What Do We Learn?

5 08 2009

Firstly, let me apologise for hugely infrequent blogging of late. The last month has been a touch hectic, and hence blogging has fallen to the bottom of my list of priorites. Mind you, at least I’m still here, something I’m not sure can be said of the folks over on the BULS blog.

Anywho, I just wished to write something about the Independent‘s reporting of the SAT’s figures which have come out. I’m guessing (but not knowing) that most other newspapers will have picked up on this too, with some making more of a point out of it than others. Folks, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but SAT’s figures have fallen for the first time in 15 years. Which means that we need to begin panicking because 46,000 11-year-olds cannot read and 39% of students “failed to master the ‘three R’s”.

Except, I remain confused. I thought, given yearly rises in GCSE and A Level results, that exams are getting easier. Aren’t they? Every year another record is broken, and I expect that the results, due out in the next couple of weeks, will again have record levels of something. Students aren’t getting cleverer, the system is making it look that way, or so those who argue about the vaildity of exams claim.

Now, I’m aware that there is a huge difference between SAT’s at 11, and GCSE’s at 16. However, if we are to accept that 11 year olds are getting worse at reading, writing and arithmetic (whoever coined the phrase the ‘three R’s’ obviously had as many problems as the kids do when it comes to spelling), how can we explain the yearly increase in GCSE result averages?

Simply put, the whole thing should be taken with a huge dose of salt. The media jumps on figures (as one wise man once put it, “people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of all people know that”), and either the school kids are over-achieving because of the inadequacies of the system, or they are failing because of the inadequacies of themselves. There seems to be no middle ground, as Richard Gardner writes in his comment on the story in the same paper.

For my part, I’m not to sure about the exams getting ‘easier’. I think back a few years and remember how hard I worked for three consecutive years. That, I’m sure, was not easy (unless there’s some new-fangled dictionary that the kids are learning from these days). What I do think is that the students are learning to play the system better. By which I mean they are learning how to write an answer, rather than how to get the right answer. They are learning exam technique rather than the information to get the right answer. By getting the technique right, the rest becomes irrelevant. In history for example, you don’t have to write a good essay, just construct one (introduction – outline your argument, prioritise your points, explain why one is more or less important, conclude), if you follow the structure, you could, by and large, write rubbish and still do well enough to pass. In maths, you do not have to get the right answer, but demonstrate a way you would use to get the answer, after all, so we were told, you get marks for your ‘working’.

This sort of thing gets taught as much as the correct information, and this is a fault of the system. Whilst it is true that technique is important, it should be that the correct information is of more importance. In maths you should be taught the correct formulae, in history, the correct dates, people etc. This should be the core of teaching, not technique (I remember having a few English classes dedicated to ‘exam technique’ in the months prior to my exams). There is too much emphasis placed on technique, and this is a fault I think exists throughout the system.

There are, of course, other issues with the SAT’s tests and their role in education. I do not wish to talk about these now, simply because there are too many issues to cover here. I will leave it with a quote from Garner’s piece, “it is almost refreshing to know that there is a test where results can down, as well as up.

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