Friday 31 August 2012

GCSEs, exams, competition - the system

As we sit waiting for the first comments from Ofgove...sorry, Ofqual...the exam watchdog (ahem) then in line with all good fantasy fiction, we are about to go through the portal into the strange world of Exam Regulation.

As a child, I had glimpses of this as my father would come home in a state of some frustration, bemusement and anger from meetings with examiners. I think he did this first as a senior teacher and then for a while he became poacher turned gamekeeper and helped devise the CSE exam and/or the modular, course work element of the English exam that preceded the CSE.

This particular episode in the history of exams should make us think long and hard about their purpose and worth. The argument in favour of end-of-course national exams is that they set a national standard for all - teachers, pupils and parents - to aspire to. The government publishes objectives and outlines of syllabuses, exam boards interpret these in terms of questions and teachers teach their pupils as best they can to perform the kinds of tasks the exam asks for. This set-up is so ingrained in all of us that it's hard to get behind it or beyond it to see if it's fair or right or necessary. Here are my thoughts:

1. When people have talked about education in the past, they have tended towards grand generalisations about the flowering of the individual, developing potential, enabling everyone to learn how to learn. I go in for these sometimes, so I'm not having a dig here.

2. An alternative tack is to stress different aspects of the education process: a) passing on of knowledge b) passing on of skills d) passing on of national culture e) passing on of civic duties f) passing on of values and morals.  Teachers should be forgiven for wondering sometimes quite how they are supposed to be teaching a  body of knowledge, a set of skills, a general sense of 'the nation', a commitment to democracy, a commitment to the modern equivalent of the Ten Commandments - all at the same time. And, needless to say, much of this can be contested anyway - but I'll leave that to one side for the moment.

3. Invisibly, schools do another kind of passing on: they teach young people something fundamental about their position in hierarchy. Now, I know that this sort of thing infuriates many people but I'll press on. Schools are hierarchical places (of course) and this hierarchy is determined by government and law. It reaches down from the Department for Education to the least important beings in the school, whether that be the part-time school-workers or the youngest pupils. The first educative aspect of this is that it teaches all who are part of the hierarchy that the hierarchy itself is 'natural' and 'normal'. It's the way we human beings are, it's the best and only way for us to organise ourselves. (It isn't, but that's what's taught by us 'enacting' and living in and with the hierarchy.)  The second educative aspect of this is that the hierarchy is enforced through systems of discipline, positive and negative 'reinforcement'. For teachers and school-workers it comes in the ever increasingly elaborate systems of contracts, terms of employment, discipline procedures and ever-changing qualification requirements - which of course vary across the kinds of schools! For pupils, the hierarchy is held in place through the elaborate systems of streaming, setting, detentions, exclusions, rewards, lack of rewards and so on. It is essential to remember that this is as much part of our 'knowledge-base' as, say Henry VIII or 'coastal erosion'. We learn to believe that we are better and worse than others and that this is some kind of fundamental truth about ourselves. Teachers, more often than not, are helpless referees in a system which constantly sets pupil against pupil in terms of how they are behaving, how they are sitting (yes, happens every day in most primary schools!), how they are reading, writing, talking, eating.

There is a fundamental belief here: that we all perform better if we compete against each other. Following the great compete-fest of the Olympics, we've been inundated with cod philosophy from commentators, politicians and sportspeople telling us that competition is life, life is competition, winning and losing is what it's all about etc etc etc.

Well, it's really much simpler than that. Even under the conditions of an economic system where owners compete against each other and have the power to make us compete for jobs, much of life is also about how we co-operate. Wearing different hats, at different times, these commentators and politicians plead with us to  show compassion and work with others - whether that's through charities (think the Beeb's annual charity fests), or through the glorification of people who work to help others, intervene to stop people being robbed or attacked and so on. And of course, every day of our lives, we all co-operate with each other when we go shopping for the family, do the washing, drive down the road on the right side and so on.

However, the ethos of education has become more and more to do with competition - most recently deified by Boris Johnson and David Cameron fondly remembering the casual brutality of public school sport and then demanding that we all do this for two hours a week instead of doing 'Indian dancing or whatever' (one of the most offensive throwaways by any UK Prime Minister, surely!).

My point here is that competition is taught. It's education. It's a body of knowledge.

However, it's not neutral knowledge. It's a knowledge that teaches most people that they are not good enough. They are not movers or shakers. They are not capable enough. They are people with limits.

Now, no teacher in the modern era encourages this way of thinking. They did in my day. We were told quite specifically what our limits were, so that the systems of competition fitted what teachers were saying about us. Nowadays, teachers mostly support those general ideas about potential, and every individual getting the most, believing in yourself, learning to learn and all that. It's just that nowadays, this runs counter to the drip-drip-drip of this daily diet of positioning you in the hierarchies of good-bad behaviour, good-bad learner, good-bad performer, good-bad person etc.

