This is an image of Belgian artist René Magritte‘s famous painting “The Treachery of Images“, painted in 1928-29 when Magritte was 30 years old. I’m sure it would take several art history courses to discuss what it means so I won’t try, but I will share my opinion.

Magritte is quoted as saying “…it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe,” I’d have been lying!”. Magritte is discussing the nature of representations. He’s saying that no matter how good a representation is, it can never be the thing that it represents. There is always something lost.

No matter how good a painting of a pipe is, it isn’t a pipe. You can’t stuff and smoke it. A musical recording isn’t the same as hearing a musician live. A sporting event watched on TV is not the same as seeing the game live. You can make the argument that they are, in some ways, better (“a painting of a pipe doesn’t stink up my house!”) but no one would ever say they are the same.

So it is with learning and testing. Learning is a live construction of understanding that teachers have a chance to facilitate and observe. We provide opportunities and support and hope it happens. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. We give feedback and try to do what we can to improve on it, build on it, take it further. And we share our observations with the learners and with others because that improves the learning.

At some point (I’m not sure when), and for reasons I’m unclear, some people decided they did not trust teachers. When teachers said learning was happening these others said “Prove it!”. The results of trying to prove learning to those outside the process is standardized testing.

What the users and proponents and advocates of standardized testing fail to grasp is that test scores only represent learning, they cannot “be” learning. A student may score well on a test but that information may be lost the next day because it was not “learned”.

I “learned” all the molecular variations of the Krebs Cycle and could regurgitate them and get a high grade in Organic Chemistry, but that information was gone from my brain within a few days. I can still, however, vividly remember details from CS Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” as read to me by Mrs. Dickinson in class 6 at St Stephen’s CE School in Burnley, Lancs. I can remember where I was sitting in the room, the quality of the light and the sound of her voice. I can remember the images I created in my head of the mighty Aslan. This “deep learning” took years to build as I revisited it and built connection after connection to it.

Standardized testing will never accurately assess learning because learning doesn’t work that way. Some things I teach my students this year won’t ‘click’ until later, when they are ready for them or when their minds open to them. Learning’s a complex and complicated process and can’t be accurately reduced to numbers. At some point we have to trust the learners. As my grandmother Hannah Green often reminded me, “a watched pot never boils, love”.

The numbers can act as a loose guide to help with instruction. They can shine a light on certain areas and illuminate some parts and make them easier to see. They can hint at areas of weakness and help to guide instruction in the hands of a skilled teacher. But they are useless to someone sitting in an office, away from the messy learning, someone who is trying to figure out whether learning is occurring.

No matter how much they want it to be, this is not a pipe.