In 2009, Yale Psychology professor Bruce Wexler, who is also the author of Brain and Culture, spoke at our Texas conference “Tomorrow’s Education in Today’s Classrooms”. His message? 

When we are young, the environment, what we are learning, wires our brains. As we age, our brains tend to re-wire how we view the environment, what we are learning, to fit what we already know. Changing that brain is not easy.

As we age in a world in which the rate of change is accelerating, we find ourselves rapidly out of step. When we reach the peak of our influence, say from the age of 45 to about 60, we would be out of step and trying to make decisions by bending the new to fit the old. In 2011, one year after we heard Bruce’s talk, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman[1] was published. He added another cautionary tale about change. He taught us about thinking fast (intuitively or automatically) and thinking slow (with deliberation). He called these two very different processes System One  (intuitive) and System Two (deliberate).

Intuition, or System One, is probably most often a result of repeated experiences. Repetition has two characteristics that come into play. First, memories become more accessible with repetition and second, if something is repeated often enough, we believe it is true. These repetitions also get associated with each other in our heads. Associations can be driven by a number of factors but similarities and nearness in time or location dominate. To be useful, these experiences have to be understood as a unit. To get there, our brains usually tie them together with a perfectly logical, but invented, story or explanation. The story makes these experiences understandable, internally persuasive, and unambiguous. If we use the story often enough, the memory or knowledge becomes readily available. It is easy to use. It is fast thinking. It is also very difficult to change and very persuasive in our mental processing.

There are many other sources of fast thinking but for right now, and in our blog series, we are going to follow two general rules. Fast thinking results from repetition and association.

Let’s see how this works in practice. Stop and create a list, mentally, or in writing, of what you associate with the word “testing.” Our guess is that most of us instantly associate testing with the end-of-year test and our available bank of knowledge is related to that association. In this case the mental framework is by the primary association – testing and the end-of-year test. The following are phrases/ideas associated with the end-of-year test that would be shared by many.

End of year tests…

  • are far too important as a measure of student learning.
  • are an unfair measure of teacher success.
  • cause test prep to take too much time away from good teaching and learning.
  • are not ‘real world’ – life is not a multiple-choice test.
  • narrow the curriculum to the tested curriculum.
  • measure superficial learning as opposed to learning at a profound level.
  • promote rote learning.
  • lack rigor.
  • are of little value to improving teaching and learning.
  • do not measure learning growth.
  • test the wrong stuff.
  • measure at a single point in time, so are inaccurate.
  • don’t measure application.

The list becomes a generic knowledge platform about testing. It forms the mental framework through which many view all testing. It’s the result of fast thinking. All of these probably came to mind almost immediately, and in some way all of these are accurate criticisms of the end-of-year test. It becomes an availability heuristic. It is now the shortcut through which many can quickly gauge arguments and discussions about testing. This typically leads to an either-or decision either about testing in general.

But, there is a fly in the ointment – a flaw in the framing process. While the end-of-year test dominates most discussions about testing, most testing is not done at the end of the year. The difficulty with discussing the broader concept of testing is that the word “testing” is now associated with all those other negative connotations. Remember, association involves similarities. Testing is testing – isn’t it? Or, maybe not exactly? Fast thinking can throw the baby out with the bath water. If testing goes, so does measurement, feedback, a sense of progress, diagnosis, and correction. Let’s slow down.


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