“[I]s anyone surprised that a huge swath of our population can’t speak intelligently about the larger issues that face us? No doubt, the financial mess we’re in and climate change and the Middle East and the rest are complex, fast changing issues that can be difficult for anyone to keep up with. (I’m no exception.) But again, have our schools really been cultivating the learning dispositions needed to grapple with those topics as they evolve? We give a lot of lip service to problem solving and critical thinking and the like, but I’m not convinced that those and other really important skills and literacies are showing up meaningfully in more than 10% of classrooms in this country because in large measure, they’re not on the test. It’s about content and knowledge, not learning.” (Will Richardson)
My son, Ben, is four years old. He’s just finished his first year in school nursery and will move up to Reception class in September. For international readers, it’s important to bear in mind that in England children do not have to go to school until they are five years old – we could have chosen to enrol him in January 2012. He’s very much enjoyed wearing his school uniform, meeting new people and learning new things. Ben loves going to school.
There’s two classes next year into which Ben and his friends are to be divided. Both are Reception/Year 1 mixed. To cut a long story short, the rumour went around the parents at the school gate that one was a ‘more able’ class and one a ‘lower ability’ class (which, from a teacher’s perspective is ridiculous: you’d just split them into Reception and Year 1). In addition, my neice who has just finished Reception (in a different school) has just been scored at 104 out of 117. For what, you may ask? Exactly. But we’re all proud of her anyway.
The Perils of Testing
The amount of testing that children in my family will undertake during their educational career is even more than my wife and I had to undertake when we were at school. And that was more than enough. Testing is a form of competition which seems to be the dominant discourse in society. This saddens me. In the quotation from Will Richardson above he’s concerned that teachers focus unduly on the test. As a former teacher who attempted to rebel against such a system I can confirm that, at the end of the day, it’s a choice between selling-out (and teaching to the test) or quitting. My wife, a Primary school teacher, and I have both been asked several times in our careers to change teacher assessments because they didn’t demonstrate linear progress when plotted on a graph. That’s just not acceptable; if children’s progress is to be charted it should be done properly.
A data-driven culture in schools would be fine if the numbers in a spreadsheet mattered less than the individual child, but I’m not sure that they do. As I explained in Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy? these numbers stay with, and label children, throughout their educational career. It’s performativity at its worst: to be successful children have to learn how to ‘do school’ rather than learn those things which will help them function in society.
When my son Ben stops enjoying doing something he moves onto something else. And that’s fine by me – although I’m fairly hot on discipline, I work with his interests and attention span. Whilst I’m confident that this has been the case this year whilst he’s been in school nursery, I’m not so sure it will continue throughout his educational career. Unless our family manage to instil in him a growth mindset he’s likely to equate test results with some kind of ‘inate ability’. That’s dangerous territory.
What happens when children start demonstrating what Carol Dweck calls ‘fixed’ mindsets? If they’re successful they choose the easy option to prove their ‘intelligence’. If they’re not so successful they’re liable to disengage with schooling. For some, this involves staring out the window, for others poor behaviour, and for yet others voting with their feet. According to The Guardian truancy is on the rise – and it’s increasing even in Primary schools.
I think we need to step back and take stock. As with Purpos/ed (asking what is the purpose of education?) we need to ask what is the purpose of assessment? Once we understand that perhaps we’ll be able to decide whether we care about PISA, whether high-stakes testing does more harm to our society than good, and whether what we’re currently doing is conducive to developing growth mindsets in young people.
Perhaps a good place to start would be investing in meaningful continuing professional development for teachers and trusting their judgements? Now there’s an idea.
A Post-test school
What would an education system look like that had moved beyond testing? Perhaps we should look at Finland. According to this article, the Fins manage to do very well without high-stakes testing:
There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism, they can trust their teachers. Their motto is “Trust Through Professionalism.” The difference between the highest performing school in Finland and the lowest performing school in Finland is less than four percent, and that’s without any testing at all.
I believe a post-test school would be collaborative instead of competitive. It would be project-driven. The staff would be happy and the children relaxed. Truancy would be minimal.
But how, I hear you ask, would universities and employers decide who to employ? How would we identify talent?
Again, I think we need to step back and look at the wider picture and challenge the paucity of our collective imagination. It baffles me why we abstract away from personality and interests to represent ourselves on paper in black and white, sending an application to persons unknown at an educational institution or organization we barely know. Far better would be to change the whole system, to predicate it upon relationships and much richer, informative and – yes – passionate representations of ourselves. Why not have such institutions and businesses approaching young people and job hunters rather than the other way around?
I don’t know of anyone who knows about education in the UK who thinks that the status quo is desirable or tenable. Everyone is dissatisfied and the elephant in the room is our assessment regime. Let’s do something about it. Let’s kick up a fuss. Let’s tell the world that whilst we’ve got qualifications of which we may be proud, they’re not necessarily relevant or desirable for our children. And while we’re at it, let’s get back to human relationships rather than children-as-spreadsheets.
Who’s with me?
Image CC BY-NC-SA COCOEN daily photos