Testing their resilience

After nearly 3 decades of primary teaching, you’d think I’d have a secure philosophy, but we’re currently caught in the variable winds of different approaches, sometimes considered more traditional or more progressive, and often seeming to be contradictory.  I can’t follow the apparent narrow path of either, but I do question myself on what mine is. If anything, it’s that education is paramount – and by that I don’t mean ‘learning’ and I definitely don’t mean ‘attainment’ as I have blogged about here, before.

I tried to give my class an analogy last week. I drew it as a bowl into which different pieces of knowledge were put. There’s no predicting what will be useful knowledge, but what is certain is that the more there is and the wider the range, the better equipped they will be to link it together in an effective way. This bears no relationship to fixed notions of attainment, cleverness, ability, SEND, class or all the other supposed divisions this country likes to impose on its citizens. Anybody can add to their bowl of knowledge at any time.

With that in mind, I want to ride rough-shod over anything I see as an impediment to the education of each and every human being. It’s a global goal for good reason and it’s not difficult to think of examples where the high-attaining, poorly educated have had a negative impact on all of us – on the planet.

I try hard to explain to my pupils that the important thing is ‘knowing stuff’. They think it’s important to be ‘good at stuff’ and increasingly, I’m stunned by some of the reactions and self-denigration I’m seeing: a small error causes a child to throw their book on the floor; not immediately ‘getting’ long division makes another child throw his hands up and begin to weep; feeling like something is hard, stops one from ever tackling a new area. Simply talking ‘growth-mindset’ has no impact.

Is it really all the high-stakes testing culture that we’re in? Though I totally agree with the arguments against it, I struggle to accept that this is the issue completely – mainly because there has always been high-stakes testing, since I’ve been teaching, but this feels like a new phenomenon. I don’t think I’ve yet encountered pupils with such a fragile sense of their own ability to overcome small set-backs, no matter how much I tell them that learning happens when we put right what we got wrong.

Recent whole-staff CPD seems to pull us in opposite directions. In some, we’re to challenge pupils to step outside their comfort zone. In others, the stress of our system is damaging their mental health. It’s difficult to know when to persevere and when to back off. I’ve always found it hard to do the latter. I’m a fan of tests, for example, even when they’re not embraced by every child in the class. In the past, they were tested regularly on old SATs papers, without any of the symptoms I’m seeing recently. Tests help us establish what we can remember and identify what we don’t know. Furthermore they aid memory. This is now common knowledge, though it wasn’t six years ago when I first came across Roediger‘s work.

This year, a SATs-style arithmetic test caused Ferdy* to cry and put his head on the desk when we marked them. The second one caused him to wail when it was announced. He was furious with himself again when we marked them. He wasn’t ‘doing badly’ he just wasn’t perfect. It was nearly impossible to help him with the misconceptions that we could identify – it was like he thought it was magic and he didn’t have the special ability. At this point it seemed like cruelty to force the poor lad to go through more. I was conscious however, that it’s not actually torture – it’s just maths. I feel pretty sure that giving up and giving in – avoidance – reinforces the negativity and doesn’t help Ferdy in the long run. So I persevered and gave them all another, two weeks later, and then another. Ferdy has pretty much sorted out every misconception that was revealed in the first test. He correctly calculated all the long divisions – his nemesis. So it paid off. Ferdy’s sense of his ability to overcome obstacles is strengthened and he’s very pleased with himself. It’s a bit of a relief to me, too.

 

*He’s not really called Ferdy.

 

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