a different kind of test


Matthew Erickson wrote this post for his final online graduate class  in Multicultural & International Education, and also posted it on the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) listserve where I found it, and asked his permission to reprint it here.   If you decide to try his “test” I’d love to know the outcome.  

John Holt once wrote something that, well, changed my life:
“Consider the problem of the test-giver. A student who knows anything at all about a subject knows enough to write about it for hours. I, for example, have not studied American history since the eighth grade and quickly forgot most of what I studied then. What little I know or think I know about it, I have picked up from a lot of miscellaneous reading, hardly any of it in what could be called history books. Yet if I were asked to write out all I know and understand about American history, it would take many pages – perhaps a book, perhaps several. How, then, can anyone test my knowledge, let alone the knowledge of a student of history, in an hour or three hours? He can’t. If a teacher gives his students a test that allows them to show how much they know, they will all run out of time long before they have run out of things to say, and he will have no way to mark them except to give them all the same mark, which his bosses will not like. To make distinctions between students, which in most schools is a teacher’s duty – everyone can’t go to Harvard – he must ask questions that some students, at least will not be able to answer.” (Underachieving School, p. 33).

After reading this, I decided to try something as a student teacher.  Concluding a unit on Macbeth, I was expected to design a test as part of my university coursework.  Remembering this passage, I designed a one-question test:

1. Tell me everything you know about Macbeth.

The kids, who had come into the room nervously awaiting whatever ‘gotcha’ type questions I had in store for them, were delirious at first.  I remember one boy asking me, “how are you going to separate people into grades?”  

I shrugged.  He shrugged back, and got to work.  He wrote at least five pages.  Most kids did.  They knew way more than I thought they had.  They knew the whole plot, every motive of every character…just, everything.

I thought I was going to cry.  Maybe I did cry when I read all of those.  80% of the kids I had no choice but to give an “A”.  The rest probably got D’s or E’s – they didn’t complain, because they hadn’t read the play.

I wonder if we could take this approach to not only classroom materials and learning, but to life.  We judge nations and cultures based on a very narrow set of rubrics: economy, crime, industry…actually, most of them have to do with money.  Perhaps instead of asking what these places are lacking, we ask, what do you know?  What can you tell me? 

Freed from the pressures of a modern-capitalist checkbox, perhaps we will behave much like my students did on that day: excited, willing to share, unafraid.




–John Holt


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>