Posts Tagged ‘numeracy’

This week’s post serves as an introduction to a tricky but important topic: assessment. As with every other aspect of education I have written about on Clean Slate, once I started writing down my thoughts it turned into about five different posts. So I would like to start by asking some basic questions and trying to dig down to the most honest answers, in order to lay the foundation for a more detailed discussion in the coming weeks.

Why do we assess?

Let’s start by taking a good look at why we do it. Why do we test and grade, formatively or summatively, internally or externally? These would seem to me to be the main reasons:

1. We assess for the students’ sake

a. To give them a sense of achievement – or not
b. To help them identify how far they are along the road to mastering a skill/acquiring knowledge
c. To give them official proof of what they have learned to show to potential employers or other schools/colleges

2. We assess for our own sake as educators

Assessing. Recording. Tracking. Proving. Lots of paperwork.

Assessing. Recording. Tracking. Proving. Lots of paperwork.

Besides altruistically wanting to help students get on in life, we also assess for our own benefit. We do it:

a. To prove the students are learning

so we can

b. Prove we are good teachers

so that collectively we can

c. Prove our school is a good school

which will hopefully

d. Attract more parents to enrol their children

and all that will

e. Justify our continued existence to those who fund the school

3. We assess for the government’s sake

Teachers need to prove their worth to the school, and the school needs to prove its worth to providers of funds – mostly the government. But it doesn’t stop there. The government itself feels it has something to prove as well, and will use assessment results to compare the nation to other nations across the world. Is Britain’s population more or less literate than the population of Sweden? What is the highest level of qualification held by the majority of the population? How do our universities stack up against other universities in the world?

Why is this important?

The government pours money into education, not purely because being well-educated makes for happy, fulfilled citizens, but because it wants a return. The government educates to keep the economy going. Society functions as long as we are collectively making money to pay for all the services that we have clubbed together to provide – and these services in turn feed back into the economy. Sick and unemployed people cost the country money. Together we fund the NHS to help keep people healthy and in work (as appropriate) and together we fund schools to equip people with skills that will get them jobs, which will allow them to take part in this whole wonderful cyclical process.

The government gets nervous when people from other nations are better educated and more literate, as this may well mean that their economies will thrive, possibly at the expense of our own.

And so, the government wants numbers, it wants to measure how effective schools are, to keep its finger on the pulse. It wants to have some control over education, since it is investing in it.

Somewhere beneath this is always that other motivating factor for governments, which is staying in power. Like the teacher who hopes to prove her worth with good observation grades, the party currently in government knows that literacy rates and league tables act as report cards to show the country that it is doing a good job and that it is worth re-electing.

Are these valid reasons?

These are the main reasons why we assess students the way we do at this present time. Now we should ask ourselves, are these the ‘right’ motivations?

Perhaps the question to come back to is: why do we educate in the first place?

We educate for the students. Mostly, these are the youngest generation in society, but they can also be adults. We educate because they have discovered that they both want knowledge and because they need knowledge. They want knowledge to satisfy their curiosity, because they want to explore and understand and interact with the world as it is now, and as it could be in the future. Education leads to fulfillment. They need knowledge so they can function in society and take their place in the economy. They soon discover, as they learn about the world around them, that society is structured in a way that requires you to specialise, to become good at something, to make this your ‘job’ and earn money with it and that this allows you to make use of other people’s specialisms. Education allows you to function in society.

You see that in asking ‘why do we teach?’ we have once again ended up answering the question ‘why do we learn?’ And that is as it should be.

Our current motivations for assessment certainly feature both sides of the educational coin, then. But they are greatly biased towards the economic side of the matter. At student-level, we take into consideration their need for a sense of achievement and fulfilment, but heavily piled on top of that are the teacher-level, the school-level and the government-level. Each of these is pre-occupied with assessment as a means of self-preservation, of assuring economic well-being. Not that of the student, but that of ourselves. The teacher wants to keep her job – the school wants to stay open – the government wants to keep the economy afloat – and of course stay in power.

This balance needs to be redressed, because at the moment, assessment is killing teaching and it is killing learning. The thought of success rates strikes fear in the hearts of teachers and leads to all manner of creative accounting, teaching-to-the-test, an obsession with paperwork, half a term devoted to mock exams and setting the bar so low that students cannot possibly ever fail.

