Teaching to the Test

By Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington.

I wonder if you noticed the recent study conducted by researchers at Oxford University. It should have rung a loud alarm bell and yet seemed to slip by largely unnoticed in the Christmas rush. The findings of the study suggest that the UK are among the world’s worst (or best) at teaching students to pass the exam at the expense of nurturing deep and lasting knowledge and understanding. According to the leader of the research, Professor Dorling, UK schools focus on short term knowledge acquisition to help pupils to pass tests; knowledge which is quickly forgotten.

Then in recent days, the World Education Forum focused its conference around what it calls The Fourth Industrial Revolution: the digitisation and automation of the workplace over the next five years and the changing skill set that will be needed to thrive in the new landscape. The WEF thinking resonates with a view I expressed in a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph (hyperlink here), in which I argued that the UK education system, which began to take on its present form in the mid-19th century, has stopped evolving, and the result is that we are failing to fully prepare the young people of today for the world they will live in tomorrow.

It is clear that all schools have to genuinely commit to an education which goes way beyond simply the acquisition of grades A*-C. We have to equip our children with the skills and aptitudes they need to live, thrive and survive in the future. Skills such a critical thinking, problem solving, independent thinking and learning, leadership and creativity.

 

Fears over GCSE exam shake up...File photo dated 10/6/2005 of school exams in progess. Teenagers will no longer be required to sit all their GCSEs after two years of study, under radical plans to break courses into 'bite sized' modules. PA wire

It all sounds very seductive so why does it seem so hard for schools to adopt this approach? It is perhaps easier to understand when we remember that our examination system – established in 1858, and little changed since – does not fully recognise these attributes but instead seems to place higher value on the recall of information and the application of the standard methods required to satisfy an overworked marker.   I believe that it is time for government and leading educators to come together to create a new strategic vision of how school and student assessment could evolve to meet the needs of current and future generations.

The problem is compounded by the annual beauty parade of newspaper league tables, in which schools are numbered and ranked based on statistics which take little or no account of a school’s context or its success in creating well-rounded, interesting, inspired students. The same students who will be happy and successful in their lives beyond school.

Schools, driven by the need to hit targets, satisfy stakeholders and compare well with their competitors, are often tempted to withdraw to the safest and easiest method of achieving good grades – “teaching to the test”. Worse still, there is often a temptation to make educational decisions which maximise grades at the expense of the students’ best interests. The greatest betrayal of all.

All of which makes the school league table – at least in its current form – much worse than an unnecessary distraction but, in fact, a key driver for poor educational practice.

Who is to blame? J’accuse….me (and probably you too). Anyone who has ever used the tables of raw results to compare one school over another. Anyone who has ever thought that School A is better than School B because it is 30 places higher in the list. We should recognise that there are exceptional schools outside the top 200 just as there may be mediocre schools inside the top 50. We simply cannot tell from the information provided. Yet we all collude in this harmful merry-go-round through our seemingly unquenchable fascination with measurement and comparison.

I have higher aspirations for Wellington College students than top examination results on their own, which is why we will no longer be conspicuous by our presence in the newspaper league tables. This simply means that we will not be providing data on request to newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the exam results season. At the same time, we will make sure that our results are clear for all to see, no more than one click away from the home page of our website. If people wish to make comparisons they are welcome to do so, but our own focus will be on other, more important, indicators of educational success.

The irony of all of this is that outstanding results and outstanding education do not have to be mutually exclusive. Changes to the curriculum and assessment procedures would be welcome but with the will, it is not impossible to provide a great education within the current system. What is required is for UK schools to approach teaching in a way that truly nurtures and inspires every child’s all-round potential. Excellent examination results will follow naturally. It is a bold step away from the comfort blanket of “teaching to the test” but one that all educators must take if we are to fulfil the Secretary of State’s vision of the UK as a world leader in character education. We still have a long way to go.