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Connecting the science of the brain, psychology, and health with EFL

July 14, 2010

What's wrong with testing and drilling? What if you were dyslexic?

This month we have our first interview! Let me introduce Zachary Stein. I first met Zak a couple of years ago on the Harvard campus at their Mind, Brain and Education Institute. He is a philosopher and a fantastic academic. He is heavily involved in the new field of Mind, Brain and Education at Harvard. One of his strongest focuses is on testing -and he is dyslexic.

This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Zak on his current research which is highly relevant to all classroom teachers and school administrators. Part 1 of this interview is about testing. Part 2 is a discussion regarding reading and dyslexia. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to send them to me! I'll make sure they get to Zak.

Murphy (M): Thanks for joining us today, Zak! Can you first tell us a bit about your academic background?

Zak Stein (ZS): I went to Hampshire College, a place with no tests and no grades. And then I snuck into the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I'm now a doctoral candidate.

Broadly speaking, my work is on the philosophy of education. But I also focus on cognitive development, psychometrics, and I am actively engaged with the emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education. 

Part 1 Testing - a necessary evil?

M: What do you think is 'wrong' with typical testing?

ZS: It's important to understand that testing (or assessment) is a necessary part of any educational situation. Anytime anyone is teaching something to someone, the teacher needs to figure out what the learner knows and could most benefit from learning next. That entails some kind of assessment, some kind of test, to check in on where the learner is at.

The problem is when tests are used for some other purpose, such as distributing educational opportunities or holding schools or teachers accountable. Now, you can claim that these help students learn in a round about way. But the farther the test is from serving as a diagnostic in the learning process itself the greater the risk that the test is doing more harm than good.   

M: What can you say about the so-called standardized tests?

ZS: We (at DTS) build standardized, embedded, formative assessments, which provide richly educative feedback to learners and teachers. So just because a test is standardized doesn't mean its got to serve some abstract bureaucratic function. Although, at least in the USA, this is what people think of when they think of standardized tests: sorting kids; accountability; high stakes. 


M: What vision and goals do you have regarding testing?

ZS: Our long term goal is to change the nature of the standardized testing infrastructure at multiple levels in the social system--from K-12 to college entrance, human resource management, and professional development.

We think that assessments should be based on research about human development and learning, and that they should not just be used to sort individuals or dole out rewards and punishments.

Our vision is of a society that values radically educative institutional arrangements, wherein assessments play one role in fostering the full development of individual's potentials. 

M: What is DTS? What do you do at DTS?

ZS: The Developmental Testing Service, Inc. (DTS) is a non-profit research and development organization focusing on issues at the interface of developmental psychology, psychometrics, and test design.

I started DTS with my mentor, colleague, and friend, Theo Dawson. She's the director, I'm the deputy director. The organization has three branches. One focuses on adult development, doing research and building assessments for use in a variety of contexts, such as business, government, and higher education. The second branch focuses on K-12 standardized testing reform--we call this the DiscoTest initiative (disco is latin for I learn; and the etymology goes to discovery, discourse, etc). Here we are building assessments for use in the classroom. The third branch is basically like a think tank that focuses on analyzing the copious amounts of data generated by our assessments, and on big picture questions about learning, education, and society.

(Information is available at:

Part II Dyslexia and reading...

M: You continuously amaze me with your contributions to the field of academics even though you have been diagnosed with dyslexia. How do you cope with all the academic reading and writing?

ZS: I am dyslexic, but I read a ton! I think with any learning disabled student motivation is the key. I got obsessed with philosophical issues in my early 20's, and the only way to get into them was to read. So I read and read and read, until it became second nature.  

It is also worth noting that dyslexia is a catchall term for poor readers, so not all dyslexics have the same problems. I don't think the form I have is a language disability--it's more like I have an a-typical visual field. For example, all my proof-reading problems went away when I got a larger computer monitor and enlarged the text on my display 200%. 

M: There are many teachers of children reading this column. Dyslexia may not be apparent in children using Japanese, but it may surface in English class. Is there a 'wrong' approach to teaching children with reading problems? What advice can you provide for teaching children with dyslexia, and other reading problems?

ZS: Emotion is critical to consider. Many of the most significant problems learning disabled students have often have nothing to do with their specific disability. Their biggest problems come from years of emotional negativity surrounding schooling. Often, learning disabled students are required to spend extra time on the things they are worst at, and they are reminded again and again of their deficiencies. That's just unfair. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and everyone should have a chance to work on both.  

M: Thanks Zak!

Murphy's comments:

I am always inspired when I think about Zak. He is a deep thinker and a very caring person. One can only imagine how much extra work he had to put in to combat his dyslexia and become a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is mind-boggling, isn't it?

Let's think about what he had to say in this interview. I found a lot to think about in Part 1 regarding testing. How much of our own testing here in Japan is not guilty of having some "bureaucratic function"? What should we do about this? What can we do about this? Part 2 of the interview introduces the importance of emotion. My own research tells me that emotion should be centerstage in pedagogic design (more on this in future columns!). What really hit me was Zak's comment about students being "required to spend extra time on things that they are worst at." As teachers we often assume that practice makes perfect -drilling a student over and over will help them master it. But what of the student's emotions? If the drilling is traumatic, how much learning will occur? Is it actually worth the mental scarring? Some teachers may just shrug their shoulders and say shikataganai (It can't be helped). What do you think? I'd like you hear your comments!

Next month (Aug 15th): Why "emotion should be centerstage in the classroom" and more neuro-myth busting! 

Leave a comment below, or send me an email directly at !

« How to engage the major neuro-networks in your classrooms! | Main | Kinky neurons in your brain! (or, Why should emotions be center stage in the classroom?) »


Hi Robert.

Congrats to you, both. Quite interesting subject. As far as I recall Testing-Assessment has always been used for grading, scaling and usually not to the best for subjects' own interests. But is not also, somehow, a way of motivation?

Hi Alberto!

Yes, I agree that testing certainly does often connect to motivation (and emotion). Depending on the context, it can raise or lower motivation. Part of what Zak is talking about in this interview is 'high stakes'. A low pressure assessment in a friendly classroom will probably not produce the same results as a 200 person test that will determine the next 40 years of your life. What do the results of those high stakes tests really tell us then? What do those high stakes tests do to the test takers in the long run? Who is benefitting from this situation anyway ? (the testing companies and the textbook writers!)

So, yes, testing can raise motivation in a 'roundabout way' as Zak put it -but perhaps it is time to consider the bigger picture. I think we have all fallen into a rut regarding testing practices. We all simply accept the faults and/or do not even seem them as faults anymore.

always i used to read smaller articles or reviews which also clear their
motive, and that is also happening with this article which I am reading now.

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