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Blog: Why We Shouldn’t Mistake Performance For Learning

By Isabelle Wolfe, French Teacher, ISA

At the International School of Aberdeen where I teach French, for the first time this year we had a group of 8th and 9th Graders taking the IGCSE French a year or even two years before the usual grade level. This has been possible due to the fact that the language curriculum is level-based rather than grade-based. Many factors contribute to such achievements. Our students are risk takers and feel safe to take such a risk in a secure environment. Another deciding contributing factor is the resilience of our students who took many tests before getting to sit the actual IGCSE exams in May. All of these assessments throughout the year were measures of their performance until they eventually transferred their learning to the final performance that is the exam itself. However one must not confuse these spaced out assessments with learning.

Performances throughout the year more often than not, equal a number or sometimes a letter. However what does matter is not the single trace of writing in the shape of the letter or the number at the top corner of the paper but the actual interpretation of such number or letter as Dylan William points out. If we were to believe that an A is an evidence of learning, we then would have to accept the fact that the student has learnt everything that was on the test or even worse we could presume the student has learnt the curriculum content being taught in that assessment.

Paul Kirshner states that “learning is a change in long-term memory”. Robert and Elizabeth Bjork studied extensively the dissociation between performance and learning. Performance is ephemeral and is restricted to now and in the moment whereas learning does have an element of permanent changes. In that respect current performance is an unreliable tool to indicate if learning has taken place in knowledge. As Sweller have pointed out, ‘if nothing in the long-term memory has been altered, nothing has been learned’.

The fact that current performance can be unreliable is one of the central issues in teaching but also the most exciting aspect of our profession: we cannot assume that if a student gives an accurate answer on a paper at a specific time that he will be able to do so later or elsewhere.

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