On the paradox of learner-centredness and greedy-bastardness of tests


June 25, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

I’ve been thinking about growth and education; where they overlap, how one serves the other and vice-versa.

And assessment. Mainly, whose notions of growth are implicit in the way we assess our students.

Inevitably, there are many stakeholders in education, so notions of growth will come from all around: parents, teachers, ministry of education, publishers, etc.

When is a student’s notion of growth given attention to? Sadly, the answer is hardly ever.

In many modern discourses about education one common meeting point is the idea that we (parents, teachers, etc) should place the student in the center of what we’re all trying to achieve, namely learning, education and growth. Hence, we’ve had an unstoppable trend towards what is vaguely understood as student-centerdness or learner-centeredness.

Placing the learner in the center means giving him/her more autonomy and more responsibility; giving him/her tools to achieve self-directed learning; plus other vague terms such as: self-awareness, independence, control, individualization and self-assessment. 

By and large, I believe that saying education should be learner-centered is no longer necessary because it has become somewhat common sense that this is how it should be. I reckon no teacher would say ‘no, I don’t think this should be learner-centered’. Of course, saying is not doing. Whereas I think the majority of teachers I know would agree that learner-centeredness is preferred, I doubt half of them actually DO learner-centeredness.

There are many problems with this claim I’ve just made, obviously. Firstly, my idea of learner-centeredness may differ dramatically from other teachers’; hence, I think they’re not doing it as I understand it. This inevitable subjectivity leads to one of the main problems of this story, that which in fact shows us any teaching is teacher-centered, to a certain extent.

The teacher is the most active-subjective agent in the whole thing. By active-subjective I mean s/he, more than anyone else, has the power/ability/position/etc to make highly subjective assumptions about students and act on them. Although students also have subjective interpretations of the business of being in a classroom, they are at the passive end of it, one of powerlessness.

The idea of moving towards a learner-centered approach to education relies on the fact that teachers, being where they are, have to be the driving forces of this change. There is a paradoxical assumption that teachers, already disempowered by everyone else in the business, will give in the only power they have left, that of controlling students’ learning, to give way to learner-centeredness; ultimately signing the sentence of their own eventual uselessness.

But even if the majority of teachers agreed that full-on learner-centeredness is desirable, we would still not accomplish the task. For there is a bigger problem before us: assessment.

Educational enterprises will support learner-centredness at classroom level, but not at assessment level. It is believed that accurate assessment is done by those external to the classroom, done by following wider standards.

Who knows better about the language stage and development of one student of English as a foreign language?

–          The teacher who has taught her for the past 1 or 2 years?

–          Cambridge ESOL?

Can there be fostering of learner-centeredness while curriculum, education, and life in general have become so test-centered?

I would expect any serious discourse of learner-centerdness to place the learner at the center of assessment.

Assessment is making goals clear, positioning learners in relation to these goals and laying out directions to achieve them. One of the tenets of learner autonomy is that the learner is able to set goals for herself and then to manage the trajectory toward their achievement.

How can one be assessed in ways other than those in which their goals were set? For learning to be personal, assessment has to be as well.

Not only goal-setting should be fostered in our students, but also what constitutes achieving it and how they will know when they achieve it.

The opposite of learner-centeredness is less the evil teacher-centeredness, and more the wealthy test-centered culture we feed everyday when we administer standardized tests, when we reprimand a child for getting bad grades in tests, when we value more the Cambridge FCE than the teacher’s qualitative feedback, when we spend 6 months teaching students to pass the IELTS test to go to a British university, instead of spending 6 months teaching them English and how to become good communicators in this foreign country.

Learning and teaching is growth. John Dewey said there’s nothing which growth is relative to except more growth; nothing is relative to education except more education.

Tests are relative, one-sided, greedy, monological, elitist, and exclusive.

All in all, anti-educational.


12 thoughts on “On the paradox of learner-centredness and greedy-bastardness of tests

  1. phil3wade says:

    Down with tests!!

