Monday, 5 January 2009

Education, Education, Education...

Liz Smith MSP, the Conservatives Schools spokeswoman has proposed that more testing is required in primary school to ensure that children are developing appropriate skills in the 3rs (

Now, I understand where she is coming from - it is a national embarrassment that so many young people are not gaining sufficient ability in such key life skills, and she is right to identify that testing the areas in S4 is far too late. However, I think that the desire to introduce even more testing is the wrong direction to take.

The problem we face now in our schools it that we teach the important topics in the wrong way, certainly in primary schools. If you ask primary aged children which lessons they most dislike, they invariably answer "Maths and English!" Yet, which two lessons are formally taught every day of the week? Yep, Maths and English.

I'm not arguing that literacy and numeracy shouldn't be at the heart of the curriculum - in fact, I would argue that they need to be more central. Instead of solely focussing on 'formalised' teaching of the two subjects, other more interactive and exciting topics should be utilised to develop these skills. For example, any of the artistic or sporting subjects provide opportunities for exploring a huge range of literacy and numeracy topics (spatial awareness in PE, communication in Drama etc) alongside other social and educational skills whilst science, history and other subjects can fill the children with an appreciation of the wonders that our world contains and a desire to learn and explore their own identities. And amazingly, this can be fun for the children too!

Testing has a place within the education system, as does rote learning and other dull methods. However, by forcing testing to ever earlier stages of the education system, we merely ignore the different ways in which children develop and hinder their natural curiosity and desire to explore the world around them. Play is one of the most powerful educational tools that there is, yet by enforcing testing (often for testings sake) we relegate play to something children do in their spare time or as a reward, instead of as a key means by which they can learn and grow.

The point is that much of the testing, including that suggested by Liz Smith, is introduced with the interests of adults and the state in mind rather than the interests of the children involved in the process. The testing is to allow us to see how our tax money is spent; or to decide which school is best for our children to attend; or to create beautiful league tables which serve no purpose other than to reinforce differences between schools and communities. They are not designed for improving the educational experience of our young people, indeed they can often impede it.

What is needed is a change in how we approach education. We need our classrooms to be places of wonder, where children and young people are able to question and challenge and explore. Teachers have an amazing vocation to accompany these young people on their journey - not to regulate everything and dictate the boundaries of what they can learn, but rather to support them in developing the skills that can then be used throughout life. Lifelong learning is one of the popular topics for governmental input and rightly so, but the key way to develop lifelong learning is not solely by providing educational opportunities for adults who have missed out but by also helping young people to develop the means by which they can continue to learn in their own time and own manner throughout their lives.

So, we do not need more testing, particularly in the early formative years when our children are learning to learn. We need to refind the joy of play and the wonder of learning - free up our teachers to teach and our children to be children.

As George Bernard Shaw so aptly said:

"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."


Lesley said...

I totally agree on what you have said. I wonder..did we both do teaching and both leave it for similar yet different reasons? (Teachings loss of course)

Testing can be a useful tool in an informal way, and children need to get used to testing in all its forms as it is used so widely as they get older. However, apart from an age issue, teaching time is stretched enough without adding more testing and paper work into the equation. And I agree 100% that other subjects should be used to teach English and Maths- there are so many wasted opportunities!! life isn't seperated into subjects like this so why should school be?

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Exactly Lesley.

The falseness of splitting everything into distinct (and therefore by default) non-interacting subjects has lasting negative implications for how pupils view areas. Young people 'learn' that they don't like English or Maths or science and can keep this belief throughout life. This then acts as a barrier to them engaging with other forms of experiential or interactive learning which in fact might be much more suitable to their nature or interests.

We'll never get rid of testing, and rightly so - it has its uses and gives additional skills to young people. But solely focussing on testing creates a situation whereby school is a trial to be survived and tests endured, all to give you exam results which really count for nothing after either acceptance to a college or university, or entry into the workplace.

However, a successful education system will be one that inspires children and young people with the love of learning that they can continue to utilise and develop throughout life.