External Pressure/Internal Determination

Photo: http://peterharrisonphotography.smugmug.com/

Self Determination Theory research has consistently demonstrated that more autonomous forms of motivation are associated with a host of positive outcomes from greater academic performance, creativity, and persistence, to enhanced learner wellness.

~Richard Ryan & Netta Weinstein~

Like most educators I look upon high stakes testing not unlike the way passing drivers examine an roadside accident scene; with a mix of dread and fascination. Standardized tests repel and and compel us at the same time and create a great deal of bother and busyness before, during and after the administration.

As a school administrator I have some clear legal responsibilities for overseeing the administration of these assessments in our school. I also have the opportunity, through my role, to try contextualize this and make it more of a process and less of an event~ not unlike the iconic Irish police officer who says “Alright now, nothing to see here, move along.”

Thanks to some very smart people, like  Daniel Pink, Richard Elmore, John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black and Alfie Kohn, there are a few things I’ve learned about this whole ‘testing’ thing that guide my work now and inform my decision making:

-Externally administered standardized tests will never change teaching practice and improve learning for all students: Elmore likens the belief that tests can ”change practice’ to pushing on a string. The external forces do not have the capacity to change what is actually learned in classrooms because this is a function of teaching and learning, which is a complex set of internal, school and classroom based set of relationships (teachers, families, students).

-Teaching, not testing improves learning: Hattie, Black and Wiliam, through their meta-analysis of impacts and influences identify the actions that lead to student success (and neither involve external testing). They speak to the enormous impact that formative assessments or feedback and teaching quality have on student learning. Both aspects are internal, teacher determined factors and Black and Wiliam’s research points out that effective, teacher designed formative assessments lead to success on all measures- including standardized tests.

-When it really matters sticks and carrots don’t really work: The work of Pink, Kohn and the Ryan & Weinstein article quoted at the top confirm that the achievement of complex and challenging tasks (and what is more complex than teaching and learning) is an internally-driven, relationship-based process that is actually sidetracked by external pressures such as reward programs or sanctions for non-performance. Over the past 15 years; in every jurisdiction that has administered, shared and publicized the results of schools performance there has been a pattern of rapid increases, followed by a stall or decline in the results, if the carrots and sticks worked wouldn’t we be at maximum achievement rates?   It turns out that the rewards people (students and teachers) value are autonomy, purpose and mastery (Pink).

What, then, do we do as educators in the face of these external pressures? Learning about, and putting into practice the insights and findings of the researchers listed above has been a big help to me. Strong, internal accountability networks and systems that weave teachers with teachers, teachers with students and families and students with students are essential; not to eliminate the external accountability tools (like standardized tests) but to contextualize and regulate them. The capacity and resources needed to determine student wellness and success are inside the building, are we determined enough to make this a reality?


  1. Ryan said:

    This is such a great post. Is “Self-Determination Theory” the same thing as what this video talks about? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc It seems to me that they go hand in hand.

    July 20, 2011
    • Chris Wejr said:

      YEs! A lot of Pink’s work is based on the research of Deci and Ryan.

      I love how this post has related all of these examples of extrinsic factors and how they affect what we do as educators.

      Just imagine if we began to remove (or focus less on) these bit by bit….

      Awesome post.

      July 20, 2011
      • bharrison said:

        I know what you mean Chris~ If we only could, wait a minute, we can…My thoughts and feelings in this topic have not changed much in the last 10 years, but my sense of isolation in having them has. I think the work that you, and others are doing, along with the ideas and connections we are making through mediums like this are allowing us to make progress and break down some of this isolation.

        Thanks so much for the kind words and encouragement!

        July 20, 2011

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