Yesterday, the world awoke to the incredibly sad news that Nelson Mandela, one of history’s greatest leaders, had passed away. I read through the tributes on Twitter and the obituaries on various news websites as I ate my breakfast, and thought a lot about his legacy and what the world learned from him. On my drive to work I spent some time thinking about how I could approach it with my students during the day’s lessons. I was pleased to hear that the school would be holding a minute’s silence for him during the day, and that all staff had been given a small note to read out during tutor time.
I started by asking all my classes what they knew about Mandela. Some of the replies I received were very worrying: “was he in Eastenders?” “He was the first black man in Africa.” “He was a terrorist”. The best response I got was “He went to prison”. I was shocked and appalled at the answers I received: how was it that these young people had made it to years 9 and 10 without having any real notion of who Nelson Mandela was? I’m sure I wasn’t the only teacher to be surprised by the tragic ignorance displayed by my students yesterday morning.
And then I started teaching my lessons. First up, year 10 exam revision. They aren’t taking the English Language exam until the end of year 11, but with it now being much higher stakes than it used to be (it is now worth 60% of the final grade instead of 40%), we are prepping them early to give them the best chance of getting the best possible grade. We place a lot of emphasis on using past exam papers to teach the kids the skills they need to pass the exam. And so we started looking at an article about Amy Winehouse. I always find this extremely challenging. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I go through the exam papers with them, they can still find themselves stumped when they come across texts they know little about.
I feel a bit stuck. I don’t think that teaching to these tests is a good thing. I think that my pupils would be far better served by learning about some of the greatest leaders and thinkers to have walked the earth, to learn their teachings and understand how they overcame great barriers and made the world a better place. But we rarely do this. Some excellent teachers (both primary and secondary) do think very carefully about how students can get a balance between good quality content and processes for passing the exams. However, there is currently no system in place to ensure that all kids get such a balanced diet. As I’m sure most teachers would agree, the test becomes the curriculum in most classrooms. What we teach and the amount of time we spend teaching it will be determined by the test we are working towards.
In principle, I think the idea of teaching to the test is fine, as long as the test is good. But the English language GCSE papers are fundamentally flawed. To my mind, there are two major problems with them: firstly, we only ever teach pupils a process, rather than any meaningful knowledge, and secondly, the test does not contribute towards their cultural literacy.
Teaching another Process
The exam is underpinned by the philosophy that skills are transferable. The idea is that we teach kids a process for analysing or inferring information from a text and they can then reapply that process to other texts. This sounds perfectly plausible, but as several thinkers and studies have shown, this is not always the case. Skills, such as analysis, inference and evaluation aren’t transferable. They depend on knowledge. So what ends up happening when we try to teach these skills? We end up teaching a process, one that pupils can only replicate if they have the requisite knowledge. Such processes aren’t skills at all: students simply follow an algorithm to demonstrate their understanding of a text, and will often fall at the first hurdle. We have arrived at a situation where children can tell you in intricate detail how to construct a PQE paragraph, but think that Nelson Mandela was in a soap opera. Surely somebody has to stand up and say that something is amiss here.
The nature of the questions in the English language exam means that we teach neither skills nor knowledge: instead we teach a mindless process. Last year, my year 11s really struggled in a mock exam despite the fact that we had practiced this process over and over. The article they were asked to analyse was about a drought, and several members of the class did not know what this word meant, leaving them completely stuck. There was no way any process of ‘finding the main idea’ or ‘making inferences’ would assist them in this situation. They had been made powerless by a lack of knowledge and an over-emphasis on the process required for answering the question.
Aside from rendering students incapable in the middle of an exam, the focus on processes over content has other, more troubling ramifications. The content of the exam does not help to promote cultural literacy at all. E.D. Hirsch states that ‘to be culturally literate means to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.’ I am writing this post as a response to the tragic ignorance I experienced in my classrooms yesterday. It was heartbreaking to hear that my students had very little understanding of the things Mandela did; what he did for people in South Africa; his integrity and determination, his willingness to forego his own freedom for the sake of his beliefs and his country. These are vital messages, messages that our pupils need to know. It made me wonder what else they don’t know. It made me question whether they were ‘culturally literate’ at all, and if they weren’t, then somebody should be shouting from the rooftops that we need to do something about it, as it is ‘an unacceptable failure of the part of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.’ I wouldn’t call myself inept, but I would say that I am forced to teach to a test that is bad for my students.
The opportunity cost that comes from spending time practicing a mundane process with a range of supposedly engaging texts means that we spend less time teaching kids the best ideas that have been thought and written. Kids get to read about Tinie Tempah, Michael Caine, Johnny Depp, Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver, but rarely learn about history’s greatest leaders, or read the stories that have gripped and changed the world. Of course, these things do get taught in some classrooms, if the teacher has the desire to do so, but because this is not a part of the exam, many do not. There are countless children across the country that spend their English lessons applying the same processes to a series of different texts that pander to their teenage interests, teaching them virtually nothing about the people, events and literature that made the world what it is today.
Joe Kirby wrote a splendid blog this weekend about the importance of not letting the ‘knowledge/skills debate’ go just yet. I can only echo his sentiments here. It is vital that knowledge does not get swallowed up in compromise. David Didau argues that “compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled”- and I agree that sometimes having strong principles and not being willing to compromise is okay. Our pupils are at the mercy of a poor curriculum that teaches them nothing but mindless processes, and our teachers are compelled to teach it for fear of not giving their pupils the tools they need to pass a content light exam. I don’t think this is good enough, and this is something that we should not allow ourselves to drop. The knowledge/skills debate may have been hanging around for a while, but until the children of this country are given the opportunity to be culturally literate and for the most disadvantaged to rival their wealthier peers, we should accept no compromise at all.