    I’ve been teaching in a place that has had no EFL tests at the end and so no prep has been given or requested. Having had enough of students failing and redoing tests for years I was happy to be in this environment. BUT….Motivation is low and there’s no real goal for the students. They know that teachers have to pass them and they even get their level from an online MCQ test which I’m convinced many have been given the answers to.

    Yes, some like the classes and enjoy coming but learning the language and improving is not their main goal, passing the course by just attending and contributing when needed is. There some die hards who do enjoy it but they are also advanced and not challenged enough. Not to mention that they don’t really know what level they are. Add to this that none of them will graduate with an English test that’s often needed in France and you have groups of students who may just not have filled their potential.

    I do feel that with the right course they could learn better and then do a test if they need one but to motivate them into really getting involved they’d need an incentive such as passing or failing the course. But isn’t that just like doing a final test?

    • Hi Phil

      I’m not usually comfortable commenting about other people’s school settings and all, but you give me the impression that there isn’t much in it for these students where you work. I mean, there might be great teachers, an essential element of course, but in terms of curriculum and assessment, it sounds like the students have no reason to make an effort. And relying on intrinsic motivation these days is regrettably not very rewarding.

      Although I completely dissed testing as the main form of evaluation, I still think evaluation is important. As you know, it can be done in many other ways: portfolio, presentations, semi-structured interviews, etc. The main point in favor of these alternative assessment modes is the fact that they’re student-generated to an extent; calling (and demanding) a degree of ownership and responsibility in a healthy way – I’d say.

      I’ve seen many times in curriculum development a disconnection between teaching methodology and evaluation; this disconnection may be very detrimental. I mean, even if you put together a great course (content + instruction), but the evaluation is based on for example rote memorization of linguistic items, then I suppose the course won’t be perceived as ‘great’ by students.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Really interesting post Willy and, of course, while we preach learner-centredness, it stands to reason that the way we assess our learners should follow suit. Unfortunately, many students still like to get that grade or percentage or certificate based on how well they did in this or that test. That, to a certain extent, is the paradox. If we listen to our learners and those learners say they like to have a test or want to pass a Cambridge exam to demonstrate their progress then should or shouldn’t we listen to them? Obviously, a lot depends on how we act in class and how we educate them to see progress as more than a number or mark. I personally don’t see too much harm in having independent, self-aware learners who also happen to want to pass an official exam. I guess I mean that a balance is the most important thing.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post Willy.

    • I agree pretty much with everything you said, Paul.

      Assuming your question was not 100% rhetorical, I’d like to say that firstly we shouldn’t listen to them if they want to pass a standardized test; and then we should if appropriate challenge their choice.
      – When I have students who MUST have an IELTS to get in to uni, then no questions asked. Although I alert him/her that s/he should know that a good chunk of the course is learning to take the test well, and not learning to communicate in English well. The latter may happen incidentally, but it’s not really the main goal.
      – When I have student who thinks a test is just “nice to have”, then I try to show him/her other ways to get some sense of achievement or validation that is less expensive and more real-life than taking a test.

      Moreover, if I have a 26 year-old student who has been educated his whole life to pass exams, then there isn’t much I can do, is there? Now with the little ones, I think there’s still hope, and dare I say space, to offer them an education that values learning for the sake of learning.

  3. Kevin Stein says:

    Hello Willy,

    Enjoyed this post and it gave me a lot to think about in regards to my own school and the way we assess the students. I think one of the biggest issues is the way program evaluation and student assessment have gotten tangled up. In order for a school to get funding, to prove it’s meeting its targets, and a host of other reasons, schools need students to take standardized tests. But those tests, which are driven by the school’s needs, are not really about student assessment.

    We actually have a very student-centered assessment process at my school. Students set a weekly goal, a monthly goal, and a semester goal for both reading and vocabulary. They also get to negotiate what and how they produce for their assessment portfolio. For reading, they might draw pictures to relate what happens in a story, write a summary of the stories they read, write a short essay comparing and contrasting what they have read, etc. But even here, the students are working with the teacher and not all of the teachers are fantastic at helping the students discover the best way for them to keep track of their own progress. In regards to vocabulary, it is even somewhat more limiting as most of the teachers have just given the students frequency word lists and negotiated a number of words to be learned. So the whole goal setting process has been shaped by the teacher from start to finish.

