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How grades and tests fail kids — and how to do learning right

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, an expert in child learning, says there's more to education than just grades and test scores for 21st century success.
/ Source: TODAY

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is an expert in child learning. She is the director of the Temple University Infant and Child Laboratory and co-author of "Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children." Here, Hirsh-Pasek explains why success is more than a grade on a test.

Teacher in classroom
"There are a lot of people out there who are capitalizing on our fears that we won’t be good enough to compete with the rest of the world," Kathy Hirsh-Pasek says.Shutterstock

We’ve gotten very narrow in the way we think about education. We think: When it’s back to school, that’s when learning starts. But, of course, it has to seep over the walls of the school and extend into our everyday lives — into our homes and communities, too.

We’ve also gotten very used to thinking the grade on our report card and how we do on a bubble test is all there is to learning. But scientists have been almost at the point of screaming that that’s not what it’s all about.

In fact, having social skills, the ability to think critically and the ability to “learn how to learn” may be even more important than what’s otherwise tested on those bubble exams.

So as we send our children back to school, I hope we will consider the breadth of skills they need as we rethink success for the 21st century.

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Why the learning industry has it wrong

There are a lot of people out there capitalizing on our fears that we won’t be good enough to compete with the rest of the world. That leads to a proliferation of products that feed those fears.

My “favorite” recent one was the tampon with the speaker on the end. Apparently now, we are lucky enough to have a product like this so we can talk to our fetus even before the child is born. That’s kind of outrageous.

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We have more than 82,000 so-called educational apps on the market right now. Yet, it’s a market that’s completely unregulated, so we don’t know if these are educational or not.

We have test companies that are making millions of dollars because it’s so profitable once you decide learning is just about how you do on a particular test. Then we feed and fuel those fears so that children will do better on those tests.

That’s not what real learning is about.

How to do it right

1. Real learning isn’t about memorization; it’s about generalization.

It’s all about being able to apply what you learned to another problem.

In the world we live in now, which is called the “knowledge economy,” we see that information is doubling every 2 1/2 years. That means that if we were good enough to memorize every single fact available today, in 2 1/2 years, we’d be down to 50 percent. It’s a diminishing quantity.

Learning how to learn — focusing on executive function skills like attention, memory, problem-solving — may be even more important than memorizing facts.

Human beings are pattern makers. Unfortunately, we live in a world where we test for the facts in history, not for the patterns of history. Often, our children don’t know how to solve a new problem if they haven’t studied for exactly what that answer is meant to be.

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2. Interested in an educational app? Use this litmus test.

Apps that just have kids memorize the answer are not the way to go.

You’re going to do better with those that teach strategic thinking and problem-solving — like building a city and making sure it functions, or even things like Minecraft.

I have a simple rubric that I use. It comes straight from science and can be used as a litmus test of whether an app is really going to help our children learn:

  • It’s active, rather than passive — you have to do more than swipe. It means you have to really work at the problem and think about it.
  • You’re engaged, rather than distracted — you can stay on task, as opposed to constantly looking at your email or the text that just came in.
  • It’s meaningful, rather than meaningless — it should connect to something you know about so that you can build on that as a platform and go beyond.
  • Social is better than non-social — we know that when we work on a problem with other people, we move to higher levels of solutions.
  • It should have a learning goal in mind — play is wonderful for its own sake, but we also know that constrained tinkering helps us learn better.

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3. Think broadly about what learning is.

Nurture what we call the 6 C's:

Collaboration: It's very important for kids to learn how to get along with people and how to control their impulses.

Communication: Is your child learning how to speak and listen? It's something that doesn’t happen often in a Facebook society. We tell everyone what we had for breakfast, but we’re not so good at truly hearing. In programs like “Tools of the Mind,” one person gets an ear and another one gets a mouth, so you have to be the listener or the speaker.

Content: Kids have to be able to integrate the information they learn in math, social studies and history so they can use it to solve a new problem.

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Critical thinking: Are you using evidence to support your position?

Creative innovation: What new thing did your child do today? How did he put together what he learned in a new way?

Confidence: Make sure your child has the self-assurance to give something a try. We’re so afraid of letting our kids fail that we don’t let them develop the kind of grit, perseverance and growth mindset they need to be successful in a world where things are changing so fast.

4. Redefine success.

The question before us, as our kids walk through the front doors of our schools this year, is how do we define success?

Answer No. 1 — the traditional way — is grades on reading and math and language skills.

Answer No. 2 — the 21st century way of defining success — is that we want happy, healthy, caring, social and thinking children who are going to grow up to be socially adapted, confident, collaborative, creative critical thinkers and responsible citizens in the next generation.

I bet most people will vote for No. 2.

— As told to TODAY's Agnes Pawlowski