Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.

–Albert Einstein

Test-Driven Curriculum vs. Practical Application

I realize this isn’t exactly a topic for writers or about writing, but it is one that I felt like I needed to comment on. Many of the two or three of you who still read this blog probably have children, some of whom may have already taken standardized tests, might be prepping for the SATs, etc.

Everyone has their own opinion about the usefulness of these standardized tests and in many school districts around the country, you will find entire school curricula devoted to teaching kids what they need to know in order to pass those tests and nothing more. Everything the kids are told and tested on is designed to raise the level of performance for that particular region or state on a standardized test.

I’ve long felt that teaching kids how to pass tests rather than giving kids useful tools for learning and continuing education was a bad practice but until recently I had no personal experience with this.

In March I took a standardized test to measure learning level and conversational skill level in Mandarin Chinese. The test required me to learn 300+ words, including recognizing their characters (hanzi) and not just the romanized transliteration. It required a very thorough understanding of grammatical structure and included a listening comprehension part. I got memorization apps for my phone and had private Internet lessons with a teacher who taught to the test material. Not only did I pass the test, but I did so within the top 1 percentile – I nailed it.

This is where it gets interesting. A couple of years ago I dabbled in learning Japanese. I never did so with as much gusto as I had Chinese and I only briefly entertained the idea of attempting the JLPT test (the Japanese equivalent of the HSK test I took). I stopped learning Japanese twice, and only half-heartedly picked it back up again. I would say the main difference between Japanese and Chinese learning was that with Chinese, once I focused on taking that test – that was an all-consuming goal.

So, with intensive learning in Chinese and extremely high performance on a standardized test and mostly half-hearted Japanese learning stretched out with much longer gaps in study, which do you think I retain more of today?

Japanese, of course. There are still certain phrases that I think entirely in Japanese, if someone asks me how to say something in Chinese, the first response is actually Japanese and I have to struggle (really, really struggle) to locate the Chinese equivalent. In many cases, I’ve simply lost the vast majority of Chinese that I learned. Granted, if someone speaking Mandarin were to ask me a few questions, unconscious pathways to those responses would probably let me answer. They behave like long-buried memories that need some stimulus to be awakened, like that childhood memory of a beach that suddenly reappears only after you smell a sea breeze on a certain type of day.

I started learning both languages for fun and simply to learn something new, and I studied more for the HSK than I had for any test I’d taken in my life. Months later, I now retain very little of the fluency I had gained in Chinese but can still remember things I learned about Japanese 3 years ago when I wasn’t studying for a test.

As far as statistics go, I am but a sample size of one so you can’t draw too many conclusions from it, but I remain convinced that learning something for the joy of learning it and for its practical application results in greater understanding and retention than learning something for the short-term goal of passing a test.

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