Exam season is well and truly upon us. Whether your son is finishing Year 12 and sitting his WACE exams or a younger student preparing for his end of year assessments, this time of year often opens up discussions about tests and exams, both preparing for them and debriefing after the results are posted.
Not long after this year’s NAPLAN tests, I read an article called Teach Like a Champion by American education expert Doug Lemov. While aimed at teachers, it resonated with me as a parent trying to encourage my kids to do as well as they can at school.
Given my son’s performance, which was mixed in a surprising way, it was a timely and useful piece of reading. It also has useful advice as we head towards end of year reports!
In the article Lemov distills 49 teaching techniques and concludes: “Don’t flatter, don’t fuss” and “normalise mistakes”. Lemov says making mistakes is a necessary part of learning and that teachers - and parents - should avoid chastening or excusing students for getting it wrong.
In this year’s NAPLAN my son did well in his literacy tests, but not as well as I might have expected given past results and his potential.
I was tempted to say: “Why did you only get in band 9 this time? What went wrong?”
But taking a deep breath in as silently as I could, I thought of Lemov’s advice to encourage the child to work out how to do the task better.
So I instead asked my son if he’d thought about how he could have achieved a better outcome in the writing test - and (somewhat to my surprise) he had! It was a bit heartbreaking to listen to him tell me about what he’d written. He’d had such a good concept for a narrative. But, he said he’d written it more like “the middle of a story” and there was no “beginning, middle and resolution”.
This led to us having a chat about reading exactly what the question says and thinking about this as we write the response - a great learning experience for any test or exam.
Lemov also advises not making excuses for students who get answers wrong, such as: “Oh, that's OK. That was really hard.”
This, he says, can lead to a child feeling you have low expectations for them.
In his numeracy test my son performed better than I expected.
I was tempted to make a big fuss about this but, with Lemov’s advice in mind, kept my praise more contained and my delight more private.
I was also taken back to how I used to feel jealous of friends who received money or other gifts for positive school reports. When I once asked for some money for good marks I was told: “Think of the satisfaction you get from doing well”.
While my mum’s comment was eye-roll inducing at the time, after I’d stopped feeling resentful it did make me reflect on the longer-term benefits of working well at school. In hindsight, her comments helped me derive enjoyment from the process of learning rather than focusing on the sugar hit of a pocket money top-up.
This self-determined motivation is something I’ve tried to engender in my children. My son even made a similar comment back to me, without a trace of irony, when I recently complained about not receiving a token of appreciation at work.
I was heartened to hear this approach being backed up last weekend in an interview with Richard Ryan, a professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University.
His now widely accepted argument is that self-determined motivation, which comes from pursuing an activity for its own sake because it is interesting and satisfying in itself, is far more powerful than doing an activity to obtain an external goal.
Dr Ryan says people certainly can be motivated externally by money or a desire for social or parental approval, for example.
However, he says that type of controlled motivation can actually taint a person's feelings about the basic worth of the project and undermine their intrinsic - or deeper and self-determined - motivation.
Moving back to Lemov, he says making a fuss of right answers and good performance can have one of two adverse effects on students.
1. You suggest that you're surprised that they got the answer right or performed well.
2. As a variety of social science research - including the growth mindset discussed in this article - has recently documented, praising students for being 'smart' discourages them from taking risks because they worry about no longer looking smart if they get things wrong.
By contrast, praising students for working hard, helps motivate them to take risks and challenges.
Lemov’s article concluded with the powerful learning mantra: "Fail early, fail often.” Great advice for parents who want their kids to take on challenges and feel comfortable talking about any obstacles they face.