When I was delivering training in a school just before Christmas last year I was asked by one teacher why I thought it was that students no longer had the love and enthusiasm for literature or history that characterised her time in school. I answered her question with one of my own asking when the last time was she’d taught a text for anything other than for the exam and she said she hadn’t.
This came to mind a while ago when I was presenting about Trafalgar College at TLT15 in Southampton and more recently when the subject of testing was in the media and our minds once again. In a career that’s pushing two decades I don’t think I’ve ever felt the need to teach to the test. I’ve taught classes that have taken tests from SATs to A Level and they’ve always done well but that’s not the same thing. I’ve taught children in GCSE classes but I never just taught them GCSE English or Literature – I taught them how to communicate in written and verbal forms, how to read and understand, and how to explore the world, its cultures and histories through poetry prose and drama.
When you’re teaching somebody poetry they can quite often understand poetry, be able to discuss it and explain the meanings and the ideas that the poet is trying to express but not be able initially to write about it. Similarly, when I was working with a fantastic music teacher last week she discussed how students are encouraged within her subject to “show me if you can’t tell me.” If I assessed my poetry students and her the musicians by their ability to write up their understanding as the first thing we did then not only would they look as if they had no understanding but they would most likely lose confidence in their ability to understand and interpret music or poems. The same is true of Maths lessons where students make an error somewhere in an equation and then through the sets of questions presented to them make the same mistake again ten or twenty times over and walk away thinking they can’t do Maths. These psychological standpoints and mindsets are incredibly difficult to shift and do long term damage to students who have a belief that they ‘can’t do’ which overshadows what they genuinely can and we should be aware of any actions that we take which might create or reinforce these feelings.
I also remember discussing with a colleague his plan for baseline testing on arrival into a department and questioning whether this was the most dynamic way to introduce students to high school. Even leaving aside the fact that we had assessments from the feeder schools, examples of work and the fact that we know performance in a period of transition dips so these results would be skewed I’m just not convinced that sitting a test is likely to lead to students rushing home to tell their parents what a great school they’ve signed up to. Or have them rushing back in the morning for more.
So all of this would make it seem like I’m about to get on the bandwagon and shout about how weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter and how testing is going to diminish students’ chances of a rounded education was we all abandon anything other than lessons upon lessons, days upon days and term after term of preparing for tests, testing and the testing again. Well I would do if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s within our gift to make this situation our reality or do something different.
I have no issue with testing. Just like I have no issue with a ‘traditional’ curriculum. Or a curriculum with a heavy vocational element. What I do take issue with is the sense that the final outcome or assessment is seen as being the controlling influence in everything that we do, and it’s really down to us to make sure that this isn’t the case. For us as teachers to see that if we teach students the subjects that we love and do so in a well considered and rounded way that when we test them along the way to see progress and when they come to that final assessment they’ll do well in those tests. For us to maybe consider the counter-productive nature of “teaching to the test” not just in terms of the long term understanding or passion for the subject but also in terms of test performance itself, as the ability to deal with unexpected questions that weren’t drilled into the students just isn’t there – never mind the boredom and lack of interest from the constant repetition. For us to realise that we have the power to do this and control it in our own classrooms and to maybe borrow from the Hi Tech High teacher who responded to a question about exam preparation with, “Everything we teach them in the exam is harder than anything they do in the exam so they ace them.”
As I’ve written before sometimes we feel powerless in teaching with the number of changes around us but that doesn’t mean that we are powerless in every aspect of what we do or that we should hand over the power that we have because sometimes, just sometimes, it’s easier to bend with the rainfall rather than stand up and take ownership. But who does that help? I remember an A Level English group I once shared made up in the larger part of students I’d taught Media Studies to at GCSE and a number of who I was also teaching A Level Media to. I’d seen these students devour adverts, magazine covers, film posters, hours of documentary working independently in Media for a couple of years and they did the same in the A Level Media lessons but when tasked with taking some verses of a poem or pages of a novel in an A Level English class they were at a loss. Before we start to get carried away with accusations of Mickey Mouse subjects and the ridiculous notion of studying the media I can tell you it’s nothing to do with that and if you want to get into a debate about the narrative complexities of the Sopranos as opposed to Gulliver’s Travels, well, that’s for another time! I was baffled by their inability to analyse and the way that a group of students who were so independent, articulate and confident with one sort of text were so lost with another and as to why they seemed to be waiting for me to tell them all of the answers.
The answer was simple. As well as having me for GCSE Media and then A Level (and half of their English as well – poor buggers) they’d had the same teacher for English at both key stages and had learned that the way you do well was to copy the notes about the poem from the board into your anthology, learn the model answer, and reproduce it when asked. Reduced to a basic level this is like being told ten points being asked ten questions and getting ten out of ten – everyone does well, everyone feels happy, nobody learns very much.
This isn’t meant to be a condemnation of the teacher. They were a good teacher but this was in a time where progress wasn’t a factor and getting children to a C or above was the be all and end all so playing to this and playing it safe that’s what happened. But what of the students who ended up on C that should have been B or A? What about the ones who started with the creativity to push to A* answers who had it dulled by the routine? What about the student who got so turned off that they dropped below the golden threshold?
It’s that damned system again!
But it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t need to be. In the same corridor there I was with the naivety of being relatively new to the profession or arrogance of youth(!) but I wasn’t holding back or giving answers to be parroted back to me. That’s not what English is about is it? Or history? Or science? Within our classrooms we have the power and the influence and we can make sure that the final destination doesn’t determine the first step of the journey. I know that at some point my poetry student will need to write and exam answer in the same way that the music student will need to account for themselves on a written paper – and to be fair if we can’t get students to the point where they can’t express themselves coherently through writing then we have failed to foster and important life skill – but there is absolutely nothing that means we can’t explore the subject and develop an understanding in a raft of other ways before we get there. As I mentioned before a friend of mine expresses this through the metaphor of train tracks saying that we educate children on one track with a mind to what’s going on on the other before switching points to the exam track when we need to.
Of course school leaders have a key role to play here. When Tom Sherrington wrote his ‘What if there were no Oftsed etc…’ tweet telling teachers to do it anyway it was for me both a call to arms for the profession as well as an empowering message and as school leaders, at whatever level, we need to make sure that we are giving this confidence to our teachers. Not to indulge in a free for all but to be able to teach to the very best of their abilities and not be hamstrung by the method of assessment. We have to create the environment where teachers who feel that this is a risky approach (good teaching is risky????) in an anxious and risk averse profession not just feel ok doing this but recognise that it is the best way to get the best results in the assessments that they feel they are currently preparing for by staying within ‘Mind forg’d manacles.’
So no, this isn’t a rant against testing. Nor is it meant to suggest that the current assessment situation is perfect. Testing can’t be ignored and is often useful as a diagnostic or a measure of where we are so far. It’s certainly something that can motivate students and we can’t escape from the fact that in the end for us – and crucially our students – exam performance is the final measure and the key to the next set of doors. Like I’ve said keep an eye of that other train track. It’s more against what to me to be simplistic and defeatist arguments around ideas such as, “teaching to the test,” or, “exam factories,” and the suggestion that testing is in someway inherently linked to dull teaching or mindless robot students – it is possible to be happy and nurtured and do well! Don’t allow yourself or your teachers to get trapped like that and don’t hide behind it as a reason not to stretch, challenge and excite your students.
We’re better than that.
Lots of Love