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Testing GaPs: It Makes One Gasp

Testing GaPs: It Makes One Gasp

Main Subject: CPD

Subject: English Literacy

Author: Mick Waters

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Good education relies on achieving balance in all things, which is why the current extremes are enough to take your breath away, says Mick Waters...

It seems logical to state that reading is best taught through books, just as it is logical to say swimming is best taught in water. Yet there are different viewpoints.

I worked in a school where swimming was the top priority. Every child was subject to a strictly controlled teaching programme. Children had first to learn the breaststroke…at their desks. They had to complete activities with cards to ensure they understood the sequence of movement, fill in printed sheets, chant ‘I, Y, FROG’ as the teacher demonstrated, and constantly show their hands as ‘spoons not forks’. Then it was to the hall to practise the breaststroke on the PE benches.

At last to the pool, with floatation aids gradually being removed until each could manage a width of perfect breaststroke. From there, they could swim further and with a wider range of strokes; immerse themselves in swimming. It didn’t matter that some could swim before the whole process started or that others had special needs. Some never managed their width, despite the programme – so were made to do it all again with the next cohort.

What is the alternative? Some would argue the answer is total immersion; throw them in at the deep end. Others that we let them paddle in gently, get used to the water gradually, experiment, splash, doggy paddle and eventually get going as a happy swimmer. The theorists would point out, though, that these swimmers have bad habits; poor style and screw kicks.

The current arguments over testing grammar have blown up because some people find the tests too hard, obscure or stressful. The distance from many children’s real lives is immense, yet most respond well to good teaching, and can learn abstract things before forgetting them quickly. At the root of the spat over grammar tests is the swimming conundrum described above. Has teaching abstract facts about grammar taken time away from books and reading, and would children have learned better if they had started in at the deep end?

Because of high-stakes accountability, many schools have put in countless hours of practice for these tests and worry that they have neglected the joy of literature, or the fun and purpose of writing for which the rules are intended.

The upshot is that we have a nation of eleven year olds who are able to talk to each other and their teachers about terms that virtually nobody else understands (perhaps it is preparation for adolescence).
In the period of their lives when their brains are like sponges, our children are building a vocabulary of nonsense words and learning terms such as ‘subordinating conjunction, modal verb and fronted adverbial clause’ when they could be learning ‘translucent, archaeological and adhesive’, all in the context of practical and worthwhile activity.

How has this happened? First, so many people failed to engage in consultation about the national curriculum and are only now realising what Gove and Gibb and the government had in store for young people. They listened to the blabber about international competition and the threat from the Far East. There are more people learning to speak English in China than there are people living in England, so no matter how good we are, we will still lose; do they learn modal verbs?

There are so many arguments to be had about testing, standards, stress, league tables, accountability. Underneath all of these, and probably more important, is an argument about what we think childhood is and how we think young children best learn. Do we think children’s learning is best served by using inordinate amounts of time practising some obscure rules that most of adult society seems to adapt, or is it better served by generating real understandings about things like science, art, history, music or their own health?

Do we think that learning is best approached by breaking down each experience to its smallest fragments to be learned in separation and then re-assembled? Or is learning best achieved in context, gradually shedding light on the fragments? The answer is probably a bit of both; balance in all things.
It is the appropriate balance between engaging in practice, exercise and context that keeps learning alive.

The current concern arises because we have reached an extreme. We wouldn’t teach driving by simply checking whether drivers can look over their shoulder to look for danger behind them. Mind you, looking over the shoulder to check for danger seems to be one of the top skills demanded of headteachers these days.

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