Why? Why? And more why?

From my Facebook memories:

Aaaaaand another assessment tool that requires written student work as “evidence.” *sigh*

I was an elementary band teacher, and while some knowledge of how notation works can be assessed using traditional paper-pencil tests, “before and after” student work is what we hear. My job was to teach them to play, to hear, to blend, to breathe, and while some small part of that in a school setting is understanding notation, I’d rather have students who could play but not read than read but not play.

Music is an aural art.

In pursuing National Board Certification many years ago, I worked with a mentor teacher, and the piece I remember clearly was: why?

I did this activity with my students.


Because I want them to know this thing.


Because … 

The deeper we got, the harder it was to answer why. The harder it was, the more valuable it became. 

The process helps to prevent “we do it because that’s what we do!” kind of thinking, which is not productive. It also helps challenge beliefs about what the kids need to know or what they need to be able to do. Many of us taught what andn how we were taught—the trap of the “that’s how they did it to me and I turned out fine!” mindset.

When you know better, do better. 

And also: seek to know better.

How often do we assess skills based on a paper and pencil test (or paper and pencil converted to digital) when that’s not the best assessment tool? It’s typically the easiest and cheapest to create, to administer, to grade, and to provide justification for consequences. 

As they say: good, fast, and cheap, but you can only pick two.

So often, as in the example above, we pick fast and cheap and, in defense of our position, dig our heels in convincing ourselves that it’s also good.

It’s not good.

In many cases, I’d argue that it’s better not to assess at all than to use a poor assessment tool.

“You don’t get to [be part of this group/pursue this degree/move to the next grade level] because you didn’t pass the test.”

If you’re a good test-taker (yes, that is a skill), you might be arguing that of course this is an appropriate assessment! Especially if the alternative is one that you’re more likely to struggle with. But finding out what people actually know, what their strengths and weaknesses actually are, is more important than protecting the green light for the good test-takers.

We can’t capitalize on people’s strengths or help them improve their weaknesses if we don’t have an accurate picture of what those strengths and weaknesses are to start with.

This brings us back around to drilling down into the depths of why.

What is the assessment for and why? Who are we trying to serve and why? What is our intended outcome and why? What are current unintended consequences and why?

Standardized tests disproportionally disadvantage already-disadvantaged groups.

For example, on a required, high-stakes elementary school standardized test (which is a description that should not even exist), a question asked about where a squirrel was most likely to live.

Except many of my kids had never seen squirrels.

They’re not common in this region, and we were in the city, with even fewer non-native trees than elsewhere. There were no squirrels in their neighborhood, and they weren’t in an economic bracket to have done much traveling outside of their neighborhood.

I’ve lived here for almost 20 years and I’ve never seen a squirrel in a park. My kid gets as excited to see squirrels as he does to see coyotes. We’re more likely to see coyotes.

That question didn’t assess what the test-makers wanted to assess, but it had potential consequences for the students, for the school, for the district. That question makes it easy to confirm our biases against poor children or children of color, when in reality, no seven-year-old asked a question about the habitat of an animal they’re unfamiliar with can reasonably be held to their answer.

Why? And then why? And then why?

Why do we have high-stakes tests in elementary school? 

Why is there no assessment of teaching skill for prospective teachers?

Why is there no assessment for bedside manner in physicians?

Why do people good at their job get promoted to be managers, a job with a (typically) completely different skill set?

“But Heat, I can’t change the system.” 

Correct. It’s unlikely that anyone reading this has enough clout anywhere to change any of the systems.

But you can ask questions of the people and organizations that do manage the systems. You can ask and ask and bug them. Sometimes, being a pinch of sand in someone’s sock goes a long way. Especially if you have companions joining you in your efforts.

You can also drill down into your own habits, especially if you have children. How many of our rules boil down to mitigating our own anxiety instead of creating scaffolding for what’s best for kids? (They need to run and roll and climb and fall to learn how they function in space, for example.)

If you have agency over a space where you interact with people, especially when there’s a power dynamic, drill down into the why of your procedures and see if there’s a way to make the experience better for everyone. That would include:

• schools (district procedures for schools, administrative procedures for teachers, classroom procedures for students)

• medical offices (what happens when people walk in? how many pieces of paper do they need to write the same information on? what’s the chain of events after you have the paperwork—before, during, and after the visit?)

• retail spaces and restaurants and offices (what are the rules for employees? why? how many of these rules drill down into a power play?)

• extracurricular activities for kids (what’s the goal? is that your goal or theirs? what are the ways you work towards it? what are the unintended consequences?)

In all of these situations, what can you learn from people’s silence? What can you learn from people not returning? What can you learn from the people who are angry? Are you only listening to the people who pat you on the back?

It’s a lot to take in, and it’s not a project to be done in a day. 

It’s not actually a project at all—it’s a mindset, perhaps a lifestyle.

If you can adapt it to make some little piece of the world better … then you’ve made a piece of the world better.

To read more about ripples from making a piece of the world better, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. You get one email every Friday. Tomorrow’s talks about the ripples of small actions.

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