Feed the elephant…

I’m reading the ongoing debate around the coming Naplan tests and the government school teachers’ planned boycott…  thinking about standardized testing and it’s implications… wondering how the new National Curriculum will affect the wonderful inquiry learning that happens in our school, if they introduce further standardized testing to go along with it…

I had an interesting conversation this morning with my friend in India. He talked about the fact that his son’s scores had improved in the recent exams (he is 10 years old!). When he worked with his son to prepare for said exams, he focused more on making learning interesting than on the exams. He put less pressure on his son to achieve than he had in the past.  He encouraged his son to think and question and followed his interests, rather than worrying too much about what might be on the test.  And the results were pleasing! I commented that it was interesting to note that the less he emphasised achievement, the greater the achievement.

Which reminded me of an (I think)  Indian adage I once saw online, ‘If you want an elephant to grow, feed it, don’t weigh it’.  My friend said you still need to weigh the elephant to check on its growth.  Yes, maybe, as long as your aim in weighing the elephant is to see whether you have been feeding it the right food, decide what to feed it next and help it grow further… rather than to publish its weight for the purpose of comparison with other elephants or make it feel that its whole sense of self worth is dependent on that weight!

weigh the elephant

What’s important is formative assessment. The kind of assessment that informs teaching and learning.  Assessment that provides meaningful feedback to the learner which supports further learning. Assessment that helps students and teachers to know where learning is at, enabling learners to take responsibility for their own learning and teachers to adapt teaching according to the learner’s needs.  It doesn’t even need to be a test.  Every learning experience in the classroom can provide formative assessment.  Even simply listening to children’s conversations, recording their thinking and using that to guide further teaching and learning.

I’ve been teaching for a long time! I remember long ago, when I used to think that assessment was only for finding out whether students had mastered a topic or a skill.  I thought they had to study and prepare and I had to give them a grade before moving on to a new topic.  I thought if they didn’t do well in the test, it meant they hadn’t prepared well enough or they hadn’t been taught properly or they simply weren’t capable.  I thought I could compare students’ ability according to their grades on a test.

But wait… there are plenty of people and governments (including my own) who still seem to think that ‘weigh’!

9 thoughts on “Feed the elephant…

  1. Until politicians, government bean counters in departments of education, and admissions boards all agree to stop asking for standardized test scores in admissions requirements – schools, teachers, and parents need to understand and prepare students for the rules of the game: The test score is EVERYTHING when it comes to high stakes admissions, and without the “right scores” the student is greatly disadvantaged.


  2. I remember my son’s observation, in his final couple of years at school, that school certainly was not about learning. Everything was about that final score. Even choosing subjects was about which ones could help you earn the highest marks. I teach Year 5. Naplan testing starts at Year 3 (8 year olds) . I wonder how early you feel students need to start preparing for the game.


  3. Hi Edna,

    You know my view on standardized testing as I posted the elephant analogy on Twitter about a month ago…
    Luckily, children learn because of us and DESPITE of us.
    Luckily, again, for me is that I teach/learn in a school where standardized testing is discouraged.

    I have always been repelled by some western systems where competition was the only key to survival for students, and for society at large. I know I digress here, but I watched “Tiaras for Toddlers” on TravelLiving the other day and could not believe my eyes. Competition starts as early as…1-12 months??? It was almost unbearable. Babies wearing makeup and fancy clothing, toddlers crying over a prize, 5 year-old girls becoming enemies within seconds …

    Back to classrooms…I think teachers who have to prepare students for such tests need to become SUBVERSIVE teachers. To bring learning in their classrooms and have the courage to change the system from within.


  4. I love the analogy and it made me think of how I monitor my horse’s weight and condition. I can’t use a scale, so I keep an eye on her daily- how is her coat, is she holding weight, how does she respond when I ask her to learn something new- does she have the muscle tone and prior training to be able to do what I ask? Our events are our assessments.

    Your post makes me want to go back to my classroom and start to really notice each student more. Is the way I am teaching them encouraging them to grow? And since it’s ridiculous to think they will all grow at the same rate, how am I going to adjust to their varying paces? Gives me some thinking to do 🙂


  5. The focus of your post is quite rightly on effects on learning Edna and you know I agree with you on that one. So I thought I’d take an additonal viewpoint and look at why many teachers ‘teach to the test.’ It’s because in recent years, test results have become the sole criterion by which they’re judged and compared. Stepping up through the hierarchy, test results are also the tool of choice for comparing departments (in SrsSchools), comparing schools in the same district and comparing districts with each other. They’ve become a beating stick.

    They’re also a means by which other agencies can easily (if not effectively) compare students, so are the first port of call for Universities and potential employers in selecting applicants. I’m going to stick with your mammalian theme and suggest this might be a typical case of a tail wagging the dog?

    Over here in the England, the issue of SATs is high in headlines as Heads are proposing a boycott of the tests for 11yr olds (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8625600.stm). Wonder why our brothers and sisters in Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland don’t use them?

    So ought we really to be chucking out the tests? Maybe. But maybe we also ought to be exploring why and how your friend in India enjoyed such success with his son and begin to build on that?


  6. Wow, what powerful imagery in that little Indian adage! I couldn’t agree more, when students are naturally curious and love learning, they learn. When we force them to learn so that they will perform well on a test, the true learning process is stifled greatly. The problem with learning with the purpose of a test in mind, is that learning isn’t really what is happening. What is happening is memorizing bits and pieces of information so that it can be recalled and regurgitated on a test. The two are not the same and decision makers everywhere would do well to stop and consider this.


  7. I too firmly believe in the powers of formative testing, since I stopped writing marks on any of my students work. They have stopped worrying about their position in class and stopped comparing themselves favourably or unfavourably to their peers. Instead we focus together on how we can all improve. So for instance every piece of writing I hand back has a comment on it which will focus on the positives but give also ideas for improvement. Even the best student can strive for more. I am convinced that a student who used to consider themselves as an ‘A’ student often stopped trying to improve, now even an A student is trying to achieve more. As for the ‘D’ student, well they have no label put upon them so they feel a valued part of the class community.


  8. This post is quite timely for me, as I’m (sadly) spending two weeks of my time as an ICT teacher implementing the online testing program. Its not really my area, but it falls to me as I know my way around a computer and can create sessions for the tests and then extract the necessary reports. Rather be working with kids on their inquiries!


  9. I love the analogy of the elephant, Edna. I hate the fact that our students stress about these exams and the results that they get – and the stigma it has if they don’t do well. I reinforce to them that this is just a snapshot of what they do in on e area on one day, which can be affected by a whole load of things. Just because they can answer the NAPLAN questions doesn’t mean they actually understand what they’re answering. I don’t give my students marks/grades either. I prefer to give them feedback that means something and can actually help them improve their understandings, rather then compare themselves with others.

    I think your friend in India has got it right. Give them something they can relate to and are interested in and I’m sure we’re more likely to see some positive results.


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