Motivation for Learning
- Author: Anonymous, Teacher
- State: NY
- Test: All Tests
- Date: May 11 at 6:54 pm ET
In order to write a reflection on high-stakes testing that will fit on just one page, I would like to zoom in on just one issue: the purpose of learning. For most of us who work in education, we constantly hear about measures of student learning, learning environments, learning disabilities, etc. without much discussion of the purpose of learning. Last fall I felt like I had won the lottery: my students were highly motivated and full of questions. My co-teacher and I did occasionally offer rewards to students, but that was always driven by behavior concerns. We had a group of kids who loved to learn, simply because they were curious about the world and liked to have new skills. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case for many of our students, and I blame test prep for the change.
Imagine a teacher is giving a read-aloud about the famous scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla. The book is filled with beautifully designed images, with color added to original photographs, kid-friendly diagrams of incredible machines, and custom-made maps. As the teacher reads kids ask questions-they want to know how Tesla changed the way that electricity was transmitted, there are questions about why his birthplace is no longer the same country, and many questions about where energy comes from. This is an ideal situation, with an engaging, meaningful text that is prompting open-ended questions that can generate all kinds of research and writing. Now let’s imagine the same content, but in test prep mode.
The Tesla book is gone and has been replaced with a black-and-white test prep book with minimal images, one of which is a thumbnail image of Tesla in the upper right hand corner of his single page biography. On the next page are two multiple-choice questions and a short response, all of which are designed to measure whether or not the student has demonstrated mastery of the sequencing standard. Rather than sitting at the rug, the students are sitting at desks arranged in rows. They work silently, waiting for the teacher’s instruction to exchange their work with an assigned partner in preparation for grading. Any student with a question will be told to reread and figure it out for themselves, because that’s how it will be on test day. Questions about Tesla that cannot be answered by the text are skipped over, with the teacher half-heartedly encouraging students to “look it up later.” These students quickly become disengaged, with energy levels determining who starts to act up and who just puts his or her head down.
Each of the preceding examples is a realistic representation of the same content delivered two different ways. In the first, students are exposed to a text that generates questions, curiosity, and discussion, encouraging a high level of engagement. Test prep, in contrast, narrows the focus onto a specific skill, treating content as simply a means of testing the skill. Unfortunately, my class, which used to be just like the group in the read-aloud example, has suffered through so much test prep that the spark of curiosity seems to have gone out for many of them. We told them that they had to learn the skills to pass the test, and then they took the test, and it’s all done. If we teach to the test, what do we teach after the test? If we prepared for something that’s now over, why keep learning? Test prep, with its frantic pace and emphasis on extrinsic rewards for “progress” makes us all lose track of why we learn.