When people learn that I’ve worked in education all my life they often ask my opinion – not in general but particularly assessment and curriculum. "You were an English teacher. What do you think about the decline of grammar?" Let’s park that one for a later blog. Let’s look at assessment.
I failed my first driver’s licence test. I was a university student. My stepfather had paid for lessons. But doing a u-turn on a Cashmere hill street in Christchurch I got the wheel stuck in the gutter and couldn’t back out. A few weeks later I had another go, This time I passed. But by no means was I a competent and effective driver. Seventeen years later I was appointed as an Inspector of Secondary Schools. Part of my preparation was a defensive driving course. The instructor complemented me upon my driving and said I was a natural defensive driver. I had learnt a lot of lessons along the way.
As a secondary school inspector I saw many science lessons. Every now and then an experiment didn’t work. And to have a ‘beak’ - as we were known - in the room as well, what a situation.. Basically, teachers had two methods of coping with this circumstance. The first was to explain what should have happened, write it up on the board and the students copied it down and were told to learn it for the exams. The others tried to get the kids to analyse why the experiment had failed. The fortunate ones could try again. Those, whose resource had been consumed in the first attempt, used chalk and talk, often some good lessons.
I thought of those experiences when I read the Royal Society in England has slammed top science school exams there on the grounds that they failed to prepare young people for the world of work or for university. The Society claimed that the exams concentrated on a narrow range of skills and a regurgitating of facts rather than encouraging students to experiment. It said: "we need a system of assessment that fuels pupils’ enthusiasm for the subject by opening up this exciting world of problem solving, discovery and innovation while at the same time supporting factual learning."
School exams were a holy cow in our society. People berate me about the so-called removal of exams. "I sat School C and it did me no harm." "What good did it do you?" "I’d three passes". "What had you learnt?" That’s the question that usually stumps them. They’d learnt to pass exams. Schools are about learning and we keep forgetting that. We tend to get so obsessed with assessments and measurement that we forget the many other reasons why schools exist.
Education is the human attempt to put systems and resources into place to assist learning – and if we are honest, to control it. Learning is something we all do. Learning has always been life-long, and increasingly education is seen as such. We learn by failure as well as success. Indeed, failure is the norm - at first. A child learning to walk falls many times before he or she confidently stays upright. We learn individually, but we also learn together. We learn by moving from the known to the unknown. Secondary teachers work with young people who are making the transition from dependence to independence. Becoming fully human means at some stage taking responsibility for your own learning needs – present jargon is, to take ownership.
The National Certificate in Educational Achievement, NCEA, has been promoted by successive governments. It’s an attempt to have a more sensible assessment of student learning and achievement, an essential building block for a knowledge society. It is an attempt to provide what the Royal Society calls the "exciting world of problem solving, discovery and innovation." Admittedly, the method of implementation created some problems. Discussion – sometimes heated - about that implementation clouded the basic issue.
In a midden near Hadrian’s Wall in the U.K. a child’s lesson from the second century A.D. was unearthed - a very poor copy of a passage from Virgil. At the bottom the teacher had scrawled, "sloppy". History doesn’t tell us whether an accurate copy was ever done. But we know a lot more about learning now. Schools exist to assist learning. We need to remember that when we talk about student failure and success.