Teaching Beyond the Test: Inspiration, Inquiry and the Individual

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We enter the teaching profession not to get rich, not to be famous, nor to build cogs in a machine. We enter the teaching profession with passion for nurturing young minds and opening their eyes to a vast, boundless, beautiful world of wonder.

Our focus is on encouraging the curiosity, inquiry, and humanity of our students. We are aimed at helping them become adaptable, empathetic, intrepid bridge-builders within their community. But in our aim to nurture the whole child, we get tripped up by the needs of the state to ensure a standard quality of education for all, and the needs of our districts to comply.

The motivation, to provide a standard quality of education for all, is a good one. It becomes a tripping block because while standardization tries to ensure the same quality for everyone, it’s less well-equipped to deal with the unique strengths, needs, and interests of each student, each teacher, and each community. As Ron Miller notes, “When teaching becomes standardized, teachers are effectively ‘deskilled’ and cannot respond to the diverse interests, personalities and learning styles of their students (Miller, 1997).

Given that standardization is pretty well entrenched in our compulsory school system, how can educators keep that focus on encouraging curiosity and inquiry and not put too much emphasis on tests?

  1. Keep the standardization on the DL for students
    Students get caught up in the things we emphasize. If we talk a lot about tests and scores, they’ll worry about it. They’ll learn to be test-takers instead of thinkers and explorers. The teachers at our local elementary school take care not to talk about tests with the students. Even when they are doing diagnostic reading tests, they don’t use that language with the students. The students think they are having a 1:1 conversation with their teachers and the pressure of getting a good score is completely absent.
    While you might be mandated to conduct certain tests and reach certain benchmarks, students don’t need that pressure. From their point of view, the focus can be on the learning.

  2. Connect disciplines
    The world is not separated into distinct, tidy subject areas. When we teach skills and concepts in isolation, we deskill not only teachers but also our students. We might teach our students to be really good at memorizing math formulas and history dates, but they won’t know what the heck the point is. “Why?” they’ll ask, “Why do I need to know this?” It’s a fair question and when skills are taught in isolation, our students won’t know how to apply them or how they fit into the wide world. Instead, help tie connections to the other subject areas. Try to work cross-departmentally to link units. Apply math skills to understanding the construction of the Colosseum or the Eiffel tower. Let art class draw the plants being studied in biology. Help students view the lessons from different angles so they can deepen their understanding within a broader context.

  3. Student Choice
    To maintain focus on student curiosity and inquiry, we have to be careful not to squash student agency. When we ourselves choose every area of study, every subject matter, we subtly tell our students to just follow along; do what the book says and you’ll get a good grade. When we give students choice in the topics they pursue and the projects they do, we encourage students to explore and ask questions.

  4. Tie to something bigger
    Finally, we can spark curiosity and inquiry by connecting the content to something bigger than our students. When going to school is about attaining certain scores on benchmark tests to prove to the state that the school is on par, we can’t expect students to be particularly inspired. But we can inspire students by connecting to things that are personally meaningful to them like their community, the natural world, or helping others.

Wherever we teach, no matter how beholden to state benchmarks, we must not lose sight of the work we do on each individual student’s mind and spirit. We can make school about surpassing state benchmarks or we can make it about exploring the vast world with open, inquiring minds. The heart of the classroom is ours to nurture.

Miller, R. (1997). What are Schools For? Holistic Education in American Culture (3rd ed.) Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.

This week’s post was written by Chief Educator Michal Eynon-Lynch

Michal Eynon-Lynch