

Next Post: Part Two – Cognitive (past knowledge/metacognition/questioning and problem solving