One size does not fit all

Teacher Demands Less Learning With More Tests And No Differentiation
Failures Held Back In Summer Schools

It would make for a nonsense headline, wouldn’t it? There’s pretty widespread agreement in the education world that English schools are subjected to greater volumes of testing than some other nations, including some high-performing ones, so who on earth would suggest that to get better education we need to teach less, but to test more? And then to punish those who don’t meet the new demands?

At first reading, if you were minded to see such headlines in your mind, you could perceive exactly that viewpoint from Joe Kirby‘s excellent blog on mastery learning and assessment this morning. After all, he explicitly says that “All pupils are expected to master all the concepts”, and that “if you have not understood […] you would stay in for summer school”. He specifically argues for ‘teaching to the test’ when he says “create a rigorous assessment, then teach to meet its standards”, and worse, he says there should be frequent testing, and we will be reduced to the use of mundane multiple choice tests. It’s true, that at first reading you could easily convince yourself that Gradgrindian was an understatement and producing automaton students was the way of the future.

Except, of course, if you really read what it says.

I’ve been toying with a mastery model of teaching this term in KS2. It’s at a very embryonic stage and is very limited in scope (i.e. one year group, in one school, led by one person), but the realisations I have reached are already quite significant to how I plan to move forward. And much of what Joe writes about, I recognise quite clearly.

Less Learning?

Firstly, on the matter of ‘less learning’. This seems to be one of the least controversial proposals, and of course it isn’t really about less learning at all, but less teaching and less pointless repetition. Primary teachers will often comment (quite rightly in some cases) about how much time is wasted in Y7 in secondary schools repeating content that has already been taught. However, it’s important that we remember that what has been taught is not what has been learned. We are all familiar with the blank looks of children who claim never to have met a skill or concept before. Sometimes we wonder what the previous teacher or school has been doing; other times we know the children are wrong because it was we who taught it the first time! The reality is that children don’t learn everything we teach, and the more we try to teach, the smaller the percentage they are going to be able to learn. The much-loved analogy of lighting a fire against filling an empty pail is poignant here: piling on the wood won’t make for a good fire if the kindling isn’t alight, any more than splashing vat-loads of water into a pail will necessarily fill it. We need to find the right amount of content to teach to match the learning capability of human minds.

What this means for mastery learning is the teacher(s) taking control of the content and creating the most effective pathway through it to ensure that learning can be guided, built upon, and – most importantly – retained. There are plenty of teachers who recognise that cramming for the tests serves only the purpose of scores on the tests. To create good learning we need to teach less, but better.

More Tests?

That leads us nicely onto the issue of tests. On Twitter today several teachers – with absolutely the right intentions – have queried yet another increase in tests. In an already well-tested system, surely creating more tests would be a bad idea?

Firstly, let me correct my use of “well-tested”. We may well have a highly-tested system in some respects, but that doesn’t mean we do it well. At primary level, the QCA optional tests are great if you want to allocate scores and levels. They’re pretty useless as a formative teaching tool, though. What Joe and others are suggesting is not just more levelled assessments to create scores, but more useful and focussed assessment.

In my own class this year that has meant a mixed economy of testing, all of which I think is entirely appropriate for primary schools. Which brings me to the title of the blog: one size does not fit all. While the overall theory of mastery can be relevant from Early Years to University, the application of it will vary massively. In the Early Years classroom teachers will doubtless encourage children to write their name frequently in many contexts. EY specialists know that they need to provide these opportunities for practice and mastery. When teaching other letter forms they know that once isn’t enough, and that they need to re-visit them all. We can call that repeated practice testing. It doesn’t look like a secondary-school exam, but it serves a purpose to assess what a child can do and to know when they are ready to move on.

I have used a variety of testing forms this year. At half-term I did give my students a paper test, with questions and boxes for answers. But not just a standardised test paper to get a score. I selected and created questions which matched the content I had taught. I wanted to see which students could still use column addition outside of the context of a two-week block on addition. I also wanted to know which of them really understood why we have phases of the moon. I don’t think a paper test actually does any damage, but I do think that to be of any use the test needs to match the curriculum and the students, not just the national benchmarks.

