“You didn’t test out of any skills.”

This week, I had the chance to work with the grade 7 French teacher, helping her get her classes set up on Duolingo, a web-based program that allows students to work through language lessons at their own pace. The teacher dashboard allows you to create classes, and students join the class with a six-digit code. The teacher can then track students’ work through the lessons, set certain lessons for homework, or challenge students to gain a certain amount of “xp” to “level up”, much like in a video game. Duolingo also has a mobile app, and is available in many languages, making it a neat way for anyone to start to learn a language on the go.

As our school begins to focus on one element of our new strategic plan, which is to “support, know and inspire all students”, a program such as this one can be an opportunity to offer instruction at the students’ area of need. Students who enter grade 7 with minimal French experience can work at the basic level to catch up with their peers, and students who have come to us from a French immersion or extended French program can challenge themselves beyond what the teacher might be able to do within a regular classroom. Enrichment and support, all within a fun package that will engage students and will allow the teacher to spend additional one-on-one time with students: what more can you ask for in a blended learning environment? (Side note: I have not spent enough time with Duolingo to evaluate its effectiveness as a learning program, and its focus on translation as a learning tool has me slightly wary, but the level of engagement of students in the activities it offers seems to point to it as a valuable addition to a language program. But I digress.)

Once we got students all set up with their accounts, they had the option of starting from the basics, or completing a placement test to possibly “level out” of certain basic lessons. Because most of these students have been learning French for several years already, we asked them to begin with the placement test.

Sensing the instant anxiety that arose in the room upon the mention of the word “test”, we quickly assured students that the point of this test was not to evaluate them in any negative way, but to ensure that they would be working at lessons that are at the right level for them. We thought that would be enough. But, boy, were we wrong!

Of course, taking a language test on a computer is going to have its drawbacks. Although a student might know how to say “goodbye” in French, if they make a spelling error on a simple question like this, it is marked wrong. No big deal, right? It’s just a placement test. It would simply mean that you’d have to review the lesson on this topic again, which is only going to help you with accuracy in the long run, right? However, we had no idea how emotionally fraught this experience of being marked “wrong” would be for students!

Upon students beginning the placement test, we immediately began to hear a chorus of cries of “What? I knew that!” and “It marked it wrong but I just forgot one letter/accent/word” etc. We heard students trying to get help from their peers and us, crying out, “how do you say [x] in French??” The desperation in their voices and on their faces was obvious. At the end of the test, almost every student received this message from the program: “You didn’t test out of any skills.” And at this point, the students were beside themselves.

"You did not test out of any skills." These simple words seemed to be the worst possible news to students.

“You did not test out of any skills.” These simple words seemed to be the worst possible news to students.

We tried to reassure them. It was no use. This experience made it abundantly clear that these 7th grade students have become so entirely convinced that the results of a test defines who they are and what they are worth. How has it come to this?

How has our education system so skewered what students understand assessments such as this one to be? How might we begin to shift that notion through our practice?

Although I’m not sure it would have helped at this point, a comparison to video games might be in order. I used to be a bit of a gamer myself. My university years, believe it or not, were shaped in part by a somewhat unhealthy addition to the MMORPG World of Warcraft.

Video games can, I believe, present a much more healthy version of failure than tests in school can.

Video games can, I believe, present a much more healthy version of failure than tests in school can.

In World of Warcraft, a player would never dream of attempting a Level 60 quest with a character who was only at level 20. She simply would not have the skills and background necessary to be successful. That is certainly not to say that failure is frowned upon in the game, however. Any player, in order to level up, will attempt quests and challenges that are perhaps a little bit beyond his skill level, and he will be handsomely rewarded with additional XP as a token of that challenge. Every time his character dies in the course of one of these challenges, he will modify his strategy: maybe he’ll try a different approach, maybe he’ll attempt the challenge with a friend who can support the quest, or perhaps he’ll get a bit more XP at a lower level in order to ensure greater success moving forward.

Failure (or death), in a video game, is viewed as a learning opportunity – a chance to start over, to try again with different strategy. In a placement test, of all things, this should be even more so.

A key element of design thinking process is to “fail early and fail often”. How might we embrace this idea of failure as a learning tool rather than as the end of the road? How might we adapt our practice to make regular failure par for the course?

How might we encourage students to embrace the mindset that failure is truly a “first attempt in learning”? And do our teaching and assessment practices actually reflect this?