The Learning Happens Along the Way

Students taking a test

Do you remember being in school, taking a test at the end of the year, and not doing particularly well? Be honest, you know that happened at least once. Weren’t you even a little bit annoyed because you either didn’t know what you did wrong, or you did, but there was nothing you could do about it. After all, it was the end of the school year.

My daughter had a teacher for a couple of years who firmly believed in and emphasized to students the idea of having a growth mindset, which is great. Instead of saying “I’m not good at fractions” it’s “I’m not good at fractions yet. Help me to learn them or what can I do to get better at fractions.” I was already familiar with this so my wife and I were already trying to talk to our daughter like that, but her teacher helped her see it in the ever important school setting.

I’m going to bore you for the next paragraph, but it’ll be worth it, trust me.

In the education work that I do, I and my colleagues try to discourage the use of tests or other kinds of assessments that test on things students haven’t had a chance to really practice or receive feedback about along the way to that big test. Big final tests, especially big final tests where a student can’t learn from what they did wrong and improve are called summative assessments. Assessments of any kind where a student can practice without massive repercussions if they fail, where they can receive feedback from an expert (teacher) or peer, and then have opportunities to improve are called formative assessments.

Students taking a test

The concept of growth mindset and the these two types of assessments collided in my head this weekend and made me  realize the  summative vs. formative debate is just like life. Actually something my daughter said sparked the collision.

I don’t remember what the context was, but she said that she regretted something. I remember that it seemed like a small thing to me, but probably seemed bigger to her. I responded rather automatically that she shouldn’t regret it, just learn from it. She’s 10. She shouldn’t have regrets just lessons on how to do things differently in the future. If it had involved her hurting someone else in any way, I would have added that part of learning the lessons would involve somehow making amends to that person.

In life, much like in a class, the summative comes at the end. That’s when we may have regrets that we may very well not be able to do anything about (unless possibly warning others like Jacob Marley in a Christmas Carol). Along the way is where all of the formative stuff should be happening. 

If the only assessment we ever have of our life is at the very end, or if every assessment (every attempt we make at something new, every time we take even the smallest risk) we’re told that we’ve failed and we’re not allowed to try anymore, we will surely miss out on life and likely die with a lot of regrets. We can’t grow if we’re restricted to stay in the same small box because of something we once tried and got wrong.

As we live our lives we should be reflecting on what went well and what didn’t. We should be open to feedback from appropriate people. We should be willing to ask for help and receive it when we need it. And we should remember that others are going through the formative stuff as well and act accordingly.  

The learning happens along the way, course corrections and all. 

“American Mathematics Competition”by cantanima is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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