Education expert admired by Gove warns against excessive testing

Janet Downs's picture
"Usually, these sorts of ratings come with lots of caveats, and people forget the caveats. People see a number and they think, ah, this is the best high school. It's more complex than that."

These words, spoken by Professor Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia (Guardian, 29/12/12), caution against relying solely on league table rankings to judge schools. He also warns that tests can distort what is taught.  The curriculum can become skewed towards transmitting facts because facts are easy to examine.

Willingham’s warning echoes the advice of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development*: an excessive emphasis on raw exam results in England risks teaching-to-the-test, ‘gaming’ and ignoring essential non-cognitive skills which are difficult to measure.

Education Secretary, Michael Gove, admires Willingham. He cited his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, in his November speech to the Independent Academies Association. On the face of it, the speech, critiqued here for its dodgy use of data, defended liberal education. But Gove reduced Willingham’s “pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought” to one thing: passing exams. He took one of Willingham’s cognitive principles, that factual knowledge precedes skills, and used it to support his examination reforms.

But Willingham’s principle was more nuanced: knowledge is intertwined with skills and they are learnt together. Gove may show he understands this, at least when addressing an audience of teachers, but the Government’s policies undermine his rhetoric. His proposed high-stake exam reforms risk the dangers that Willingham and the OECD warn about. His praise of liberal education is undermined by excessive focus on league table position, not just of schools, but of English education in a global context (his Department’s press release of 11 December focused mainly on international rankings of English pupils). His proposed primary curriculum risks replacing the “liberal, humane values of primary education” in favour of a “soulless bottom line of the politician”.

Willingham gives Gove the benefit of the doubt, "There's every indication from the speech that he understands the dangers of how his words might be interpreted, that people will take this to mean, we need rote memorisation, we need facts at the expense of critical thinking," he said. "He went to some pains to say that's not what I mean. But if people see a test as having very high stakes, there's a chance they might take it that way anyway."

Unfortunately, that chance increasingly looks like a certainty.

*OECD Economic Review of the UK 2011. Not available freely online but details of how to obtain a copy are here.

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Leonard James's picture
Sat, 29/12/2012 - 16:32

It's been a while since I read Willingham's book but I'm pretty sure he doesn't provide a ringing endorsement of the sort of pedagogy favoured by some of the regulars on LSN either. I think there is a real danger that you are cherry picking from Willingham's body of work as much as Gove is - for example your statement that skills and facts need to be learnt together contradicts one of Willingham's cognitive principles (factual knowledge must precede skill).

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 29/12/2012 - 17:24

Leaonard - from Willingham's book:

"...the cognitive processes that are most esteemed - logical thinking, problem solving, and the like - are intertwined with knowledge: it is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value. It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge." (p46)

and "...we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicising critical and thinking skills." (p29).

It's not a question of either/or but both as discussed here:

Willingham made it quite clear to the Guardian that they were dangers in interpreting his work as endorsing "rote memorisation" and "facts at the expense of critical thinking". He did not think that Gove was doing this but he was concerned that other people might interpret it in this way especially when there are high stakes test.

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 07:52

Just because it is easier to think critically about topics you know lots about isn't necessarily a call to teach both facts and thinking skills simultaneously - I'm pretty sure that Willingham advocates imparting knowledge about a topic before expecting students to tackle problems associated with it - hence the cognitive principle I mentioned earlier.

Furthermore Willingham's suggestion that knowledge and thinking skills are taught in parallel is not a suggestion that knowledge and thinking skills surrunding a topic are taught simultaneously (paralell lines do not cross so are not intertwined). It is the intertwined bit I have a problem with along with the suggestion that teachers get children to acquire knowledge on the job (aka during the problem solving not before it). 'Twenty first' century educationalists are (Ken Robinson and Andreas Schliecher) all for devaluing knowledge in this way and last time I looked most of the LSN regulars are in agreement with their methods.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 09:24

Leonard - you're correct. Something that is intertwined can't also be parallel. But the mixed metaphors came from Willingham. And it was Willingham who told the Guardian that there was a danger that his book could be misinterpreted to suggest that memorisation of facts by rote should supplant critical thinking and that high-stakes testing made this misinterpretation more likely.