    There is probably not much we can do as teachers when it comes to the wave of standardized testing which is sweeping over the education world. But if teachers have the tools and skills they need to help students discover goals for themselves, these goals can at least serve as the islands of autonomy they need to keep swimming ahead, even when they are swimming against the tide.


    • Thanks a lot for leaving a comment here, Kevin. It’s always good to hear from contexts which are very different from mine, it makes me rethink the way I wrote the post, among other things.

      The question of funding influencing everything else is, for me, very sad; but I completely understand it. It’s how things evolved and there isn’t much teachers can do about it. There is though at an individual level the teachers choice of not agreeing with it and deciding to teach in a place where this issue is not so influential – my case for example (I teach in the private sector; which in turn is driven by my school’s shareholders interests among other things of course, but I don’t need to teach to the test).

      The fact that you use portfolios, as far as I can see, is already miles ahead of most institutions I know. So if the teacher is the one making decisions, there’s at least the possibility of students’ output to be individualized. The point you raised about teachers not being fantastic at ‘coaching’ students [not a big fan of this buzzword] is linked to the paradox I posed in the article, and it has a lot to do with power and control (hidden satisfaction of many teachers).

  4. […] teaching Posted on 26 June, 2012 by Simon Thomas Willy C Cardoso exposes what he considers a paradox of learner-centred teaching and standardised, quasi-objective, imposed (language) tests.Share this post:Bookmark on DeliciousDigg this postRecommend on FacebookGoogle Buzz-up this […]

  5. Simon Thomas says:

    Thanks a lot for this post, Willy; I think it’s an excellent contribution to a really useful debate.

    I quite agree with you that the real value of education is in the learning itself, and in the skills of independent thinking and study that one acquires. It’s good to understand a little more.

    I also agree that one’s score in a test is often relative to the performance of one’s peers in that same test, though of course there’s an important sense in which test are objective, or at least quasi-objective: one has to meet certain (imposed) standards in order to pass, or to get a certain grade, and these standards are (sort of, or intended to be) uniform: no matter what the year and no matter what the country, the test is the same. I imagine that’s the general ideal, anyway.

    I’m also not convinced by this: “How can one be assessed in ways other than those in which their goals were set?” Sure, it’s important to encourage students to set personal language learning goals, to monitor their progress and to re-evaluate their goals as they learn. To my mind, this is exactly what shows learning to be good. But once one has set goals, and published them in some way (by telling the teacher, by writing them down, by committing them to memory) surely they are in principle amenable to evaluation by anyone; and, provided the standardised test coincides with a learner’s goals (to be able to communicate better in everyday situations in English, for example, to be able to send formal and informal emails, or to write better essays in English) then surely it can be a fairly good indicator of success, as well as providing extra, external motivation to work hard on particular areas.

    As an aside, one benefit of NOT having a totally learner-centred curriculum is the presentation of novel and unexpected situations or language. I’d make the bold statement that learners do not know everything that will be useful to them, enjoyable to study, or which will become important in their lives or to their development, simply because learners do not know everything in advance of study or work (or, indeed, ever). I was bored of maths at school, and didn’t want to study it; yet now I find the philosophy of maths, and mathematical explanation of physical phenomena, very interesting, and am having to improve my woeful level. It would have been much better for me, I would argue, to have studied maths harder in school, despite not wanting to at that point. In the case of my maths at school, perhaps a more learner-centred teaching approach would not be to allow me to decide what to study, but to uncover my interests and motivations, and teach the same subject with those motivations in mind. However, teaching in this way would not affect the learner’s performance in a standardised test, which I’d say would still provide a good indicator of (lack of) success. This isn’t to imply that one has failed to learn maths if one fails the standardised test; but it does mean that one hasn’t fully understood the maths used in the test.

    The value of learning lies in itself; but a well-made, standardised test are a public demonstration of what you can do at a given time. I’m afraid I don’t yet see a paradox.

