The tragedy of lost potential

The Conversation Australia had a recent piece on the differences between summative and formative assessments. I think it’s important for students and parents to understand the nature of assessment because if we understand what it is then we also understand why it is being used and in what context. Having said that, I believe there is an over-reliance on summative assessments in schools. Summative is a narrow concept of assessing learning that produces a pass/fail or an arbitrary mark out of 100. Teachers use it to rate, grade or judge students but it contributes little else to the learner and their learning. While test scores may highlight gaps in student knowledge, it offers little else in terms of how students might close the gaps. And so it goes that teachers continue to press on, teaching more complex concepts without ensuring the foundations for learning are water-tight.

I believe we need to focus more on measuring and tracking student performance over time. When the Country Women’s Association (CWA) judge cakes or dance sport judges assess routines, they are not looking through a one dimensional lens. They award points across established criteria and they provide valuable feedback on what worked and what didn’t. The goal is for competitors to be continuously improving.

The advice from the NSW CWA to its judges highlights the nature of teaching, which is to help and encourage.

  1. use the occasion as a teaching/training opportunity
  2. offer helpful comments regarding entries….it makes more members want to bake and compete
  3. please encourage the junior [entrants] as they are the cooks of the future

It doesn’t matter whether students are learning to bake, dance the Waltz or solve complex maths problems. What matters is that these become the vehicles for achieving mastery and feedback supports the journey from novice to expert. As we know, summative assessments view learning as one dimensional and it is so much more than that.

Sal Khan of Khan Academy refers to this as the tragedy of lost potential. His point for schools is that learning should be about mastery not test scores.


3 thoughts on “The tragedy of lost potential

  1. Thank you Greg for your post. How can students discover their own potential if the educators aren’t able to see it. It is refreshing to read about education which looks at the student’s journey as the central interest point, and then from there everything is possible.

  2. I think of my poor daughter who at 13 ( Year 7) believes she can’t do Maths! The reason why.. constant testing to “prepare her for the HSC’!!!!! The school (public system) truly believes this is a valid reason to continually test. All we can determine is that Astrid can master mathematical problems if she is given time but struggles in a 50 minute time period. She is given no feedback, just ticks and crosses and a percentage at the top of the page, in bright red which is always a fail in her eyes. From this failed exam, they move on, without even attempting to ensue she has any understanding.No matter how much we talk to the school about this poor practice they respond by saying that they are governed by HSC exams. I am beyond frustrated that they don’t read your blog!!! or engage with any contemporary pedagogy nor feel inspired by all the wonderful educators around the globe who are providing amazing new ways to teach and to personalise the learning for all students. How much more rewarding would their jobs be to know that there are other ways to teach my daughter, so that she knows, that she is capable and has the ability to achieve in Maths. At the moment she copies the math problem in her book and waits until the teaches writes the answer on the board, so that she can get more answers right than wrong. It is such a disgrace and it breaks my heart. Education is so much more than this.

    Thank you for your inspiring words and leadership in education. John and I wholeheartedly believe in your vision and your direction and we continue to point this out to the high school our twins attend ( I am sure they roll their eyes every time they see us coming) however, I refuse to stay silent and I will continue to advocate for my children.

  3. Tess, parents like you and the comments you make give me heart that we can make a difference to schooling so that children like yours don’t feel that they are not capable of learning. There is a great opinion piece written by a parent in May that was published in SMH in May, which serves to highlight that we continue to treat students as the same. We don’t recognise individual talents. That should be the starting point – not the grade or the mark. I’ve written a couple of blogs about how important failure is to learning recognising the importance of formative feedback that gives students the ability to recognise where to next. Keep going!

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