Turning Tests Into Dialogues

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Show-all-work exams represent one of the better impulses of the testing movement—but they mark only the first steps towards real critical thinking.

"Show all work." That phrase still rings in my ears, though my days as a student in New York City's public schools are long past. New York's statewide compulsory regents' exams often required me to show my work, step by step. I'm still thankful that I received points for good thinking even when it led to wrong final answers.

Expensive and time-consuming as it is to hire actual educators to read each answer sheet and think along with each student, these show-all-work exams represent one of the better impulses of the standards-based testing movement, and they are a mark of testing programs that actually help students learn. But they encourage only the first steps toward real critical thinking.

Consider the model of Socratic dialogue—a teacher questions, a student answers, and the teacher replies with yet another question, building on the student's own answer, and driving the student toward deeper insight. The dialogues of Plato represent a kind of continuous examination in the very best sense of the word— the teacher is coming to know the student's ideas and capacities, and the very act of that assessment is a great opportunity to deepen the student's learning.

For 50 years, the organization I now head in Chicago, the Great Books Foundation, has been running Socratic discussions about literature and ideas. For the past 30 years, most of these discussions have taken place inside American schools as part of language arts curricula. We have trained more than 200,000 teachers to be leaders of Socratic dialogues in schools (we generally call these dialogues "Shared Inquiry discussions").

Over the years, we've learned a few things about fostering critical thinking among students. Perhaps the most important lesson is that real thinking and learning require at least three steps: The teacher asks a question, the student replies, and the teacher, having listened with great care to the student's answer, asks a follow-up question.

In formulating follow-up a question, the teacher becomes a learner alongside the student.

The hardest part for teachers, and for our own teacher-training staff, is the follow-up question. This is because in the formation of that question, the teacher becomes a learner alongside the student, reaching for understanding of the student's idea or expression.

Imagine a standardized test that aspires to do this. Students sit in an exam room and write answers to questions. Then the tests are sent off for scoring, and when they come back, rather than bearing grades, each has a set of follow-up questions for the students to consider and reply to. Only at that point has the student truly become part of a dialogue, and at that point the educational value of the test has taken a great leap ahead. Students will be quick to recognize the respect for their ideas and abilities this testing format would represent, particularly if it is made part of a standard testing regimen and not offered only to designated low or high achievers.

Can most schools find the resources to turn their tests into dialogues? Weigh the relative costs and benefits, and consider how much more productively most teachers could integrate this kind of testing into their classroom work. The resources to do this are in most cases already deployed in our schools and testing centers; we have merely not yet connected all the dots.

Peter Temes is the president of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago.

Vol. 20, Issue 3, Page 31

Published in Print: September 20, 2000, as Turning Tests Into Dialogues
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