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The challenges of testing for “Readiness”

June 9, 2016

One summer I agreed to be on a triathlon team with my sister and her husband. She would do the swimming, her husband would do the running, and I would do the biking. Just one problem: at the time I did not have a bike. Nor had I ever biked a distance anywhere near what I would have to do in the race.

But I did, on occasion, jog a few miles, and we thought it would be fun. Plus I had the resources to buy a bike and a few months to get in shape. Did I have triathlon readiness? Or, as I’m framing it, did I have the ability to re-invent myself into an acceptable triathlon biker?

To answer that question, I had to just do it and see. There were no tests that could reliably predict my readiness.

I wasn’t the only one interested in readiness. Our current public education standards want students to learn College and Career Readiness. And this may sound great, but how does one determine something like ‘Readiness’?

If you can answer that question, you’ve built a better mouse trap. You not only stand to make a lot of money selling your test , but you also wield a weighty influence over the curriculum students and teachers work with so they can achieve The Standard.

I’m not interested in the mouse trap, but I am interested in the question it poses:

  • What does readiness look like?
  • Can we really test it?

Readiness looks like (a kind of) Invention

To me, Readiness looks like invention. I’m not talking about classical invention—which is all about how people come up with the arguments they want to make. I’m going beyond that, because I believe when we invent arguments we also invent (or re-invent) ourselves and our relationships to the people and environments in which we live. To illustrate, let me tell you a story:

A journalism student initially hates her required history course and her instructor who his highly critical of her writing. In one book review assignment, she writes, “we must expect the author not to be biased or slanted when reporting,” only to have her instructor challenge her by responding, “Actually I would suggest that objectivity is a myth.” (Russell and Yañez)

She is, after all, a journalist, and journalists are objective, right? So why should she be bothered to write like a historian. She doesn’t want to compromise her professional values, but she also doesn’t want to get a bad grade. So what does she do?

Eventually, she invents a way to meld her interests in journalism with historical analysis. In her final project, she ends up analyzing a New York Times account of a meeting between Gerry Adams and Tony Blair. This is readiness.

I would say that, similar to the journalism student, we are constantly re-inventing ourselves. Just watch The Martian and how Matt Damon somehow figures out how to survive alone for a long time on Mars. Apparently Damon was ready.

How can we measure Readiness as Invention?

Current testing misses out on helping us see how good we actually are at re-inventing. Could you survive on Mars? Maybe. Here are a couple ways I think we can find out without going to Mars

One way would do away with school tests as we currently know them, and replace them with a map of each student’s brain as that student tries (and perhaps fails) to do new things.

Maybe we ask someone who has never played the ukulele to try to figure out how to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Then an fMRI machine maps what happens when they do it and compares that against many different versions of an “adaptable” brain.

From what I gather, this is kind of neuroplasticity (Cortical Plasticity). We are talking about forming new pathways (or reinforcing old ones) by which we reshape our knowledge and practices. Kind of like how when a hiker blazes a trail through the forest, he or she opens a path so that same journey will be a little easier to make again.

An fMRI might be a way to observe “readiness.” But it doesn’t help us learn readiness.

I think we could learn readiness through learning to “self-regulate” our learning. The field of self-regulation (SR) looks at the complex series of behaviors people use to set goals, recognize when those goals need to change, and marshal the resources to carry out those changes. This is also process of re-invention.

SR research has shown that people who are skilled in self-regulation strategies are basically more adaptable and more successful. And it is a teachable.

A self-regulation test might give us an unfamiliar task, at which we are expected to fail. The purpose would be to see how we go about failing.

If you want to know more:

  • And I have read about some fascinating stuff about people stimulating certain areas of the brain to help people with autism and depression develop new pathways (previewed here).
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