Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Unschooling Tests

When I was in first grade, I was required to take timed math tests that had a negative impact on my sense of my aptitude for math.  This experience has made me very resistant to the No-Child-Left-Behind testing culture of today's schools and was a crucial influence on my interest in homeschooling.  I wanted to homeschool our son to give him an education focused on real learning, not tests.  My ideal vision was that we would never have tests (beside the yearly standardized test required by the homeschool law in our state).  I thought that we don't need tests since we know what N. is learning because we spend so much time with him.  I am concerned that tests orient children toward external motivation for learning, learning in order to do well on a test, rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation.

Tim disagreed slightly with me on this issue in part because he had no negative associations with tests from his childhood.  He's been doing little math tests with N. and calling them tests.  (See picture at left for an example of one of their "tests").  At first, I was upset when I discovered this.  But then serendipitously some articles in the New York Times helped reframe tests for me so that I could think about them as learning tools rather than only in terms of my own negative previous experiences.  As one recent article points out, "cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment."  Taking tests or quizzes helps reinforce knowledge; according to this article, studying for one session and taking a test in a second session leads to better long-term retention than studying for two sessions.  

There's no question that the timed tests I took were not productive in reinforcing knowledge, but I think we can structure little low/no-stakes quizzes to be a productive part of N.'s learning.  These can take the form shown in the picture above, or of the Charlotte Mason-style recitation that takes place daily when Tim and N. tell me at supper about what they studied during the day.  Tim and I have agreed that written "tests" not be graded or marked with stars in order to keep the emphasis on intrinsic motivation and to keep tests oriented toward learning, not assessment.

It's easy in homeschooling to try to correct all the perceived wrongs that we parents experienced in our own childhood schooling.  Our discussion of tests highlighted for me the importance of maintaining our focus on N.'s educational needs and of refraining from projecting my own past on him.  Furthermore, I am happy to take advantage of experiments in psychology and cognitive science that illuminate how our brains learn and work.  Much of unschooling dogma seems to be based primarily on anecdotal accounts, and I think it is important to bring that dogma in conversation with rigorous science.  Sometimes that science may inspire adaptations of unschool dogma, while in other instances scientific findings will support our educational methods. 

Thus, while some kinds of tests can be effective learning tools, I still believe that the multiple-choice testing model in much of education is counterproductive to and a poor measure of learning.  In a recent Times op-ed, psychology instructor Susan Engel describes what assessments should try to gauge: "the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live."  This eloquently captures our primary homeschool goals.  Little quizzes can play a role in N.'s homeschool learning while we remain focused on these broader goals.


Sara McGrath (UnschoolingLifestyle.com) said...

I don't like tests either, but my 8-yr-old unschooling daughter is presently so excited about taking her first state-required homeschool test that she's happily working through a test prep workbook. I guess it depends on whether the test feels punitive.

Kim said...

My 6-year-old begs for tests. I think he likes to re-visit the information that he has learned in a Q&A format. I don't stress about tests and have yet to do any standardized tests but I often create little quizzes for him. He thrives on it. I'll have to check out the NYT article.