After writing recently about the need for test reform, I was reminded that there really are teachers out there who see testing as harmful. Instead of viewing it as a useful opportunity for both teachers and pupils to get an objective view of progress, spot knowledge gaps and rectify them, they see tests as a threat to self esteem, or an arbitrary imposition that does not promote learning.
Given the flawed nature of the high stakes tests that are used in England, this view is understandable. As I argued previously, there is a strong case for reforming them so that they are simpler and more objective, to avoid fiddly box ticking and the consequent teaching to the test.
But my recent online interlocutors do not seem interested in testing reform, because they have made up their minds that testing is intrinsically bad. One argued that it was wrong to have any compulsory tests at all. I pointed out that when something is important it is not optional. When I tell my children to tidy their rooms, it is not optional, and for two reasons. Firstly, I want them to develop good habits of tidiness and consideration for others. Secondly, because I am their father and therefore in authority over them. They must not grow up thinking that their will is supreme, that they are the centre of the universe. If they are allowed to remain under that misconception, they will make lousy students and employees, not to mention unbearable spouses. This is really important, and I really care about it, so it is not optional. I am not going to say to them, “Tidy your room if you feel like it, but hey, it’s up to you!”
I really care about whether my own children mature into reasonable, responsible adults with self-discipline and good habits. I want this for my pupils as well. I would be neglecting my duty if I allowed them to follow their feelings and have their way. Building cultural capital is really important, so doing a test to find out whether one has mastered core knowledge is not optional. But even more is at stake than cultural literacy. In my classroom, pupils encounter an adult who cares enough about them to thwart their will repeatedly, who cares enough about them to insist they work whether they like it or not. If this comes as a shock to them, it’s all the more vital that I persevere. Learning you are not the centre of the universe is even more important than learning about Shakespeare.
I appreciate the opportunity afforded by the online comments of committed progressivists. It is a refutation of the oft repeated claim that ‘no one believes that anyway, so why are you arguing against imaginary opponents?’ Andrew Old describes the shift in approach used by those who have sought to silence him over the years in his essay in Changing Schools. At first they told him that no one agreed with him, then that he was encouraging a dangerous minority, then that no one disagreed with him, so why keep going on about it?
Articulate Guardian readers who really believe in progressive dogma keep me on my toes, and stimulate my thinking. I hope to encounter many more vigorous opponents on whom I can sharpen my thinking in the years to come.
I welcome them on my blog, but I do wonder what it must be like to be taught by them. Do they stand in front of their class as another test looms and tell them that tests are not important, and that they think they should be optional? Or do they avoid explicit attacks, but communicate their contempt for the whole ‘oppressive’ and ‘arbitrary’ system in other ways, like avoiding using regular low stakes testing themselves as a normal part of their teaching? For the pupils of such teachers, tests really would be likely to become a frightening thing, and something to be resented. Their teacher has taught them to have that attitude. Instead of saying ‘here’s another great opportunity to show what you can do’, the teacher tells them, whether by word or deed, that this is merely another opportunity for the evil system to grind them down.
Whatever the flaws with the current testing regime, a positive, can-do attitude is going to get us all a lot further. Like it or not, life is full of challenges and obstacles that we must overcome to be successful. Sour-faced, resentful bitterness and moaning about the unfairness of the system will not enable anyone to succeed.
Teachers who trendily ‘buck the system’ and ‘inspire’ their pupils to do the same are setting them up for failure. It’s akin to the ‘radical’ teachers who tell their pupils that it is the racist system which is keeping them down. We don’t have to pretend that racism doesn’t exist any more than we must pretend that the current testing system is perfect. In both cases though we must build knowledge, confidence and articulacy in our pupils, and help them see tests, whether written tests in school or oral tests in college or job interviews, as positive opportunities to show what they know, and find out what they don’t know so that they can do even better the next time.