Making alignment work

Still not…

I’ve just been helping a young child who lives in my house with their French homework, practising sentences for a test that’s coming up. I imagine that many of you will have done the same, either in the parent role or the child role (or both, for that matter).

For me, it was a pointed demonstration of the perils of alignment in teaching. The child is going to be testing on their ability to write out a series of sentences, so is focused entirely on that. Thus, when I ask them to read out the sentences, I get something that even I know isn’t good pronunciation: ‘magasins’ is remembered as ‘being like mega, but maga, and then sins’.

In short, this child, like pretty much every learner, is learning to the incentives that are provided: if the teacher isn’t going to be bothered about the speaking, then why should the child?

I will desist here from the aggrieved parent routine, because I recognise the same issue in so many areas of L&T, including my own. Beams and motes, etc. Also my primary objectives for the child go beyond simply the facility to speak good French (something I might not mention to my own mother, who is French).

What strikes me is that we have to think hard about the objectives we want our students to achieve in our learning environments. I’m certain the French teacher also wants to improve speaking ability, but just isn’t testing it right now. Similarly, we don’t test all the things we want our students to learn: our assessments never cover single aspect of our courses, not least if we’ve taken a more flexible view of what might happen in them.

Either there’s a whole lot more testing to add in – to leave no stone unturned – or we have to think about how we signal objectives beyond simply ‘putting it on the test’.

Of course, if we make ‘the test’ the main thing then we’re going to find it hard to convince our students that other things matter. That’s challenging in an environment where your institution (and possibly your government) will be interested in the results of testing. Even if they recognise it can only ever be a proxy for achievement, it will still have the effect of making that proxy become important in-of-itself.

However, while we still retain a broad degree of control over our learning environments – and I think that we do – then we might use it to create a culture that encourages students to reflect, and act, on the wider set of objectives we are seeking to meet.

Partly that’s about stimulating and active activities that create opportunities for students to build out by themselves from some starting point, instead of navigating a series of hurdles on a fixed path set out by you alone. In many cases, giving students problems to solve, rather than closed questions to answer, is a constructive way forward, because it helps them to see very quickly the utility of knowledge and skills, rather than having to rely on you to tell that it will be useful.

However, this is an issue that goes well beyond the classroom. As this gets posted, I’ll be at our faculty’s festival of research, chairing a panel on ‘post-truth-ness’. In an age where we see numerous examples of manipulation of messages and contestations of what might be objectively true – however you want to go about defining that – we do have a public service to ensure that our students go out into the world with the ability to know when they are not getting the full picture.

That makes critical thinking a fundamental – possibly the fundamental – skill that we want to inculcate in our students.

Not because it’s the right-on thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to: to let individuals think for themselves and decide for themselves how to live their lives, rather than just passively taking what they’re given.

And that’s something you can’t just put on a test.