4. Exams and tests are a kind of scaffold that supports and maintains this whole competitive system. They hold it all together and teachers with the best of intentions constantly remind pupils that if they behave in this or that way, it will either enable or hinder them in their ultimate goal - to get a good mark in that exam.

Every year at this time of year, the exam mark is held up as the prime purpose, the ultimate objective of education. It is seen as the symptom that the core stuff of education has happened. It is, the theory goes, the best measure that education has happened to that individual. Exams are the mileage counter of the individual - an objective measure of distance covered.

However, the problem here, as any teacher knows, is that knowledge and/or skills are one thing, and passing exams is another. In other words, there is a secondary knowledge ie 'how to pass exams'. It is not sufficient to know how to do something, it's not sufficient to know something. You also have to know how to show that or tell that in this highly particular cultural thing - the exam.

And so the culture of teaching to the test, learning how to do exams takes off.

5. Weirdly and amazingly, Ofsted (of all people) bewailed in the recent report on English that too many school teach to the test. What?! Of course they do, because Ofsted and everyone ever involved in education has come to think that teaching pupils how to do exams improves the performance of those who would otherwise be baffled and disturbed by what exams ask you to do and indeed baffled by how exams ask you to do things. In narrow terms, teaching to the test works.

6. This then asks the key question, what kind of knowledge is it? What does teaching to the test, teach? What is the content of 'teaching to the test'?

This demands of us to make distinctions between different kinds of tests, and different kinds of marking systems, bringing us up to date with the disaster of this week's GCSEs.

Every test or exam, has lying behind it a theory of what it is testing, and behind every marking system there is a theory about what is fair or right or politically necessary.  So, there are people who believe that the test they are setting (eg for job interviews) is an 'aptitude test' ie it is testing some objective core of your brain which reveals whether you are 'apt'. In fact, it is testing some specific abilities to perform highly specific tasks (mostly loaded towards mathematical relationships expressed verbally in very formulaic ways) which can in fact be learned as a specific body of knowledge. They aren't really about aptitude at all. If you've had a very good maths teachers and have spent a lot of time doing those Puzzle books while you're on holiday, you will sail through most questions on an 'aptitude' test.

Another kind of test, will claim that it is objective about a body of knowledge eg by asking multiple choice questions about that body of knowledge eg ';The Tudors' or whatever. However, at the  heart of this is a problem of the so-called 'plausibility of the distractor'. That's to say, if you display wrong alternatives to a right answer, some are more plausible than others and on occasion some might, under specific conditions be equally right. The degree of plausibility of the distracting answers varies according to the individual's cultural and/or social background.

What's more at the heart of multiple choice tests there is a question of technique. Teachers will teach the exam-taking knowledge to a) bomb on through the test, don't linger. b) if you don't know the answer, guess - you'll have a one in four chance of being right. This last point will almost certainly win you extra marks over the person who is not doing that and has absolutely nothing to do with the syllabus knowledge and everything to do with exam-technique knowledge.

Another kind of tests will claim to be able to test eg 'retrieval' or 'inference' by putting passages of writing in front of candidates and ply them with questions about what they have just read. A key issue here is that the very system of asking the questions fits certain particular formulae. Quite independently of whether a pupil can retrieve, infer and understand a passage of writing, their retrieval, inference and understanding has to be expressed in the ways determined by the questioning and answering structure. In other words, there is another framework of knowledge to be learned beyond that of actually understanding the passage of writing.

A good deal of teaching to the test is in fact about that very matter.

A book can be written about all this.

7. Now to the matter of the theory behind the marking. It suits governments and exam boards to be as mysterious as possible about this. At the heart of the matter is a key question: is the exam-marking pre-fixed to have an outcome that will produce a fixed distribution of the grades across the cohort of candidates? Traditionally this is the so-called 'bell-curve' graph of grade distributions?

Or will the test test teaching and learning by measuring the percentage of those pupils who have performed the tasks in question as set at the beginning of the syllabus?

Or, (the most likely), is it a bit of both? ie Does the test claim at the outset that it is doing the latter, testing performance at the task set, but as teachers and pupils get more and more used to the system, learn the knack of what to do to get through, political imperatives driven by ministers and upper class hooligans like Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, demand that not so many pupils do really pass ie the test is tweaked so that it fits some kind of politically expedient 'curve' on the graph?

This is what is at issue this week with the GCSEs and it is why thousands of pupils have been cheated (as I write this). That's to say, at the end of 11 years of this competitive rat  race, where they have done all that is asked of them, teachers have jumped through all the hoops that governments have asked them to do, and at the very last, it's been thought politically necessary to junk them.

It's an outrage.