Teaching to the test

Roger Titcombe's picture
The Independent of 21 Aug carried a claim from NAHT accusing schools of poor quality teaching for GCSE. NAHT further claim that this is a consequence of perverse incentives applied to schools and exam boards.

"Schools are teaching to the test during GCSE years rather than concentrating on improving their pupils' subject knowledge, a headteachers' leader warned today."

Kathryn James, director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, hit out at the "illogical situation" whereby schools are under pressure to improve their GCSE results at the same time as exams regulator Ofqual is charged with the duty of ensuring the overall pass rates remain steady."

Readers of my posts will recognise this as a regular theme of my central argument that floor targets, competition between schools and league tables are reducing, not raising standards.

So what is lost by 'teaching to the test'? This is the question that led the late Philip Adey, former Professor of Applied Psychology at King's College, London, to devote his professional life to seeking an answer. He was a chemistry teacher who became obsessed with the issue of 'difficulty'. Why do some students find some concepts more difficult than others and what can be done about it?

It would be hard to find any maths or science teacher that has not pondered this problem. But is this a major issue taxing the Senior Management Teams of our schools? NAHT is giving the answer that we all know to be true. 'Never mind the quality feel the width', the title of a popular sit-com first broadcast in 1967. I remember it well.

Philip Adey teamed up with Michael Shayer to develop practical strategies to effectively address the issue of how students can be helped to understand difficult concepts. See their book Learning Intelligence, Cognitive Acceleration Across the Curriculum from 5 to 15 years, Open University Press, 2002.

More recently this challenge has been taken up in the context of maths teaching by Sue Johnston-Wilder (Warwick University) and Clare Lee (Open University)*.

The following is extracted from their paper:

“Mathematical resilience describes that quality by which some learners approach mathematics with confidence, persistence and a willingness to discuss, reflect and research.”

We are clearly in the territory of Philip Adey and Michael Shayer.

“The more that we studied stories from people who exhibit mathematics phobia, and read the related literature, the more that it appeared to us that the way that mathematics is often taught in English mathematics classrooms is an unwitting form of cognitive abuse. Instances of ways of working thatseem calculated to cause anxiety are asking learners to perform tasks that require feats of memory at a rapid rate or to memorise formulae without understanding, in classrooms where the mathematics is divorced from the reality that it models so powerfully. These ways of working have been shown by many researchers (e.g.Boaler 2009, Jain & Dowson, 2009 and Baloglu & Koçak, 2006 ) to cause anxiety. Acting in such a way that many people are made to feel anxious, concerned or fearful seems to us to be acting in an abusive way.”

Johnston-Wilder and Lee are protesting about the use of behaviourist methods in the teaching of maths. These are the approaches that characterise 'teaching to the test'. Maximising the number of C grade GCSE passes in maths is increasingly the key to league table success and therefore keeping 'Executive Principals' in their jobs.

NAHT are drawing attention to the consequences of such poor teaching. Johnston-Wilder and Lee are setting out its characteristics, then going on to propose sound approaches that can succeed in engaging students in the pleasurable experience of deep learning.

Behaviourism, however, is not confined to what happens in classrooms. Such thinking now permeates the whole of the ideology of education led by the free market extremism of Michael Gove. It is reflected in the belief in 'strong management' backed by performance related pay.

This is what Archie Moffat posted as a response to my 'Thinking Bigger' thread.

"Everyone wants a magic bullet……No one wants to hear the possibility that what works in classrooms is often very simple indeed, very cheap, very boring and quite time consuming.

- Strong educational leadership
- Emphasis on the acquiring of basic skills
- High standards of attendance
- Punctuality
- Behaviour
- Hard work."

I reflect on a hypothetical hard working, compliant, diligent student, well equipped with 'basic skills', who attends school on time, every day, who can't understand what his/her maths/science teacher is on about.

Media celebrities and journalists frequently testify to their failure to engage with maths and science when they were at school. Many brag about it.

I find Archie's remedy deeply unhelpful. However Archie claims to have studied education and this is his summary of his experience.

‘As I explored this subject, what I didn’t expect was that the same rag-and-bone approach to belief and evidence familiar to the fringe worlds of quack medicine and lonely people sitting in their underpants, crying as they surfed the net, was so prevalent in education.’

In other words, basing teaching on studies of how children learn is just 'sociogabble'.

The truth is that we experienced teachers realise very well that there are 'no magic bullets'. Archie's simple six point recipe for making algebra and Newton's Laws of Motion accessible to all would indeed be a magic bullet if it worked.

All you need is discipline and common sense.  See here and here.

*Johnston-Wilder S & Lee C (2010), Developing mathematical resilience, in: BERA Annual Conference 2010, 1-4 Sep 2010, University of Warwick.
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