Teaching to the test

The following comprises Section 3.6 in, ‘Learning Matters’.

The Independent of 21 August 2014 carried a claim from the National Association of Headteachers (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.

So what is lost by ‘teaching to the test’? This is the question that led Philip Adey, Professor of Applied Psychology at King’s College, London, to devote his professional life to seeking an answer (1.5 in, ‘Learning Matters‘). 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, or for that matter teachers of English literature exploring concepts of parody, satire and an allegory.

Teaching to the test deflects from the necessity of helping students identify precisely what it is that they don’t understand and how such understanding can be achieved. If a student just ‘doesn’t get it’, this barrier cannot be overcome through acts of memory or repetition. Concepts have to be ‘developed’ in stages, not learned.

But is this a major issue taxing the ‘Executive Principals’ of our schools or is it a case of,  ‘Never mind the quality feel the width’, the title of a popular sit-com first broadcast in 1967. 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 as is explained in their book Learning Intelligence (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)*. I return to their work in Part 5 of ‘Learning Matters‘. This is from their paper, Developing mathematical resilience presented at the 2010 BERA annual conference. It can be read and downloaded here:

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 that seem 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 (1.8 of ‘Learning Matters‘) in the teaching of maths. These are the approaches that characterise ‘teaching to the test’.

Over a year later we find an article in TES relating teaching to the test to PISA findings.

Despite frequent references to the poor performance of English pupils in the PISA tests there is nothing currently emerging from the DfE or the present Secretary of State for Education to suggest any changes any time soon.



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1 Response to Teaching to the test

  1. Pingback: School improvement is reducing social mobility | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

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