When you’re immersed in the jargon of your profession it can be difficult to step back and reflect on the meanings and implications of everyday words. Recently it struck me how often we talk about student performance, rather than student ability, student skill, student knowledge or student understanding. We constantly hear that we need to measure student performance, raise student performance and be concerned about which other schools, states or countries might be outperforming our own.
The word performance has multiple connotations and definitions, but they all relate to an action of one type or another. Furthermore, its various meanings are almost always associated with an outcome rather than a process. As far as I can tell, in the field of public education the word usually refers to a student’s ability to come up with correct answers, especially on standardized tests. The fact that we use this word as much as we do reveals much about the expectations we set for our students and by extension our overall approach to teaching them.
It seems obvious to me that this focus on student performance belies our obsession with standardized tests, but the fact that we avoid the word understanding when we talk about those tests is an admission of their limitations. In mathematics it’s easy to see how a student can learn to come up with correct answers without having any real mathematical understanding of what they are doing. At the same time, a student who understands a concept perfectly well can be thrown off by the language or format of the question. Furthermore, a student’s success on standardized tests depends as much on their test taking strategies than on their mastery of the material. Some of my brightest and most capable students do horribly on multiple-choice tests because they don’t manage their time well and they rarely consider all possible choices before answering.
By constantly stressing performance, teachers have very little incentive to spend time building up the conceptual foundations that underlie the disciplines they teach. Instead the pressure is to focus on whatever strategies or routines will lead to more correct answers on the test. As discussed in earlier posts, this problem is compounded when students have gaps in their baseline knowledge. Those students tend to fall further and further behind as teachers try to skip to the material that will be on the test, even though the students lack the background knowledge and understanding necessary to really master it. Even the students who can keep up and do well on their report cards are often missing the deeper levels of comprehension. Math department chairs in high schools bemoan the lack of conceptual understanding they see in the students who have earned straight A’s while being accelerated through algebra and geometry in middle school. Universities struggle to reeducate freshmen who earned outstanding AP test scores, but lack basic writing and critical thinking skills.
So maybe we think of our students like athletes. If they work longer and harder their test taking performance will improve, just as their athletic performance would with more hours in the gym or on the field. Or maybe our students’ performance on standardized tests is more like an actor’s performance on screen or stage. We prepare them to play the role of someone who has mastered the material, and the suspension of disbelief only lasts until we see them in a context that is less scripted.
At any rate, it is clear that we need to make it our baseline expectation that students really understand what we are teaching them, not just that they can produce correct answers in a well rehearsed setting. Of course, we also need to make sure that our curriculum and assessments are relevant and appropriate to the needs of our students. Until we make these fundamental shifts, we are going to continue seeing many students who either fall hopelessly behind, or who graduate with skills and knowledge that allow them to perform well in certain settings, but lack the depth of understanding to apply their knowledge in novel ways in higher education and their careers. We owe our students an education that leads them to become lifelong learners, problem solvers and critical thinkers, not one that just teaches them to play the part.