Focus on the Learner

We all know that education is about the learners. Every initiative, every policy, every training course I have ever been on, this has been the message. But somehow in practice this gets lost in a sea of paperwork. We are working so hard to prove that learning is taking place that there is no real opportunity for learning to actually take place.

So, what should be the reason we assess students, if at all?

Surely the purpose of assessment should be to check if education is successful in achieving its aims. In other words, assessment should show us whether:

a. The learners are achieving a measure of fulfilment: are they finding out about the things they are interested in? Are their lives enriched?

b. The learners are able to take their place in society: are they finding a specialism that suits their abilities and interests? Are they acquiring all the knowledge, skills and contacts needed to make this their profession?

Where to from here?

Science in the sandpit. How do we know if learning has taken place?

Science in the sandpit. How do we know if learning has taken place?

This is just the start, of course. I am sure the people and organisations who dreamed up our current system of exams, course work, target setting and benchmarks started at this very same point. In order to fix assessment, we will need to address the following issues in the coming weeks:

1. How can we eliminate ‘fear’ as a factor in assessment?

2. How can we keep assessment learner-focused and take everyone else’s interests out of the equation?

3. How can assessment be a true reflection of what students have learned?

4. If learning is tailored to the individual, and shaped around individual interests and needs, how can or should the affect standardised testing?

5. Should we be using assessment to compare learners, teachers, schools and countries? Or is that counter-productive?

6. How do you measure fulfilment? Does it need to be quantified at all?

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

I would like to invite anyone reading this with an interest in education, whether as a teacher, an innovator, a parent or a student, to join in the first Clean Slate twitter discussion on the topic of assessment on Monday 26 August at 8.30pm GMT. Please use #cleanslate to take part. Let me know your thoughts!

I would also, as always, be grateful of your considered comments below. What has your experience been of assessment in schools? How do you think things need to change (if at all) to make assessment fairer, more representative and more accurate? Should we assess at all?

Thank you for reading!

No one can deny that you are severely handicapped in the world today if you can’t read, write or work with numbers. You only have to go on holiday to Japan, or even Greece, to realise how lost an illiterate person must feel just walking along the street. What do all the signs say? How much do those pastries cost and do they have nuts in them? Have I got enough money to buy one, and if I do, will I have enough money left afterwards to get the bus back?

This looks important, but what does it say?

This looks important, but what does it say?

Reverse Psychology Works

Britain’s numeracy and literacy rates have politicians flailing in fear, battening down the hatches like terrified fathers of teenage daughters: withdrawing privileges, making rules and more rules to try and stop them going off the rails. Key Skills, Basic Skills, Functional Skills, core subjects, compulsory subjects – Maths and English are being pushed and pushed and pushed.

I don’t know about you, but my experience of children and especially of teenagers is that the harder you push, the more they resist. They get suspicious: what is the agenda? What is wrong with this thing? It must be something pretty bad if they are so keen for me to do it. Like an early bedtime or eating vegetables, adults have a way of presenting things that are good for kids that suggests they are not going to be nice or fun – and conversely, they manage to limit things that are potentially harmful in a way that implies that, really, this is the good stuff. This is what we’d all rather be doing or eating.

We need to face facts: wagging fingers and nagging rarely produce enthusiasm in children – as I found to my detriment when I recently attempted to potty train my son. After a week or so, constantly asking “Do you need the toilet? Why don’t you go to the toilet now?” produced defiance and resistance, rather than joyful compliance. Learning did not take place.  The times that he did want to sit on the toilet endlessly were at bedtime or when we were late for something and I was trying to shoo him off it.

Nonchalance makes things more mysterious. Rationing makes things more desirable. Refusing access makes things more precious than gold.  I have a friend whose tactic for interesting her toddler in new food was to put it on her own plate. When asked what it was, she would reply: “This is Mummy’s aubergine.” By the end of the meal, her daughter would be begging to try it.

When it comes to vital skills like Maths and English, I think we need to dare to back off.