    • Hi Simon. Thank you for commenting.

      I see your point, it makes sense to me that you (and many others) think like that, and that perhaps there isn’t really a paradox.
      My point of departure in thinking the way I do is that it is not possible to universalize learning goals, and learning itself for that matter; therefore, being flawed the idea that a test given across countries can in anyway be a good indicator of deep learning, experiential learning, or whatever we decide to call learning that is for life and not for tests. So I absolutely disagree with the pursuit of uniformity; instead I believe that it is difference which makes us learn and not uniformity. Moreover, why would children from different cultures, parents, economic status, hair, etc, need to have the same answers to the same questions?? When asked what is 2+2, okay, but education is not only about facts, right?

      Regarding my question which you’re not convinced by, let me firs tell you it was hard to write that question and that I knew somehow that I wouldn’t be fully understood. 🙂
      What I mean by that is the framework or mindset, or even values, beliefs, worldviews, etc (you see the difficulty?) used to evaluate something would ideally be the same, or very similar, to the ones used to set the goal. I guess I’m trying to insert a degree of ‘relativism’ in the issue. Do you know what I mean?

      Moreover, I doubt this you said is possible: “provided the standardised test coincides with a learner’s goals”
      It would only coincide if a learner’s goal is ‘to pass the test’. Otherwise, how can a standardized test fully match someone’s personal communicative needs and aspirations? It’s not like learning to speak a language is the same as learning to driver as some people would believe. And this is very important to highlight: language is not subject matter; it can’t be tested like geography or arithmetic. Therefore, I can’t see how “to be able to communicate better in everyday situations in English” can be standardized just because there are infinite variables: communicate with whom? whose everyday situations? (even if you take something like ‘at a restaurant’ as your situation, communication in this setting varies considerably from place to place), what variety of English? whose notion of better? better in relation to what? etc.

      Finally, I agree with you “bold statement”, and add that teachers don’t know either. Therefore, a desirable pedagogy in my view is one in which teachers and students work together, ‘with’ each other more than ‘for’ each other.

      thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

      • Simon Thomas says:

        Hi Willy

        Thanks for the reply.

        I certainly wouldn’t say that learning to speak a language is like learning to drive a car (nor, for that matter, is maths or geography, I reckon); however, I do believe that standardised tests can be useful ways of uncovering a learner’s (lack of) facility in certain tasks (such as structuring a simple academic essay, displaying a good understanding of how to use many high-frequency words and phrases in English, showing appropriate use of various common grammatical structures, and so on). There is some relativism in the words “good understanding”, “high-frequency” and “appropriate use” – whose English are we talking about here, after all? – but I believe this relativism merely blurs the borders of these terms, and does not make them entirely spectral (else there would be no “Englishes” at all).

        I very much dislike the mentality of teaching or learning “to test”, which seems to reduce all the richness of learning and life to a series of bland, grey tickboxes; but I still think standardised testing can provide a good indication of learning, and that one’s ability with irregular verbs, tenses, register, and so on, can be measured to some degree of accuracy, and usually does become worth measuring if one is studying a language – and when it is inappropriate, there’s generally no need to take the test.

        Once again, thank you for raising this very interesting topic.

        Best wishes


  6. Flaming Science Wizard says:

    We all agree that learner-centeredness is good, and should be taken as given. (paraphrase)

    I think that the problem lies here, and not with tests / assessment. A lot of institutions pay lip service to the idea of autonomy but in the societies that these institutions exist in, conformity and hierarchy are the desired outcomes. We don’t need or want free thinkers who take responsibility for themselves and think their own thoughts – what we need is people who will do what they are told, and who understand their place.

    Free thinkers are the ones at the barricades, and the powers that be need fewer not more of these types.

  7. Torn Halves says:

    Although I share your distaste for standardised tests and although I am no supporter of the Asian model of education, I would like to argue against the child-centred model of education, not because it is flatly wrong, just because it is dangerously one-sided. However, I haven’t yet come across a really eloquent and succinct statement of what the child-centred model is. Do you have a link to what would generally be recognised as the best summary of the child-centred vision of education?


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