But discussing teaching methods (skills v content, or both) risks going off-thread. The main point is that an academic praised by Gove is warning Gove about excessive testing and the simplistic use of league tables.

Of course, it's not the first time that someone praised by Gove has turned round and criticised him. Andreas Schleicher, described by Gove as "the most important man in English education", has also done so.

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 10:32

I don't think Willingham has presented any mixed metaphors - you are interpreting his call for parallel teaching of knowledge and thinking skills as a call for knowledge and thinking skills to be taught simultaneously when Willingham says knowledge should come first.

Gove's problem is that he thinks teachers will teach to the test because they have misunderstood what has been said. This isn't the problem - a lot of teachers understand what is being said but teach to the test anyway because that is what the system, his system, forces them to do in many situations - as ever Gove's management style is preventing the best teaching methods being used on the ground (no idea why discussing methods is going off topic - surely Gove and Willingham are at odds over method here). I like Willingham a lot and since Gove apears to agree with him in principle makes him far more useful than many progressive educationalists.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 21:10

Are there any academics at all who are substantially supportive of Michael Gove?

FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 21:17


FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 17:20

Teaching to the test pre-dates Gove by many years.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 21:32

I have a rather different (but overlapping perspective) on the skills versus content thing which I explore in the parts of my maths education blog which start here:

Essentially I'm not distinguishing between skills and content. I'm distinguishing between students learning established mathematical knowledge (learning to acquire knowledge from others) and students learning to mathematise for themselves (that is they learn to explore situations and to try to work out which maths to use and invent it for themselves or be supported to acquire through guided discovery when they have identified the need - the constructivist approach).

I believe both activities involve students developing personal skills and both should involve them learning established knowledge. Obviously it's easier to ensure they learn a particular skills set when the are using the first methodology.

Prior to 2003 most educators believed it was best for students to spend most of their time in the first methodology but to do some extended projects where they could develop the second. Some preferred to focus on the second and then to have specific periods of exam preparation where they worked in the first but this tended to disappear due to Ofsted although it was adopted by Finland and has flourished there.

When I started to write about the impact of web based technology on maths education in 2003 I suspected that the balance would change and by 2007 products such as mymaths were sufficiently well established to demonstrate that in action. I was able to run my department with a great deal more teaching of the second type because my students were also working through the online teaching of the curriculum with mymaths through their homework and I was monitoring their progress and filling gaps in real time. Because we did a great deal of teaching of the second type we were able to cover most topics - many several times - so the online teaching was accessible to students - they weren't starting from scratch. I also used individual examples as starter questions to demonstrate and reinforce correct notation and fluency of recall.

My change in methodology was particularly necessary in the circumstances I was working in because I had mixed attainment (or very wide spreads of attainment) classes
of very challenging students. The school I was working in was in special measures with maths results being a stated cause because the standard approaches which has been brought in from other schools had failed with the cohort there. They needed to be engaged with the rich and applied tasks which actually suited them. They couldn't start by being 'force-taught' topics which many of them already understood and were far too hard for others because there was no way they would behave. They'd broken too many teachers who'd tried that for them to engage with teachers who tried the same again.

So this change in the balances of teaching established knowledge vs. constructivism was highly relevant to my situation and would have been less important for teachers who were not facing the challenges I faced. However I think the journey I took is becoming more relevant as students have access to online explanations in any topic such as those provided by Wolfram Alpha to support their engagement with rich and applied activities.

One of the main criticisms of constructivist teaching in the past was that children would develop their own weird ideas and non standards notations, but tools like Wolfram Alpha change that.

Sorry I'm off topic Janet but I find all this fascinating. I've marked many assignments on this topic and the insights NQTs have because they've studied this are valued by schools and set them apart from less recently qualified teachers.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 21:48

Oh dear that was a bit lengthy. Sorry!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 11:45

Roger Titcombe has started a thread which deals more explicity with teaching methods so discussion would be better there. This would avoid interesting comments about methodology being lost:

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