The year between my 12th and 13th birthday, I likely took over 10 exams. These were not the usual middle school in-school and benchmark tests. These rigorous sessions were kick-butt collages of questions, essays and interviews designed to assess my knowledge, understanding and ability to apply my learning in tangible, relevant ways. This progressive testing took place over 30 years ago. Then it was alternative albeit effective, and now, despite a societal tendency to hit the default button of stale testing, the process and reasoning behind it deserves a welcome comeback.
Back then, these tests were a part of an intense vetting and recruitment process for students interested in attending exclusive private and prep schools. Naturally students needed to pass specific school entrance tests, offer up excellent grades and a track record of “gifted” or advanced course work. Check, check, check.
The tests included essays. Multiple-choice Q&A, no way. This method was deemed too easy and not reflective of knowledge. The essays were personal and reflective, but I later realized, was a means to differentiate applicants (some like myself are better essayists than test takers) and allow room for creative expression and deeper understanding. The essay questions varied from deep to seemingly shallow, creative to analytical - all begging for a tango of sharing relevance between facts, current worldly events and personal connection. The interviews were more like casual chats with teachers, cognitive experts, administrators, current students and alum of the program. The conversations were 1:1, panel interviews and group sessions. What were they looking for? Versatility, independence, collaborative and communication skills, open-mindedness, respect and integrity. Full-on, comprehensive and in alignment with a holistic educational approach.
How does this tale of my boarding school application process relate to home/unschooling? Everything. Even when families opt to remove their children out of traditional schooling structure, they sometimes cling to the familiar teaching, learning and assessment framework. If the education model is going to change, assessment approaches and tools need to change too. Despite being grade and outcome focused, teachers, educators and even some homeschoolers tend to put assessment strategies last on their list of priorities. We offer our children print-outs and tests as opposed to presentations, essays and projects to track and evaluate their learning. Here’s the thing - you can’t assess what you are unclear about. This means, both you as the teaching parent and your child need to determine what they will learn, how they will learn, and how best they will demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. Sound complicated? At The Little School Project, we advocate inquiry-based and constructivist best practices, which means students are presented with a need to know and are encouraged to take ownership over their learning; which in turn allows them to construct meaning and value to what and how they learn. Simply put - instead of answering the question of what children need to know and be able to do, we ask, “Why do we need to know this or do that?”
When the shift from merely knowing and doing better turns to face understanding the importance, relativity, universality, transferability, the evaluation process must expand to hold the abundance of what the child has learned.