Teaching to the test – another point of view

point-of-veiw-2A point of view is a programme on radio 4 that allows certain well-read, highly educated individuals, usually with large vocabularies to express an opinion. It lasts 10 minutes and is often thought provoking, concluding with a rhetorical question that has no answer.

This week Will Self the novelist and journalist gave his point of view on teaching to the test, as you might imagine it caught my attention. Self starts by telling a story about the life of a “good student,” and how it would unfold. He describes the way in which their concentration intensifies when the teacher states that what they are going to learn next is important and often examined. The story continues, as a result of their diligence and technique, the “good student” gets the necessary grades to go to University. They don’t however select the University on the basis of the course of study or on what they passionately wish to learn, no its based on the Universities credibility in league tables.

Upon successfully gaining a degree the student, now an employee gets a desk job that rewards a similar style of rubric mentality. As an employee, they are assessed against targets, performing well only on the ones that promise promotion and a pay rise. Eventually they retire and die.

Self concludes that this ordinary, dull, uninspiring life started back in the classroom all those years ago, when the teacher failed to educate and inspire, and simply taught to the test.

Over egging the pudding

There is a logic to this story, and it sounds ever the more inevitable as Self narrates it in his black and grey voice. But that’s all it is, a story. It avoids detail and colour, offering little regard as to the individual’s ability to reflect at some point in their life and ask searching and probing questions. It is as if somehow because the teacher highlighted the importance of one piece of knowledge it somehow stifled the student’s capacity to one day think for themselves.  Self is how they say, overegging the pudding, taking an interesting question as to the impact teaching to the test might have and serving up an omelette.

Teaching to the test is not bad

Brunel university asked a question as to what makes an unmissable lecture. In addition to many arguably more commendable answers, including the passion of the tutor and because they wanted to learn, the likelihood of the subject being taught having a high probability of being in the exam was key. Suggesting that a specific topic might be on the exam paper firstly, ensured a good attendance and secondly guaranteed the student listened intently.

Attention is important but even for the diligent student focus is vital. Learning everything is simply not possible, faced with 20 chapters, the student needs some clue as to where they need to direct their energy and time. Of course, the educationist will say that everything is important, but saying that will not make it so. Knowing that something is examinable at least gives a starting point and helps guide the student through the material quickly and efficiently. It’s also worth adding that It does not exclude the need to be inquisitive, in fact by making the student read a particular topic it may inspire them to find out more.

Exams and exam answers also provide examples of what is expected and the standard the student must reach if they are to be successful, no amount of narrative in the student handbook or curriculum guidance will do this as effectively.

The type of assessment matters

Of course, in Selfs world, teaching to the test removes the need to do anything more than learn about what will be in the exam. He suggests that students need to think outside the box rather than simply tick them. I have to admit I like that sentence.

But he does have a point, if the test is so narrow that it only assesses memory or a very small part of the syllabus then that is all the student will focus on. But that is just a bad test, this is of course where I am in danger of becoming idealistic and painting a picture that is not a true reflection as to what is happening. Not all tests are good, and undoubtedly some students will pass with limited thought and little more than good memory skills. Yet with changes in technology it becomes ever more possible to build tests and simulations that asses the student ability to perform in real world situations, and for that matter think outside the box.

Teaching to the test has become a term used to describe bad teaching and poor assessment and no one would agree that either of these are desirable. But it is not the process that’s problematic, it’s the application. Testing in its many forms is part of learning but it needs done well and thoughtfully.

In conclusion

Having now read the blog I would encourage you to listen to Will Self – click. It is of course not for me to say who presents the right point of view, you need to make up your own mind. For those however who were taught to the test no matter how long ago, you probably won’t understand even what I am asking because to the best of my knowledge this question has never been tested before……………?