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Speakers talk testing, Finnish education

To say Alfie Kohn gives standardized testing an “F” would be missing his point entirely.

After all, grading and the notion of testing and ranking students based on inevitably flawed performance measures goes against everything the Boston-based author of books on education and human behaviour believes learning should be about.

Make no mistake though, he is an avowed foe of the kinds of standardized tests students groan about. All they do, in Kohn’s estimation, is create a system of ranking where the not-so-subtly-disguised goal is to win and do better than others.

“Competitiveness and excellence are two completely different ideas that in practice tend to pull in opposite directions,” said Kohn during a presentation to about 120 educators at Red Deer College on Wednesday night.

“Everyone loses in a race to win.”

Kohn argues tests do little to gauge a student’s interest in learning or the depth of their learning, but instead focuses on superficial abilities.

He urged his audience to resist government education departments’ penchants for testing, making more than one reference to Alberta’s performance achievement tests, which seemed to draw some knowing chuckles from the crowd.

Well known for challenging assumptions in education, Kohn asked why it is that governments are so keen to emphasize math and science when they talk about improving education.

His view is that those fields are seen as producing the kinds of workers best suited to serving the economy.

He suggested as a society we must ask ourselves if the goal of education is to enhance global competitiveness and corporate profit — or is it about the kids?

Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg agreed with Kohl on many points and in his presentation showed how his country had created a top-ranked education system that eschews standardized testing for a collaborative and personalized approach to learning.

Finnish students do not take any standardized test until the end of high school and are heading to post-secondary education, which is free.

Teachers design the curriculum in schools and different schools may have much different programs.

“It is a very individualized approach to education rather than through standardization,” said Sahlberg, who works for the Ministry of Education and Culture and calls himself and education improvement activist.

It is telling that education was considered the country’s greatest accomplishment in a national survey.

Sahlberg said Canada should take pride in its education system, which is among the best of economically developed countries, along with Finland, South Korea and Japan.

One of the most important characteristics of the educational systems in Finland and Canada is their equity — all students have the same opportunities to learn.

The lessons learned in Finland will work elsewhere, he said. Choose well-being over competition, equity leads to better quality education, and trust your educators.

Alberta Teachers’ Association and Central Alberta Teachers’ Convention Association sponsored the event.

pcowley@reddeeradvocate.com

 
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