Let’s not make them compulsory. Let’s not shoe-horn them into every topic that we teach. Let’s not do frantic and constant testing.

Subjects like any other

In the Sandpit School, Maths and English are treated like anything else: they are topics/areas of learning that children can be interested in or not. They will be both discreet subjects that can be learned for their own sake, and they will occur quite naturally in other areas of the school, in the same way that in History you might end up looking at paintings (Art) or in Biology you might climb trees and jump over puddles and go for long walks (PE).

The children will be able to explore Maths in the Numbers Room, where I think it would be great to have Numberjacks-style missions, where there are problems with numbers and shapes in ‘real life’ that need solving and will lead into discovering mathematical principles. Like in all other areas, if a five year old wants to know about radius or mass or how to calculate the area of a room, they can. If a nine year old wants to count beads and play hopscotch, that is fine. The teacher will make sure they know what the options are, and when asked give advice as to what they might like to explore and what would be suitable for them, but not push. Not say: “You shouldn’t be doing that at your age.” Not insist: “It’s time to learn your times table now, put that down.” Not break out into a cold sweat when they notice that Melissa (7) has never once set foot in the Maths room.

The English room will offer opportunities to read books or be read to, to write stories or shopping lists (after which you can take a little trolley back to the Numbers room to buy your wares and pay with the correct change), to do spelling and grammar games and to speak. You could write and record a radio or TV show with your friends, have a debate on school or world issues, write and perform your own poetry or interview a teacher for a magazine you are making with friends. You can come or not come, every day or once every fortnight.

The Maths and English classrooms will relate strongly to real life, but also let you delve into the subjects purely for the pleasure of exploring words or numbers – because that, too, can be fun.

Let me be clear. I am not talking about reinventing school so that we can motivate students better. I don’t want to make learning more fun. I don’t want to find new ways of icing stale bread to pass it off as a cake. I want to reinvent school by stepping out of the way. I want us to stop de-motivating. Stop sucking the fun out of things. We need to stop assuming that learning is actually boring. Children love learning. They are designed to learn and they do it naturally. From the time your child is crawling, you need to baby proof the house because they will be off exploring: what is this for? What happens when I touch this? Is this good to eat? When they are about three years old, you can’t stop them asking questions. They want to know why and how.

The key to all this is trust. We need to trust our children to develop an interest in reading, writing and mathematics by themselves, either early on because they want to or later on because they have come to realise they need to. We need to trust that they will discover a motivation to learn these two vital subjects. Let them come to you with their questions and they will listen to the answers. Badger them about Maths and English, and all they will hear is “blah blah blah”, a bit like when you tell them to put their dirty socks in the laundry basket.

Risk Assessment

I can see you all sweating now, so let’s do a Risk Assessment. Backing off: what are the risks, how serious are they and how likely are they to happen? In other words: what is the worst that could happen?

Literacy rates could drop. They might drop dramatically. Britain might fall below Third World nations in the international league tables of literacy and numeracy.

Let me ask you this: how serious would that really be? If we let small human beings – who we often point to as “the future” – decide what is important enough to explore and learn about, and they decide en masse that numbers and letters are not worth their while, then are they not shaping the future? They won’t die, they won’t starve. They will find new ways of communicating. They will invent alternatives to the written word. They are already reinventing the written word, as it happens, on smartphones. This is how the human race has functioned since it began. It finds solutions to pressing problems and then it finds better ones. At the same time, it is in our nature to resist change. So it is understandable that we want to use our schools to maintain the status quo, but that does not mean that this is the right or the only way to educate.

The potential consequences, in my view, are dramatic, but not serious.

How likely is it that Britain would become largely illiterate and innumerate if we stop pushing Maths and English? Remember, I am not suggesting we don’t teach them. I am merely saying we should let children seek them out if they are interested and not nag or punish or force them into learning what they are not ready or willing to learn yet. I think we will find that if teachers who are genuinely passionate about their subjects place tasty morsels on their own plates and eat them with visible enjoyment, 99% of children will come and ask: “What is that? Can I have some?”

If you like sport, you'll soon find a need for numbers. Especially if the sport is cricket.

If you like sport, you’ll soon find a need for numbers. Especially if the sport is cricket.