Andrew Ordover is Achieve3000’s Director of Product Management.
How do you prepare for an important challenge youre about to face? Whether its running in a race, acting in a play, or taking a test, preparation usually involves honing your skills and then applying them in practice simulations. If youre going to run in a 10K race, you might pace out the course to become familiar with the hills, turns, and potential bottlenecks. If youre acting in a play, you rehearse the lines and stage movements with the other actors until your actions become second nature. Test-taking and reading practice are no different. You learn basic math and reading skills, and then you apply those skills in testing situations, so you can be ready for the Big Show.
The question is: can practice that is not laser-focused on the task-at-hand still be valuable?
In test-world, teachers sometimes think students should only practice their skills in the context of test-like scenarios in order to prepare for the final Test. Many educators fear that exposing students to other forms of assessment would confuse and distract them, or otherwise weaken their aim. But outside of test-world, nobody seems to talk that way.
Are you a runner? Well, then, you should certainly get to know the course before the big day, but any running you do will be worthwhile whether its directly on the course or not. In fact, there are many benefits to practicing on a variety of terrains of varying difficulty, because you never know what might happen on race day. What if, for some reason, the police had to block off part of the racecourse and re-route people? This might make the actual course on race day hillier, or curvier, or just different. The same applies to studying, math and reading practice. If your training is too narrow, your ability to apply your skills and knowledge in the real world of change and unpredictability may be constrained.
Similarly, if youre acting in a play, you should rehearse your lines and your movements as much as possible. You should have everything memorized. BUTwhat if someone drops a line, or two, or twelve? What if a piece of scenery falls down and blocks the exit youre supposed to use? Anything can happen.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the Allied forces during and after the D-Day invasion (and should therefore know a thing or two about logistics), once said, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. Why? Because facts-on-the-ground can change, and therefore surely will change. Successful soldiers must be ready for anything. Successful racers must be ready for anything. To create a culture for successful students, we too must prepare them for anything.
Grant Wiggins used to say that every standardized test was a transfer task. He claimed that chasing after a test and thinking you could get your hands around it with any certainty was a fools errand. There was simply no way to teach every fact and figure required by the state standards, and no guarantee that a fact you chose to cover would definitely be included on the test. The blueprints were simply too broad, and the previous years tests, if they were available at all (and in many states, they werent) provided no guarantee of what might be asked this year. Teaching fact X to prepare for test question X was hopeless. You might hit that bullseye, but you might also miss the target.
That is why Wiggins talked about tests as transfer tasks. The goal, as he saw it, was to train and hone your skills like an athleteboth narrowly and broadly; in focused drills and in madcap scrimmages. As he said:
When I was a soccer coach, I learned the hard way about my players ability to transfer skills from practice to a game and the need to better assess for it. The practice drills did not seem to transfer into fluid, flexible, and fluent game performance. It often appeared, in fact, as if all the work in practice were for naught, as players either wandered around purposelessly or reacted only to the most obvious immediate needs.
The epiphany came during a game, from the mouth of a player. In my increasing frustration, I started yelling, “Give and go! Three on two! Use it, use it–all the drills we worked on!” At that point, the player stopped dribbling in the middle of the field and yelled back, “I can’t see it now! The other team won’t line up like the drill for me!”
Seen in this light, everything that makes use of core reading and writing skills counts. Reading graphic novels counts. Reading the sports page of your local newspaper counts toward your reading practice. Debating the merits of South Park vs. Family Guy counts. Writing witty YouTube recommendations to see if the algorithm is narrowing or broadening your interests counts. None of these things will manifest themselves directly on any state test, or likely on any classroom test, but they all help students practice their skills in reading comprehension and critical thinking.
Helping your parents find the best snacks for the cost while grocery shopping counts toward your math practice. Arguing with your friends about which NBA stars shot record is better counts as debate and critical thinking practice. Learning that when taking a position on something like climate change in an argument, its incumbent on you to bring some evidence to the tablethose things count, too. All these situations that build your critical thinking, your computational thinking, or your creative thinking count. And yes, so does practice in the context of the Big Test, to the extent you can predict its shape and structure. It definitely counts. Its just not the only thing that counts.
Learning is cumulative and commutative and strange. Seeds you plant in one place sometimes grow into plants in an entirely different place. Its a sometimes-blind investment, a leap of faith. When students have to perform in some kind of challenge, including a Big Test, theyre going to need to creatively apply their skills and knowledge, at least to some extent. Something will be strange and new and unpredictable. Something will not be lining up nicely for them. Thats where knowledge transfer comes into play. Thats where creativity becomes essentialbecause what is creativity, really, other than the putting together of existing things in new and unexpected ways? The more different kinds of LEGO pieces we have in the boxes of our brains, and the more practice we have in using them to build different things, the better well be able to build when the need arises.
So, should I have my students read fiction if they are only going to be assessed on non-fiction? Yesnot only because fiction is a good in itself, but also because a crucial way to understand something is to contrast it with its opposite. What can an essay do that a story cannot? What can a poem do that neither can accomplish? Read about a single topic across multiple forms and genres, and youll come to understand the super-power of each genre a little better.
Should I give my students math problems with graphs and images if the Big Test only uses words and numbers? Yesif only to learn how my students think. If my classroom test on fractions only uses numbers, and students get the questions wrong, I might think they dont understand the concept. If I give them a variety of questions, using numerals, words, and images, and find that they score higher when a question includes an image, theres something else going on.
Teachers and students are not archers trying to fire arrows at a single target, losing crucial points if they miss the bullseye. That is not how any of this works. There are hundreds of targets, each with its own bullseye. Every arrow fired is worth the effort. Every arrow fired increases our strength and accuracy. It all adds up.
Life is a transfer task. Everything counts.