Testing not the Answer

Interesting to read of the interim report of Professor Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review this week, which delivers a fairly damning account of the state of primary education in England and Wales, claiming that children’s lives are being “impoverished” by the narrow focus on maths, numeracy and literacy at the expense of broader experiences in areas such as history and the arts. Unsurprisingly a government spokesperson immediately condemned the findings as flying in the face of international evidence and “insulting to hard-working teachers and schools everywhere”. The Cambridge report goes on to describe testing as “the elephant in the classroom” and to suggest that the narrow focus on preparing young people for tests in upper primary means that other areas of the curriculum are squeezed out.
There are two issues here. One is that if we continue to see literacy and numeracy as stand-alone “subjects” it will be difficult to make any progress in our thinking. That is why I could never understand the notion of initiatives such as “literacy hour”,  as the implication is that every other hour is not particularly a literacy hour even if, as I suspect,there is still much listening, talking, reading and writing going on! Much more important in my view is that we think about the ways in which learning and teaching take place in the classroom, at collaborative working, group interactions and the degree of responsibility taken on by learners and so on.
The second issue is that of testing. There is still a significant body of thought which believes that if we can only find the ideal test we will automatically raise levels of attainment – absolutely not true of course. In the case of literacy it is only by better understanding the processes of learning to read, think, comprehend, articulate, that improvements will come about, and it is only by engaging young people in imaginative activities, projects and experiences that they will come along the road with us at all. Yet still we have people talking about concentrating on “the basics” as if a return to rote learning might just do the trick. Forget it, it just isn’t going to happen.
Fortunately the curriculum review in Scotland at least begins to re-define literacy as “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful”. Despite the slightly disconcerting and repeated references to society, there is a recognition here, even if it is only an implicit one, that texts come in many forms, not all of them consisting of the written word. As someone said recently, the difference between pre and post-21st Century learners is that where once we would have used visual images to illustrate or further explain a written text, written text is now used to further explain the primary text, which is usually visual.
Coming next………Homework is Good – Another Urban Myth………..

5 thoughts on “Testing not the Answer

  1. The curriculum review in Scotland does indeed recognise the importance of critical literacy – making judgements about the validity of information received – which makes the definition of literacy quoted above, couched as it is in terms of what ‘society’ values and finds useful all the more unsatisfactory….

  2. But what will happen when a general election is called and the Rose Review, the Williams Report and the Cambridge Review all meet in the middle?

  3. Not sure that an election or change of government would make any difference to the situation whatsoever. I think politicians generally like tests because they create the illusion of rigour and “tackling the problem” when in fact they don’t really know how to make a difference.

  4. “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful”.
    Bill, I’ve got 2 thoughts about the CfE definition of literacy.

    First, I’m pleased that it defines ‘literacy’ as more than reading and writing, although I am extremely sceptical as to how widely this definition is shared, even (or especially) within the teaching profession.

    Secondly, I find the phrase “…which society values and finds useful” slightly creepy and very elusive. Whose society? Who defines ‘useful’? Were the Sex Pistols ‘useful’? Was Picasso? Is a film of Zidane?

  5. Quite agree Gordon. The literacy documentation and the outcomes themselves also give a very good definition of “texts” but I suspect a significant number of teachers are still uncomfortable with – or even unaware of – anything other than written text, usually, in the case of English teachers at least, with a heavy emphasis on fiction.
    Alan also picks up the point about “society” which does sit uneasily with the notion of critical thinkers. I couldn’t swear to it but that phrase wasn’t in the original text when I was (briefly) involved in putting thoughts together, but was added at a later date – I would hazard a guess due to political pressure!


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