Learning vs. Performing
In The Hunger Games, at the Training Center before the “games” begin, Katniss Everdeen operates with a growth mindset. Her goal during those sessions is to improve, not to perform. She chooses stations where she can acquire new survival techniques, rather than stations where she can show off her advanced archery skills. Hence, other tributes observe her as a novice and they get the sense that she won’t be a strong competitor. But she doesn't care. She knows that she can improve her survival skills (i.e. she has a growth mindset) and that doing so will help her.
But when the time comes for her private audition at the gym, Katniss’ goals are different. They are not to learn, but to perform and show what she can do, so that the judges give her a high rating, which will help her gain sponsors. She initially misses the target, perhaps as a result of nervousness and lack of familiarity with the Capitol’s bow, but she quickly adjusts her technique, calms herself down and delivers.
In the real world, we often are in learning situations, like the Training Center, and sometimes in performance situations, like the private audition. Examples of performance situations in real life include interviewing for a job, delivering a musical or theatrical performance, playing a championship final, evacuating a building upon an emergency and taking a consequential test. In those situations the stakes are high, so our main focus is not to grow our abilities, but to perform as well as we can. Our long, hard work to improve ourselves over time not only is fulfilling in and of itself, but also enables us to deliver during these performance situations.
Just like in other aspects of life, in school we want to spend most of our time learning, working to improve our abilities beyond what we already know how to do, like Katniss did at the Training Center. But at times we also encounter situations where the main focus is performing, such as during summative tests. While formative assessments are most useful because they guide us in our learning process and provide us with useful information to learn from, summative assessments can also be useful, when not overused, because these assessments can:
- Help the learner assess the extent to which s/he has mastered a skill or domain so far.
- Help a teacher assess where the learner is in his/her learning progression, to focus instruction accordingly.
- Help a teacher assess the extent to which his/her teaching practices are resulting in learning.
- Help a school, district, or state, assess the extent to which its collective practices are resulting in learning.
Summative assessments and performance situations are not purely diagnostic, but they can also provide useful information from which students and teachers can learn. For example, if a student can review where s/he made mistakes, or what can be improved upon, s/he can work to improve. Students can also always reflect on how well their choices and behaviors are working for them, before, during, and after the test or performance.
Approaching Tests with a Growth Mindset
Most assessments should be formative assessments, designed to contribute to learning. For growth mindset strategies to use in formative assessments, see my colleague Lisa Blackwell’s article Grading for Growth in a High-Stakes World.
When approaching summative assessments (such as high-stakes tests):
Remember, and remind students, that tests don’t measure students’ potential (which nobody knows, and can always be expanded), but what they have learned so far. Further study and effective practice will lead to further improvement. Clarify what skills the test is designed to measure, and remind students that the test will give them the opportunity to practice those skills and to identify areas of improvement, and that we will continue to develop those skills after the test is over.
Teach students to look for opportunities to learn from the test. If something was confusing during the test, students can capture their questions after the test so that they can later research the confusion and learn. If the test provides feedback on what mistakes students made or what they could have done better, teach students to review and understand this feedback. Sample answers from classmates can provide exemplars of what higher mastery looks like, and discussion of how classmates learned that skill can help remind everyone that they weren’t born with that skill, they learned it.
Reflect on how to better approach performance situations. Performance situations are part of life, and sometimes they can be important events. Tests can help us learn how to better approach these situations. How could we have better prepared for the test? During the test, could we have better managed our emotions or our time? After the test, are we effectively reflecting, identifying, and pursuing what we can learn from the test?
Put assessments in the context of learning. Remember, and remind students, that we want to spend most of our time learning and improving, not showing off how good we are (as we may do in tests). That means that we want to be challenging ourselves to learn things we don’t already know, which will involve struggle, mistakes and learning from those mistakes. That growth is fulfilling in and of itself, but it also better equips us to perform better in future tests and performances.
Reflect on how to adjust learning. Tests can tell us how much progress we’re making. This information can provide useful food for thought on the extent to which our approaches to learning are proving effective. If what we’re doing is not leading to great progress, then we can reflect on how we can adjust our approach to teaching and learning. What other teaching and learning strategies can we use? We can brainstorm with colleagues, have a running list of ideas to try next, experiment, and continue improving our practice as learners and as teachers.
Always Back to Learning
Katniss Everdeen is a great archer because she has spent years learning how to use the bow and arrow. Her need to hunt squirrels and birds to feed her family has led her to challenging situations, trying different techniques, and practicing them thoroughly in complex circumstances. When she encountered a new bow at the Training Center, she had to learn how to use it, just as she does when she encounters new situations at home. And when it came time to perform and use her skills at a high level, she was able to do so, to then continue her learning journey.