Fear or love

If you are one of the 100 million people in the world who have already seen the  penultimate episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, you will know that the dragon queen does a pretty good job of crudely summarising human motivation theory. To galvanise the people, she says, there are really only two options: fear or love.

[Spoiler alert!]

She chooses: fear.

Whilst, unlike the dragon queen, educators don’t have fire-breathing dragons, we do have other powerful tools available including: tests, exams, competition, ranking systems, humiliation, shame, punishments, failure, calls home, exclusion, detention, judgment.

Importantly, not all of these are inherently fear-inducing or, even, necessarily unpleasant. There are potential positive benefits from formal assessment, for example. But they can, and often do, leverage fear.

When we use these tools as a form of coercion, to generate compliance or obedience, we weaponise their potential to produce: ‘consequences’. And the mechanism underpinning the use of ‘consequences’ as a motivator, threat or deterrent is: fear.

For an educator, like it was for the dragon queen, fear is a choice.

The other alternative is love. That can be a harder choice – often requiring much greater levels of skill, patience, acceptance, nuance, time, respect, relationship, support, and care.

[Spoiler alert!]

But when we choose love instead, we choose a completely different form of education – one with a very different ending than an education fuelled by fear.

Will this be on the test?

Will this be on the test?

If you hear this question in your classroom, you know something has gone wrong.

Here are just some of the potential problems associated with this question:

  • It is symptomatic of extrinsic motivation;
  • (Or worse…) It is symptomatic of a teacher using a test to generate compliance;
  • Students are devaluing anything that is not ‘on the test’;
  • Students are valuing test performance over actual learning;
  • (Or worse…) Students feel their teacher or parents are valuing test performance over actual learning;
  • Students are concerned about the consequence of a test score;
  • Students are wasting cognitive and attentional capacity thinking about the test rather than their actual learning;
  • Creativity is suppressed (because most tests reward compliance and memorisation rather than creative, divergent, or innovative thinking);
  • Students are incentivised to provide the ‘right answer’ rather than thinking critically or innovatively;
  • Students are focussed on some arbitrary ‘scoring’ on a test to demonstrate their learning;
  • (Or worse…) The teacher is using a test as the primary measure of student learning;
  • (Or worse still…) The teacher is emphasising test performance because the teacher / school leadership is using student test scores as a primary measure of the teacher’s proficiency, skill, or performance.

But there is one thing even more worrying, than a student asking ‘Will this be on the test?’. And that’s a teacher saying “This will be on the test.”

That’s not at all to say that assessment is bad – quite the opposite. There are many, many effective and valuable ways of formatively and summatively assessing student learning. Some of the best involve students actively constructing or performing or transforming something. And many of these methods involve collaboration and teamwork and ‘open books‘.

But rarely is a ‘test’ the best way to really assess learning. And never is it a good way to motivate students.

Open book

What would happen, do you think, if we really rethought the whole testing and exam thing in schools. Let’s say we keep exams, but update them to allow us to assess, not memory recall, but the skills we really value today. What if these exams posed hard, challenging problems that, like real-world problems, don’t necessarily have a ‘right’ answer. What if these questions forced students to use critical thinking and complex analysis, to take a moral stance, or to come up with an innovative ‘solution’. (Obviously, we would delete multiple-choice style questions along the way.)

And then, what would happen if all tests, all exams were ‘open book’. Students would be allowed to access their own notes and the accumulated wisdom of others. Perhaps, in these new exams, students could take a concept from YouTube (yes, internet access!) being presented by Stephen Hawking and then evolve his thinking to create a new, applied solution to a new problem.

What if students could connect with other students, share real-time developments, prototyping of solutions and even learn from each other’s mistakes. And what if we could assess the process, the ability of students to really ‘think’ under pressure, to conceptualise a future solution, to collaborate, cooperate and enhance the work of others as they collectively strive towards solving a hard problem using ’21st century skills’ that have been honed throughout their schooling.

Much of the above is already being trialled and researched in innovative schools around the world. There are significant obstacles to overcome, including political and budgetary hurdles, but this future is possible. The University of Queensland even has a very cool Assessment Ideas Factory for educators, designed to share and promote innovative assessment.

But then again, it’s probably easier to just lock students in a room, take their phones away, sit them in silence for two hours and encourage them to try to beat each other at ‘remembering’ the answers. (And multiple-choice exams are so much easier to grade!)