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Forgetting it over the holidays

27 Jun 09 | Re: Teaching and testing

Good news, everyone: the Conservatives have thought of a new solution to the problem of Key Stage 2 testing. How do you find out how much children have learnt in primary school without incentivising teachers to spend the whole of Year 6 on intensive test preparation? The latest idea, and it seems like it might be a good one, is to delay the tests until the first year of secondary school.

The big advantage of this model is that it ought to put enough distance between primary teachers and the tests to make them abandon repetitive pre-test drilling and spend Year 6 on rich, broad, relaxed, fun activities. Of course, there are certain practical questions that would need to be answered, for example how to manage the increased workload for secondary teachers. But there’s one objection which has been raised by primary teachers that to me seems absolutely incomprehensible.

A couple of teachers quoted in the article I read complained that the proposed scheme was unfair because by the start of Year 7, pupils would have forgotten a lot of what they had been taught in Year 6! I wonder what these teachers think the point of teaching is, if the kids are only going to remember it for a couple of months. This, in fact, is the problem with the tests teachers all hate so much: they are rewarded for cramming children’s minds with knowledge (or a facsimile of knowledge) in the short term, at the expense of instilling the genuine interest in what they are doing that is essential if they are going to gain any long-term benefit.

Instead of sticking by what they know to be right, these teachers (presumably representative of at least a subset of the profession) have allowed their entire view of education to be dictated by the teach-test-forget model. This is just the same model that has crept into modular degrees and A-levels: students are tested so often that they spend all their time ‘revising’ for the next exam, and no time actually learning, getting to know and enjoying the subject. The result is ever-increasing exam scores, and no knowledge of the subject whatsoever in five years’ time - in fact, they actively want to forget the whole experience.

So I’m hoping this proposal for primary testing (or another equally sensible one) will be adopted, and the same common-sense thinking will then be applied to the rest of the education system. Take the pressure off pupils and students, give them some breathing space, and maybe they will learn out of interest rather than fear of the next exam. And if they can’t be interested in something, let them not learn it. They’ll only forget it over the holidays anyway.

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