How schools are moving away from teaching to the test

Roycemore_School As a kickoff to the year’s personal passion project, Roycemore Middle School students video-chatted with aerospace engineer and Roycemore alum Terry Gdoutos.

The educational landscape has changed, and many private and independent schools have shifted their focus away from memorization and learning by rote. Educators in the area’s top schools are not simply teaching to a specific test, but rather are helping children develop the skills necessary to problem solve in a changing world.


Altering what assessment looks like


Assessment comes from the Latin root meaning “to sit next to” and that fact has influenced the approach at Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago, according to Marjie Murphy, director of curriculum and instruction. “We want to sit next to a student and get a handle on what they know, how they are showing mastery and what it is that they are ready to do next.”


She says assessment can be anything from a quick exit ticket to class presentation to a more formal assessment to a standardized test. While standardized testing still happens, Murphy views it “as a multifaceted piece that gives us different angles and viewpoints of what our students know and what they are ready to learn.”


Give students learning power


“When students have (power) over their learning, it is deeper and longer lasting,” says Adrianne Finley Odell, head of school at Roycemore School in Evanston. Students there have a lot of choice, particularly when it comes to their personal passion projects. Students have learned computer animation, written and published graphic novels and worked in labs at Northwestern with alumni serving as mentors. They learn not only the subject matter but also communication and project management skills.


“Tests still exist, but we have authentic learning opportunities in our program to help young people gain the skills needed in an exponentially changing world,” Finley Odell says.


Shifting the focus away from facts


Facts matter, but a “fact-based education system is outdated and filling students up with facts is not needed in our world the way that it used to be,” says Luke Goodwin, administrative director at Chicago Waldorf School, who notes that facts are easily accessible in a way they were not a few decades ago. Goodwin says students “are coming to school not for facts, but rather searching for the truth about the world. That’s what we’re helping them understand.”


“We think you need to be able to think and act compassionately, creatively, resiliently. You need higher order skills,” he says.


Educating good citizens of Chicago and the globe


At GEMS World Academy Chicago, there is a dual emphasis on both fundamental skills and exploring how to be engaged, productive contributors to the world. “The door to helping our kids be good global citizens starts with being good local citizens first. We talk a lot about civic responsibilities,” says Tom Cangiano, head of school.


He says that civic responsibility is a thread woven throughout the school’s curriculum, which is intentionally focused on Chicago and the issues pertinent in the city right now. Cangiano says that having a framework for what it means to be a good citizen here then goes with the student “anywhere and they can transfer those skills and values to whatever context they live in later.”


Prioritize social emotional learning


The seventh- and eighth-grade humanities curriculum at Avery Coonley School in


Downers Grove has shifted; “the focus is on synthesis, analysis and discussion” according to teacher Gwen Cooper. The school has also integrated social-emotional learning (SEL). “When students strengthen their SEL skills, they process diverse perspectives in their lives and in the classroom materials on a deeper level.”


SEL can include many skills ranging from crafting supportive relationships, developing empathy and practicing self-advocacy, all of which Cooper says enhances understanding. “It directly impacts their discussion abilities and changes the class culture where they are more open and understanding, which makes students more likely to share a new idea.”


Let students be the thinkers and leaders


Most parents remember school as the teachers having predetermined expectations about the outcome of a project, but that’s not the case for students at Vanguard Gifted Academy. Elizabeth Blaetz, head of school and primary master teacher, stresses that by using project-based learning, the product is not dictated by the teacher but rather the teacher coaches and guides children through the process. The students “use their prior knowledge to consider next steps and create a strategy for developing the needed skill.”


Blaetz says that when teachers are willing to follow students’ lead, “the learning is more permanent, allowing the student to build on the foundation in the future.”


This article appeared in the November 2019 special school advertising section.


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