How exams took the joy, and the learning, out of our classrooms

Originally published on the Parents and Teachers for Excellence blog here.

Two trends have dominated how British exams have changed over recent decades: they have become more high-stakes, and they have become more skills-based. The two have combined to create a perfect storm that slows down learning and makes school less joyful. School leaders are under pressure to achieve good exam results, and so orient their schools around exam performance. They measure pupils in all year groups against the assessment objectives from exams, and expect teachers to teach to these objectives too. Every piece of work is a mini-GCSE exam.

This would make sense if the assessment objectives could be taught directly, but they can’t because they’re based on generic skills. Skills can only be acquired indirectly: by learning the component parts that build up to make the whole such as pieces of contextual knowledge, rules of grammar, or fluency in procedures. These components look very different to the skill being sought – just as doing drills in football practice looks very different to playing a football match, and playing scales on a violin looks very different to giving a recital. Yet in these analogies exam objectives would be something like “play with flair”, “keep possession” or “hit notes accurately”, and the instruction given to teachers is to directly teach these skills. Not to spend time on passing drills and scales, but to spend time on “having more flair”.

Most teachers see that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Consider the plight of a typical English teacher. They’re told that their pupils aren’t good enough at understanding the author’s purpose, so as a result they need to teach more lessons on understanding the author’s purpose. They’re given lesson plans that tell their pupils to identify words which illustrate the author’s purpose, and to write paragraphs explaining why they do so. Maybe they include a handy mnemonic for remembering the model “author’s purpose” paragraph. But it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because you cannot teach generic skills directly.

To become better at understanding the author’s purpose you need to know more words, so you can understand the fullness of what the author has written, and you need to know more contexts, so you can understand the significance of those words to the author’s life and times. If you know that the gunpowder plot happened in 1605 and that Macbeth was first performed to an audience in 1606, then The Scottish Play becomes a warning against regicide. If you know that “to twist” was Victorian slang for “to hang”, then Oliver Twist becomes a tale about a boy destined for the gallows. If you know that Dickens first came up with the plot when appalled by the experience of attending a young criminal’s public hanging, then it becomes a campaign for social justice. You cannot infer this from practising to understand the author’s purpose. You can only infer it if you have the knowledge.

Becoming a better reader requires investing time in learning a wider vocabulary and building deeper contextual knowledge, but it would be a brave teacher who puts this maxim wholly into action in today’s schools. With the pressure of high-stakes exams there is no room to teach anything except the assessment objectives being examined, and the assessment objectives only measure generic skills. Instead of exciting lessons where pupils learn knowledge that opens up new worlds of history and literature, their teachers are pressured to push them through yet more rounds of dry and soulless skills practice. Pupils and teachers suffer with frustration as they try to become better at inference by doing lots of failed inferring. They rarely have the chance to learn the knowledge they’d need to imagine what was in the author’s head. Both pupils and teachers leave school unhappy as a result.

The same problem occurs in mathematics. Pupils fail exam questions involving problem-solving, so their teachers are told to teach them problem-solving. They’re expected to make their classes discover Pythagoras’s Theorem at the start of the lesson, as if the great breakthrough of a pioneering mathematician could be reliably and spontaneously reproduced by every fourteen year old on a given Thursday afternoon. Having to do this gives them less time to teach Pythagoras’ Theorem, and so jeopardises their pupils’ chance of successfully solving a problem about it in the future. Once again the pressure to teach generic, skill-based exam objectives directly undermines teachers’ attempts to make their pupils better at their subjects – and better in exams as a result.

We now need to realise what high-stakes, skills-based exams have done to our schools and how to recover from it. This will involve moving away from trying to teach skills directly, and from focusing on measuring them at every juncture. Instead we should plan the knowledge (e.g. vocabulary, historical context) and specific micro-skills (e.g. recognising whether the result of an addition will be negative, or re-writing a sentence to be active not passive) that our pupils need to learn in order to perform at a high-level in their exams. We can still target strong exam performance, but we should do so without expecting every lesson to resemble a mini-exam task. Doing so will mean creating schools where pupils learn more tangible things they can go home proud of, and where teachers teach more of the exciting content that brought them into teaching in the first place.

Leave a Reply