The Only Two Goals We Should be Setting for School This Year

Imagine spending all day staring at someone yammer on about something irrelevant, boring and difficult. Now imagine doing it on Zoom.  I’m not talking about your job; I’m talking about the way our kids are experiencing school.

It’s time to admit that the way we’re doing school isn’t working. It wasn’t working well (for students or teachers) before the pandemic. Now, with the social elements stripped away, the current crisis has laid bare the root problem: Defining success by test scores is ruining education.

A teacher friend of mine, whose school system is operating virtually, said, “If I hear one more person say, ‘We’re going to try to make this as much like normal school as possible,’ I will scream. Nobody liked normal school, it was stressful and ineffective, why would we want to replicate that on Zoom?”

The exhaustion parents felt this spring trying to supervise virtual learning was a clue to what teachers (and students) have been dealing with for years.  The stress and lack of true learning caused by an overemphasis on test scores have been well documented. In a virtual environment, continuing down this path will be fatal.

If our kids come away from this year hating school and hating learning, we will have doomed an entire generation. And thusly doomed our nation. What future can we possibly have if no one wants to learn?

We have a window of opportunity right now to avoid this. We can regroup and reset. We can reevaluate the criteria we use to define success in education. I’d like to suggest two goals for this school year that are going to be more important than test scores:

  1. Community
  2. Love of learning

Without community there is no learning.  A sense of community with your teacher and fellow students is what creates the psychological safety required to learn.

Think about yourself, when you’re nervous, and afraid you’re being judged, is your mind open to new ideas?  Neuroscience (and our own experience) tells us, when you’re constantly worried about failure (as students and teachers are in our high stakes testing environment) you either disengage, giving up so you ensure you don’t fail, or you become so stressed, the only thing you care about is hitting the metric. Love of learning falls by the wayside.

As education administrator colleague of mine says, “If your first loyalty is to your curriculum, you have doomed yourself going in.”

Full disclosure, I am not neutral on this subject.  I’m a teacher’s kid, and when my own children were in school, I watched valiant teachers struggle to keep the love of learning alive in the face of high stakes testing. It broke my heart.

We can’t afford to continue down this path.  Instead of trying to adapt the existing model to our new world, what if this is the year we begin to create a new model.  What if we gave teachers the time, space and tools to create real community with their students?   What if instead of evaluating students on their ability to regurgitate back information, we had conversations with students about what the information means to them, and how they might use it.   What if when we uncovered a knowledge gap, we didn’t treat it as failure, a nail that needs to be re-pounded with a harder hammer, what if instead, we looked at gaps as an opportunity to build more connection.  Good teachers are already doing this, but the system they’re operating in is making it harder every single day.

It is not an exaggeration to say, that our entire future depends on the relationships between teachers and students.  A test score-based culture erodes relationships, trust and ultimately learning itself. These are the very things we need now, more than ever.

Are we as a society going to keep trying to test score our way to learning?  Or are we ready to try something else?