Measuring Learning? No Way. Pt 1

Well, it depends on what one wants to measure and whether that measurement is significant (reliably meaningful with regard to a learner's actual learning, as distinguished from showing the percentage of correct answers, as both right answers and wrong answers can be given for reasons other than how much of the subject material a student understands and/or recalls).

Schools, and thus parents who have children in school, want to know how effective their schools are in educating their students. Of course - so do I.  There are several basic parts of schooling that bear examining: what should be being taught, how much of that is being taught, and then, how much of what is being taught is being learned. Of course, there are many thoughts on what should be taught but that, though extremely important, is another discussion.

Curriculum and Standards are what a school system has decided should be taught by when, and testing is the attempt to determine what has been learned to evaluate the teaching (teachers, methodology). Testing has been known for years to be an unreliable measure of learning, and more importantly, there is little correlation between test results and success in college or life. This blog, in several posts, is, however, going to address some shortfalls of our attempts to measure how much children learn, and indirectly address why testing is a poor tool for assessing learning for success in life.

The Early Years

First, when it comes to acquiring factual knowledge about the world, you and I, and our children, have learned or will learn more facts about our environments and how things in them work by age 3 than we will over the course of the rest of our lives. When I first heard this, I was skeptical, but curious.  I had already been working with preschoolers for five years and was surprised at the amount of learning they were doing by just interacting with everything in their environments as much as they could (at least, as much as we allow them). Then I spent some time just making a mental list of all the things I could see and reach on my own desk, and how each item consisted of various shapes, colors, and uses, and most had parts that could be grasped, bent, broken, twisted, snapped, clicked, torn, unscrewed, turned, (most to varying degrees and some with additional manipulate-able possibilities) or removed - or none of the aforementioned. Each item has a different weight, not necessarily correlated with size, and some would roll whichever way the surface tilted (like a marble), and some would only roll down if turned to some degree (like a pen), or not.

If you watch an awake and well-fed baby or young child over a period of time, they will explore each reachable item using each of their five senses, including exploring all sides and ways of manipulating each one, and later, attempt to take complex ones apart or put various combinations together. They will see what sounds they make on their own, such as the click of a pen, what sounds they make when they hit other objects or not. And every new item multiplies the possibilities of learning new qualities and relationships by some range between (the total number of items) and (the number of items)2.

In the currently available video titled The Salad Spinner, I caught the last two+ minutes of a 15 month old “playing” with various unrelated items: a salad spinner bowl, insert, and top. A couple of weeks earlier he had played with the spinner after watching his grandmother wash and spin lettuce. He learned how (his grandmother let him!) and practiced making it spin, and even got it to spin by standing next to it and pushing the top plunger down with one foot. Over the course of this video, he added a small shaker-rattle, a cylindrical block, a jar of diaper cream, and a Frisbee ™ (hmm ... they spin, don't they?). He had been engaged with most of the items for about 10 - 15 minutes by the time I started recording, and I’m sure he had spent earlier time with each of the items separately, including observing how the adults around him used (played or worked with) them.  In order to view this video, please send a request for The Salad Spinner to me here. When you watch it, watch for what and how much is being learned at each moment, including gross and fine motor skill and hand-eye coordination.

What would happen if I or a parent were to be making comments and suggestions as this young child continued to experiment?  What would happen to this process if his parent or a teacher were to come up with a test to see how much he learned?  How many 30-45 minute free play time (uninterrupted) periods does your preschooler or older child have in school to engage in such personal unfettered engagement due to his or her own learning interest?   Please share your thoughts!

Watch for Part 2 soon!     Yours, Marty