I teach, therefore I am.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an Intelligence Squared education debate. The motion was: ‘LET’S END THE TYRANNY OF THE TEST. RELENTLESS SCHOOL TESTING DEMEANS EDUCATION’. It was a battle between Tristram Hunt and Tony Little in favour of the motion and Daisy Christodoulu and Toby Young against the motion, all chaired by the ever amusing Anthony Seldon.
Going into the room, I had no doubt in my mind that the vote would be in favour of the motion – the language alone guided the audience as to the way they should vote. Not many feel comfortable voting for ‘tyranny’ or ‘relentless’ demeaning. Yet the panel in many respects agreed about the value of assessment and I wonder whether the question we should really be asking in more detail is about the type of tests we do and for what purpose.
In a rare twist, Tristram Hunt mentioned the power of knowledge and suggested that testing as it stands was not the best way to ensure the success of knowledge teaching. However he was quick to return to old arguments about skills, creativity and jobs that don’t yet exist.
Toby Young pointed out (in midst of an amusing if somewhat patronising speech) that creativity and critical thinking skills were not in opposition to knowledge but in fact relied upon it. Daisy Christodoulu challenged the concept of other forms of assessment being fairer or more pedagogically sound than testing – citing research which demonstrated the systematic and often unconscious bias of teacher assessment such as coursework or interviews which have a negative impact on the results of the most disadvantaged pupils.
The question of social justice was an interesting one, as the argument against testing seems to be based on a general sense that it is mean and lacking in love. Both Tristam and Tony Little talked about the destruction of subjects by assessment objectives and the harsh emotional backlash on pupils taking tests. Yet it seems to me that ensuring the children in your care are literate and numerate and have a body of knowledge to take into the world, is all about love.
The idea that testing somehow reduces subjects is surely a consequence of poorly designed assessment rather than the existence of assessment. An argument that Tony seemed to unconsciously make himself when he criticised some examination criteria which failed one of his pupils and then lauded the International Baccalaureate. It wasn’t actually very clear what Tony’s argument against the motion was as he seemed to be a fan of examinations and even mentioned the successful results at his school. His argument that pupils should not be measured and that twenty years from now we wouldn’t find testing helpful was confused and I couldn’t help but think that this brought us back to social justice: an Etonian with or without exam results probably won’t struggle to be a success. Yet if we hark back to the beginnings of state education, and the failings of secondary moderns, we find the reality: the absence of testing and lack of parity between qualifications led to injustice and dearth of opportunity for the most disadvantaged pupils. That is why the GCSEs were introduced. I wouldn’t argue that they are now a success and inequality in education has been solved – I don’t believe Daisy or Toby would have either – but the situation has certainly improved.
So we’re back to the crux of the matter: the type of assessment. As Daisy pointed out, suggesting that testing is somehow inimitably contrary to the purpose of education is to seriously devalue the potential for assesment as a pedagogical tool. It also decouples it from curriculum. Assessment as driven by curriculum should be frequent and should be used to demonstrate the value we place on academic knowledge. If it doesn’t do this then the test design is at fault.
Some questions that have come to me post-event include:
All in all a great event and one that suggested to me that we are potentially getting closer to some agreement on this subject. If we can lessen the political positioning and rhetoric, I feel we might have a chance to explore curriculum and assessment in the depths that they deserve.