Three Revised Things to Unlearn About Learning by @karenlmahon

Tina Barseghian wrote a nice piece today for Mind Shift about Will Richardson‘s 2012 ISTE presentation.  I often find myself disagreeing with Will’s posts on his site and this time is no exception.  My biggest point of disagreement with Will typically has to do with our different opinions about data-based and evidence-based approaches to education.  My position is that we can measure all of the important things that students know…we just need to be creative and inventive about how to define them so that they can be measured.  And I would venture to say that Will feels differently.

Nonetheless, Will’s articles, opinions and tweets are always good food for thought and there can be no doubt that he is committed to kids and education.  In Tina’s piece she reviews Will’s recommendations of “Three Things to Unlearn About Learning.”  So, with due respect to Will,  and the sincere wish not to represent his opinions in any way, I’m going to tackle those three suggestions here, with my recommended modifications.

1. DeliveryWill’s position: We have to stop being in charge of the curriculum and allow kids to create their own education. 

I can get on board with kids controlling the delivery devices, but being in charge of the whole curriculum and creating their own?  Many have proposed this over the years and I’ve never really understood it.  Kids go to school to learn skills that we, as a society, have decided are important for them to have as functional, contributing adults.  Kids come in as novices.  Why would novices be allowed to decide what is or is not important about a subject?  When I go and take classes, be it golf, or computer programming or tap dancing (and yes, I’ve taken them all), I go with the expectation that the teacher is the expert and will decide what I need to learn and whether or not I’m doing it properly.  That’s why they’re the teachers and I’m the student.  Moreover, and as I’ve said in other places in this blog, most of us prefer to do things that we’re good at.  How does this play itself out when kids are allowed to create their own education?  Are they allowed just to do things that they like?  Do we not require them to learn things that they don’t like/aren’t good at?  So my revision of Will’s statement would be:  We should design the curriculum and arrange the learning environment to allow kids to think creatively and problem-solve as they acquire new skills and achieve mastery performance of those skills.

2. Competition- Will’s position: Rather than comparing test scores and grades of schools and of teachers, we should drive education forward on the basis of cooperation.

I couldn’t agree more that comparing kids to each other and teachers to each other is counterproductive. And cooperation among kids and teachers is great.  Who could argue with something as basic as that??  But I think this is sort of a straw-man argument to support one of Will’s major crusades…fighting standardized assessment.  So let’s set aside, for the moment, whether or not we agree or disagree with standardized assessment.  Let’s instead examine the issue of competition. Competition is caused, not by testing itself, but by the way the tests are scored and used.  And the way tests are scored now is in a norm-referenced way.  In norm-referenced testing, by definition, someone has to be below average and the test is designed to indicate whether a test-taker did better or worse than other people who took the test.  This always makes me think of Garrison Keillor‘s joke, “Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”  The way to eliminate the competition, and, by the way, improve the usefulness of tests, is not to eliminate tests and focus on collaboration.  It is to switch from norm-referenced tests to ipsative testing that is criterion-referenced.  In ipsative testing, each student competes with him or herself; the score achieved by the test-taker is compared to his/her previous performance, not to the scores of his/her peers.  And criterion-referenced simply means that the student’s performance is evaluated against a fixed mastery criterion, not a shifting ‘norm’ that is generated by the population that took the test.  Encouraging collaboration is important, but it’s a separate issue.  In this case, my revision of Will’s position would be: Rather than using norm-referenced tests that create competition by comparing students to each other, we should drive education forward on the basis of ipsative, criterion-referenced tests that allow every student to achieve mastery.

3. Assessment- Will’s position: “If we don’t assess what we value, we will end up valuing what we assess,” he said. “As a system, we’re not assessing what we value.”

I actually completely agree with these two statements.  That said, Will and I don’t end up with the same conclusion.  Will’s position, if I understand it correctly, is that we should eliminate standardized tests.  My position is that standardized tests have gotten a bad rap.  Before you throw rotten fruit, let me tell you why.  In the US education system the term “standardized test” has become synonymous with “multiple-choice, fill in the bubble on a computer or scantron” test.  There is no question that such a format limits the possible types of questions.

But the actual definition of the term “standardized” is “to compare with or test by a standard.”  There is no requirement in the definition around what that standard is.  But for reasons having to do with convenience and time savings, the current standard seems to be multiple-choice.  We absolutely need to have standards, or criteria, against which to evaluate student skill acquisition.  But, to Will’s point above, we need to define the standard according to what we value in student performance.  And I would hazard a guess that Will and I would agree that what we value is the students applying skills in situations that resemble how they will use those skills in real life.  I think where we diverge is that Will appears to suggest that individual students should be allowed to demonstrate a given skill differently, whereas I think there should be a defined criterion by which every student’s performance is evaluated.  So, no revision to Will’s statement is necessary.  My position is also: If we don’t assess what we value, we will end up valuing what we assess.  As a system, we’re not assessing what we valueBut with the caveat that we still need criterion performance standards and that all kids should be required to demonstrate the performance in the same way.

What do you think?  Are you closer to Will’s “unlearning” goals?  Or mine?

The image here is the one that originally appeared with Tina Barseghian’s article on MindShift.

About @karenlmahon

@karenlmahon Karen L. Mahon, the Founder and President of Balefire Labs, an educational app review service that provides science-based and objective reviews of PreK-12 mobile apps, focusing on instructional quality. She previously established the instructional content strategy for DYMO/Mimio Instructional Teaching Technologies and while at Praxis, Inc. wrote federal SBIR grants through the National Institutes for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to support the development of instructional software programs targeting children who are traditionally difficult to teach. Prior to her industry experience she was on the research faculty at the University of Kansas.


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I agree with many of your ideas. Have a look at the British Columbia Performance Standards. They are providing the 'criteria' for many performance based assessments that have been created by thoughtful teachers in B.C.. They can be used as the springboard for the day to day formative assessment that skilled teachers engage in.


I'm closer to your "unlearning" goals. You present a very thoughtful analysis, without throwing away the proverbial baby with the proverbial bath water. :)

Karen Mahon
Karen Mahon

Thanks for the recommendation! I'm not familiar with the BC Standards and will definitely check them out!