Make Learning Meaningful

"Meaningful learning over the measurement of learning;"

Measuring learning is absolutely necessary. If we don't measure, we don't know how we're doing. But standardized tests given once at the end of a school year are not the only way to measure—and they're probably not the best way either.

Within Agile there is an emphasis on frequent empirical measurement. Knowing how our students are doing day by day, week by week is essential. The most accurate measurements we can get are the ones we take ourselves based on our own observations,reviews of work in progress, and analysis of finished work. Another extremely rich source of measurement information is student self-assessment.

Rather than waiting all year for a number to come back from a test—and hoping it's a good one—we can take measurements of all kinds all the time. But what is it that we seek to measure?

This is where meaning comes into play.

Few people—teachers, students, parents, even administrators—find much meaning in standardized test results.

Most people are aware that the tests we use are not very accurate for a single kid, in a single subject, on a single day. From a macro-educational viewpoint, where thousands of scores are considered, the numbers are more valid. But, among the states that use re-testing, noticeable differences between re-tests have been routinely observed.

Even if individual results had greater validity and reliability, they still might not be very useful to children, parents, and teachers. With only a few numbers to work with, it's hard to know how results were achieved and how to improve them.

Which practices, for example, resulted in Kid A receiving Score B? And why didn't Kid C do better with the same instruction? These are questions tests simply can't answer for us. Even a principal looking at an entire grade level's worth of scores can't easily determine how practice should change to improve them.

As a result, the meaning of test score data is limited in terms of practical application. In large batches, it's a reasonable way to gauge the system as a whole. But individual data isn't much help in terms of telling us what kids know and what they need to learn next.

Furthermore, many people remain skeptical that standardized tests, particularly when kids have been intensely prepped for them throughout the year, measure meaningful learning. Yearlong "teach-to-the-test" classes make evaluating learning difficult.

By contrast, comparing two pieces of writing by a student at different times of the year, or comparing two books read by a student, one much more difficult than another, or reading a Social Studies report, or looking at a Science project, are for most of us the types of measurement we find both practical meaningful.

In our current system, measurement has become an end in itself; we teacher for test scores. But measurement is properly a means, not an end; it's a way for us to gauge progress toward performance goals fueled by the quality of our participation. When we can see that participation has lead to progress and finally to performance, measurement becomes a useful tool that helps us reach our goals.

But, at this time, our systems of standards and testing don't allow us to identify these connections in direct and meaningful ways.

We can choose to give up our responsibility to bring meaning into the classroom; the state will now tell us what is meaningful through standards and tests. But how will such an attitude contribute to learning? If teachers don't find teaching meaningful, students are unlikely to find learning meaningful. And if students don't find meaning in what they do, they'll probably have a hard time learning to do it.

We can teach to standards and to tests. Or we can teach to students and their needs. Agile, with its relentless emphasis on customer value, shows us that the latter is preferable—as if we didn't already know. And common sense tells us that if we teaching for meaning, kids will have more meaningful experiences, will likely learn more as a result, and score higher on less meaningful standardized assessments anyway.

So whether we are pressured to raise scores or not, teaching for meaning is best course of action in any situation.

Teaching to standards and teaching to tests is inherently unsatisfying. Teaching for meaning—using standards as a guide and tests as one from of measurement—makes more sense for teachers and for students.


Add your feedback below. To keep track of who is saying what, use an H1 tag (a plus sign "+" in the edit window) to identify yourself. For example:

Steve Peha

One thing I like about Agile is that it keeps us pointed in the right direction—forward toward the kids and their future. Clearly, in most of the schools where I've worked, measurement has become more important that meaning. As a result, teachers end up teaching "backwards". I see backward teaching throughout our system, but most prominently in three areas:

  • Teaching standards instead of students. I can't tell you how many teachers say things like "I'm teaching this standard today." Many also write a standard on the board like this, "The student will be able to…" as if by magically writing a sentence, and teaching all kids the same lesson, new knowledge and skills will be mastered. First of all, if we break down our standards to the individual learning goals for a given subject, we often find that there is more than one standard each student must master for each day in the year. Second, at no time is it likely that all students will need exactly the same thing. And third, teaching standards is not the point; learning them is. When we privilege the teaching of standards over students, we teach for curriculum coverage, not curriculum mastery. In so doing, we commit the classic fallacy of mistaking the map (the standards) for the territory (the students).
  • Constant practice tests and the recreation of test conditions. I know many schools that give formal quarterly tests that mimic end-of-year tests. At the same time, teachers are often giving weekly and daily assignments that recreate test conditions—as well as taking two to three weeks to prep their kids for the quarterly practice tests. Once again, it's hardly likely that all students benefit from this, or that this is even an ideal approach for most. Teaching, when it devolves to this level, is little more than an exercise in proctoring. Few teachers teach their best while prepping for tests and few students perform at their best under test conditions. Often, what we are prepped to learn for a test one week is easily forgotten by the next.
  • Lack of use of direct empirical assessment methods. The best way I know whether not a kid knows something is to watch them apply it. Short conferences, held as often as possible, give me the best vantage point on student learning. Real-world project work, especially writing, leaves behind tangible evidence of what kids know and can do. The other best empirical method I know is to teach kids how to assess themselves. Learning what they think of their own work, and why, tells me what they're understanding and what I might to help them understand better.

Agile reminds us that the delivery of meaningful learning, not the measurement of learning, is the true goal of our work. It also re-enforces the value of frequent empirical progress assessment. And, with patterns like "stand-up meetings" (similar to "status us of the class" in workshop classroom), it provides practical ways to reinforce these ideas.

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