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Do we train for passing tests or do we train for creative inquiry?

Reflecting on the way our students learn and the methods we use as teachers to motivate them to learn on their own is the best way of measuring the quality of our teaching.

Students should be encouraged to think for themselves, to discover, to try out new things and not to repeat what they heard in class. Exploring and finding the ways to arouse kids’ curiosity and interest them in learning is the most important.

What is the purpose of education? is the first question teachers should ponder and try to find an answer.

According to Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and philosopher, “highest goal in life is to inquire and create. The purpose of education  is just to help people to learn on their own. It’s you the learner who is going to achieve in the course of education and it’s really up to you to determine how you’re going to master and use it.” An essential part of this kind of education is fostering the impulse to think critically, create alternatives to well-worn models, and challenge authority.

Chomsky defines the opposing concept of education as indoctrination. Under this model, “People have the idea that, from childhood, young people have to be placed into a framework where they’re going to follow orders. This is often quite explicit.” For Chomsky, this model of education imposes “a debt which traps students, young people, into a life of conformity.”

We live in an extremely orderly society and our schools are organized the same way. Traditional educational system fosters conformity, and people who do not conform, who are different from a group, are punished one way or the other.

I think that one of the most important goals of education is to create independent thinkers who are willing to challenge authority, and who are not interested only in “fitting in” and conforming in order to be likeable and avoid conflict within the group.


Apart from pondering the question of the purpose of education, teachers should also ask themselves: What is the most useful for my students, training them for passing tests or training them for creative inquiry?

The system of formal assessment by standardized tests in most countries around the world leads to the method of “teaching to tests” which is the opposite of what education of the 21st century should be. Our current standardized tests focus on recall of facts and procedures, i.e. the lowest levels of types of learning. Students are given answers to remember rather than interesting problems to solve, they study for the test they do not care about, but have to pass, and after a few weeks they forget what it was about.

“There are ways of teaching that simply drive away any sensible person’s curiosity and interest, no matter what you’re teaching. In 2012, programs of «teaching to tests» are deadening to the mind: they just undermine any likelihood of the children wanting to learn or gain the capacities to proceed on their own. I think the same is true with language teaching.”(Interview with Noam Chomsky on Education, March 26th, 2013)

Teachers must encourage questioning and discussion, they must provide interesting questions without giving answers, they must challenge their students and offer support and guidance.

I firmly believe that teachers should not grade their own students, which does not mean that they should not give feedback and use continuous assessments to measure and support students’ progress. For example, continuous assessments in language learning are quick checks for the purpose of letting the teacher and student know if more revision is needed, and they are not the same as testing because tests are marked or graded whereas continuous assessment isn’t.

You can read more about the non-graded formative assessment in the very interesting and useful post The value of continuous assessment, where Stacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some ideas for checking students are on the right track.


About ljiljana havran

English language teacher (General & Aviation English), passionate about learning and teaching. Curious, adventurous, a lifelong learner. Love: good books, music, lots of dance.

2 responses »

  1. You’ve selected really powerful quotes from Chomsky. The metaphor of education as a debt that entraps is one that I won’t forget easily.


  2. Yes, I agree with you that Chomsky’s metaphor of education as a debt that entraps is powerful.
    I also like Einstein’s quote on formal/traditional education – ‘It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.’



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