Why We Should Engage in Less Kill-And-Drill and More Play Around Standardized Testing Time

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Spring in Michigan means many things. Piles of snow get traded for buckets of rain, the sound of birds suddenly comes from every window, the sun leaves the horizon it has barely perched on all winter to reclaim its space high in the sky, and, if one teaches mainly juniors (as I do), there is one other harbinger of the season that happens with as much regularity as dandelions poking their heads out of the warming soil: standardized test stress.

While for many, April might mean showers and tulips, for me it largely means the SAT, ACT, and M-STEP (Michigan’s on-again-off-again state standardized test).

I’ve found that in these tense weeks spent in the shadow of tests and their high-stakes, a quiet danger exists to my teaching. If I’m not careful, my classes could easily leave the realm of meaningful writing, authentic audiences, deep discussion, and creativity and end up instead in the realm of test prep followed by more test prep.

This is not to say anything against the concept of test prep or even the concept of standardized tests. Those topics are larger than the scope of this piece, and regardless of how one feels about these tests, serious stakes exist for our students and our schools, meaning that we need to make sure students are in positions to do their best (and that will likely include some direct prep).

Instead, this post it is about how the stakes of these tests–which may impact our student’s futures, our school’s present, and sometimes our compensation and very employment–can shift our pedagogy and drive us away from what we know are best practices.

One of the most common casualties of the pressure that comes from these tests is one of the writing teacher’s best tools–playful writing–or writing that is focused less on a product than exploration in a safe environment. While I’ve never specifically use that term on this blog, some examples of playful writing that I have mentioned included:

On the surface these things look to be like silly, flippant activities, but they are actually some of the most serious work we do. This is because play is the perfect place to learn difficult skills–the types generally highlighted on standardized tests. Nearly every species of mammal on the planet engages in play almost instantly after being born because play is actually a genius behavioral adaptation that allows us to test our world, our ideas, and ourselves physically and mentally in games of relative safety before we face similar, but far more serious physical and mental challenges in the wider world.

This biological imperative behind play also means that when we are engaged in play, our attention and cognition tend to stay remarkably high. Dr. Stuart Brown, a long-time researcher of play says of it: “Nothing lights up the brain like play.” “Nothing lights up the brain like play.”

This combination of play’s ability to give students a comfortable low-stakes place to experiment with new ideas and approaches (which I’ve written previously on tends to speed writing growth) and its ability to increase attention makes playful writing a formidable tool that we should use year round, but its power is heightened even more in those weeks around big tests, where the low stakes and enjoyment that come with playful writing contrast significantly with the high stakes and monotony built into standardized tests. This makes it in many ways a perfect Trojan horse with which to deliver much of the testing content.

For an example of this, last week we were learning rhetorical terms for the rhetorical analysis essay–the dense, rigidly structured essay on the SAT, where the student assesses whether or not an argument is effective. To learn these initially, here is what we did with each term:

  1. The students got a definition for the term.
  2. We discussed the term and looked at examples.
  3. Then I issued a challenge where students had to do some playful task involving that term. Here is an example of a couple of these:

The activity was a little loud and a lot of fun, and yet when my students used the terms later in an equally playful freewrite where they had to argue something absurd using the techniques we learned, they already had a relatively firm grasp on them.

Fast forward to their high-stakes essay practice a week later, and even freshmen who’d never seen the devices before the unit were using terms like juxtaposition, generalization, and pathos seamlessly and thoughtfully.

The Oxford Dictionary states in its definition of play that it “is not for practical or serious purposes” and Webster’s Dictionary goes a step further, defining it as “something aimless.”

I take serious issue with both of those definitions. Far from aimless and not practical, play is one of the most powerful and underrated pedagogical tools we have. This power of play is why so many companies whose focus is innovation have the 80/20 setup made famous by Google, where employees are given one day each week to play around with new ideas of their choice; it is why fifty years of studies of grammar instruction have made clear that grammar learned while playing with one’s writing sticks far better than grammar from worksheets; and it is why babies begin playing before they can walk or talk.

So if like me, these early spring weeks are stressful ones full of important messages that you just have to get across, fight the urge to solely become a kill-and-drill sergeant and instead look for some thoughtful places to play!

Yours in teaching,


Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.

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