I wrote this back in 1998 when I was still teaching.
Does teaching to the test make better learners?
I have spent the past year in an exploratory quest to learn if the above question is true or false, I have found that it is false. If we teach children ‘to the test’ then all we are really doing is teaching the children a new way to learn by rote. As teachers our role now is to actually create life long learners, if we are teaching strictly to the test are we really doing our job?
Many new standardized tests actually do not ‘allow you’ to teach to them in that they actually test one’s ability to use higher order thinking skills independently of any teaching given by the teacher. What is a teacher to do? I have found that by teaching higher order thinking skills, critical thinking and integrating the curriculum so that children can see how things can be connected is by far more effective than trying to teach children how to pass a test. I am not saying that children shouldn’t practice test taking skills, this is important so that they are exposed to it and recognize what they need to do when confronted with a question format that might be complex. I was thinking back to when I took drivers education. I am sure you remember the driving part, we spent hours on the road getting experience driving, but we also had objectives we needed to master in order to pass. We would practice these over and over, I still remember the one thing I never passed was backing up around a corner in a perfect quarter circle. I think about those lessons every morning when I back out of my parking space to drive to work, have I finally mastered it? Does it really matter since I have my driver’s license and I have been successfully driver since I was 18? The idea is that many teachers tend to focus on that one thing without looking at the big picture. With the analogy of driving I got plenty of road practice, which is infinitely more important than trying to back around a corner. Children need practice learning and thinking, if you are teaching them by rote, they are not thinking they are waiting for you to give them the information. Which as many teachers know you can’t do when administering any kind of test. So, is teaching to the test the best way to go? No, I firmly believe that if you are teaching children how to learn they will be more successful and they will do better on any test in life, including the ones you have to give at the end of the year.
I can hear the questions now. What do I do? How do I do this? How can I add this to my already full day of teaching? I am not the expert, I just know what we spent this past year doing at school. It requires two things revamping the way you teach to create an integrated program. Use science or social studies themes as the umbrella for reading. Instead of reading Jimmy’s Boa ate the Wash and also teaching about weather in another unit, why not read Thundercake and use it to help teach about weather or teach about reptiles and compare Jimmy’s Boa stories to nonfiction about snakes? Building units around the core social studies and science objectives that your state requires is really the most efficient way to teach as much content as possible in a year. These are not new ideas, rather, perhaps forgotten in our efforts to surpass a specific level set in standardized testing. The next part is the hardest, I think it requires remembering to use higher order thinking skills and making your children do the work.
Lessons should be planned so that the children are using skills from all subject areas, and reinforcing skills learned by using them in new ways. Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to ask questions is an excellent vehicle to begin fostering higher level thinking. Remember YOU have already been through school you don’t need to repeat the work.