Teaching to the Test

Most of us are more comfortable being told what to do and telling others what to do than we are with the labor of curiosity and the uncertainty of discovery.


I thought this article on teaching to the test vs. teaching to think was interesting. It’s long, so I’ve quoted the main bits below. Hang with me for how it applies to you.

For most teachers and students, the classroom experience is shaped, down to the last detail, by the requirement to prepare for examinations. When students enter such classrooms, the focus is not on open-ended discussion or enquiry, but on learning ‘what we need to know’ to succeed in whichever examination is next on the horizon. Most likely, there will be a ‘learning outcome’ for the lesson, drawn straight from the exam syllabus. There will be textbooks with comments from the examiners, banks of possible exam questions and bullet-pointed notes with ‘model answers’. Far from being open spaces for free enquiry, the classroom of today resembles a military training ground, where students are drilled to produce perfect answers to potential examination questions.

‘Teaching to the test’, which increasingly dominates public school classrooms, produces an atmosphere of student passivity and teacher routinisation. The creativity and individuality that mark out the best humanistic teaching and learning has a hard time finding room to unfold.

Education is a philosophical process. It begins with questioning, proceeds by enquiry, and moves in the direction of deeper understanding. The journey of enquiry is powered by critical reflection, discussion and debate.

When teachers adopt the role of Socratic mentors, their questioning of students stimulates them to think for themselves about the problem at hand, rather than passively absorbing information.

Students who are taught to think for themselves are better prepared for life: better equipped to face the uncertainties of the future, to think creatively and independently, and to play a role as active, reflective citizens in democratic decision-making processes.

To close the achievement gap in our schools, let’s go back to where education started and do what Socrates did: sitting with his students, asking questions and, through dialogue, teaching them what matters most – how to think for themselves.

So I think that most of us can agree that the teaching to the test approach is producing very narrow results while ill-equipping students to excel in the real world. Plus, no one likes to learn this way. There’s a reason why you were bored in class.

However, many of us adopt a teach to the test mentality in life without ever realizing it. Let me explain.

When you are required to learn something new for your job or even just a project around the house, do you tend to default to whatever you’ve been told and/or mindlessly copy how others do it, or do you stop and think about the best way for you to do it and why it even matters to begin with?

When you interact with your kids and try to teach them how to behave are you a drill sergeant or are you asking questions, creating dialogue, and helping them own the ideas for themselves?

If you have any sort of leadership or management position, are you micromanaging widget makers or empowering change makers?

Truth be told, most of us are more comfortable being told what to do and telling others what to do than we are with the labor of curiosity and the uncertainty of discovery.

Yet think back on your own life. Odds are, your biggest breakthroughs and most important progress has been a byproduct of struggle, questioning, second-guessing, and purpose seeking. If this is true of you, why wouldn’t it be true of those you interact with?

Think about the best teacher, pastor, or mentor you’ve ever had. Did they merely teach to the test (dictate the right answers) or did they ultimately teach you how to think better (ask you questions to help you arrive at the right answers)? Now go and do likewise.

Was this helpful? Please let me know or share it with others.


2 thoughts on “Teaching to the Test”

  1. The part of me that loves metaphors and analogies absolutely loves this discussion; the part of me that seeks to avoid the perception of failure is deeply uncomfortable with it. Excellent point, Dave.

    When I’m in meetings, conversations, and presentations, I make a point to assess, “Are we doing systems thinking or critical thinking right now?” If the goal is to stay within the former, I try to color in the lines and play by their rules; however, if it’s permissible to dabble in the latter, I try to deconstruct what problem we’re actually trying to solve and get at WHY we’re trying to change it. It helps to pass the time and it teaches me about a point you’ve touched on here: Are we self-aware of why we think the way we think? Why does Person A cling to systems thinking with white knuckles, yet Person B find joy in pulling at loose threads in the sweater — even if the whole thing unravels?

    I think it largely comes down to how we were educated. It’s a decent hypothesis to posit that those who are taught-to-the-test learn to live in systems thinking, while those who had a socratic teacher learn to critically analyze new information and existing assumptions.

    I have no idea how this could be actually measured, but just think about the effects in technology, economics, politics, and religion if we had an entire generation of purely test-taught systems thinkers. What would happen if there were no Socrates meandering about, “corrupting the youth of Athens?”

    Excellent post, sir. A needed principle.

    Liked by 1 person

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