Alongside that single assessment period, I’ve used a host of other techniques. Occasionally I have set a starter in a maths lesson which has essentially been 5 questions based on content that I’ve taught in the past weeks. That’s a technique that is not uncommon in primary schools. We don’t usually call it a test (I called it a “review” with my children), but that’s essentially what it is.

I’ve also set some additional multiple choice question tests via our learning platform. 10 questions per week, entirely optional at the moment for students, but I’m minded to move to making that one of the weekly homework tasks. I have not made the tests particularly demanding, I’ve called them “quizzes” and I’ve praised those who have taken them (they do so because they enjoy them!). They are, in effect, tests which have given the students an opportunity to revisit their learning, to freshen in their minds a particular concept, and to use the structure of multiple choice to review learning in a low-stakes environment.

What Joe suggests as frequent testing may sound abhorrent if your first thought is to imagine a termly QCA optional paper. But if you tried to use a QCA optional to assess mastery learning, then you’ve entirely missed the point. Frequent testing is not about frequent scoring, or ranking, or catching out; it’s about frequent formative assessment. And in some cases, not even that. Just the process of having to recall information for the test will be beneficial to students’ learning.

Scrap differentiation / Hold back students

Another aspect of mastery which can easily be misunderstood is the expectation that all students which reach a threshold. We have become accustomed over the years to a largely differentiated curriculum  (with setting encouraged by central government), and at first glance the mastery model could appear to undo this entirely.

I have written previously about the scourge that is differentiation in our schools. I genuinely believe that some uses of differentiation are positively harmful to students. Low expectations of under-achieving students can serve to exacerbate their struggles. Of course, there are also excellent examples of a well-differentiated curriculum helping to close the gap between lower and higher achievers. That is exactly what mastery learning calls for. It is intended to highlight those who are at risk of not meeting the required thresholds, and then –  most importantly – putting the support in place that is necessary to ensure that they do. Of course, how that support arises will be a challenge for schools to master. But frequent low-stakes testing has got to be a better method of identifying those who need additional support sooner, rather than waiting for an end-of-year – or worse, end-of-key-stage – test result to highlight names to be added to an SEN register.

The call for summer schools may sound cruel, but actually could form part of a serious and robust system for supporting students. If we got differentiation and support right from Early Years on, then fewer children would find themselves in need of giant leaps of support later on.

There are many who praise the Finnish model of education, and surely we can agree that one of its strengths is its excellent provision for students who begin to fall behind. Something like a quarter of students receive intervention at some point. And it isn’t true that there are no tests in Finland; only that there are hardly any standardised tests. Teachers still write tests, based on their curricula, and still assess students. How else could such an intensive support system work?

Testing doesn’t need to be nasty, and it doesn’t need even to be “tests” as we might first imagine it. All that Joe – and others who support the mastery model – are calling for is regular, well-planned, purposeful assessments. Of course, in a secondary school with varied teaching groups and limited timetabled hours for each subjects, straightforward pencil-and-paper assessments can be a really useful model. And frankly, secondary school children won’t be damaged by it.

Naturally, for those of us in primary, we need to adapt these ideas to fit our context. We have a massive advantage in only having to think about 30 children a year. We have the advantage of upwards of 20 hours per week to get to know them. We may not need testing in the same manner as the secondary RE teacher with 600 students. But that doesn’t mean that because the word ‘test’ is used that the whole idea is inherently evil.

One size does not fit all… but then, nobody said it should.

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6 thoughts on “One size does not fit all

  1. primaryblogger1 30 November 2013 at 1:30 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  2. teachingbattleground 30 November 2013 at 3:53 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. […] (You can read Joe Kirby’s (@joe_Kirby) blog here. Michael Tidd’s (@michaelt1979) here, and check out this website). The basis of mastery learning seems to be to spend longer on each […]

  4. […] locally to suit needs as they always have. But we shouldn’t shy away from saying that we expect to be able to teach the vast majority of students to reach an expected threshold. The task of outlining those key thresholds may seem initially easier for maths (and it probably […]

  5. […] If this is the model schools use, then assessment can comfortably be carried out half-termly in most areas, by focussing on the key progress made. Not by creating new sub-levels or scores, but by actually reviewing what the children can and cannot do! (You might even want to do a test!) […]

  6. […] not to say that tests can’t be a very useful tool in assessing progress; indeed I’ve argued before that they can be. I’m merely pointing out that if Mrs Truss is serious about “enabling […]

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