Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Standardised Testing: The Root of All Education's Evils.

There has been a lot of furore surrounding standardised testing, of late. There seems to be two trains of thought, separated by a huge chasm. People seem to be completely opposed to it or for it, there are no middle roads here. I would safely estimate that the majority of people that are adamantly for standardised testing, are politicians and government officials. It seems to be that this is the only way, they feel, they are able to monitor progress with in schools. Government always requires numbers to evaluate whether their systems are a success or a failure, but when it comes to education they are doing this to the detriment of our children. 

So what is standardised testing? Well, any test in which the same test is given in the same manner to all test takers is a standardised test. So simply put exams and class tests are standardised tests.

Why are they used? Commonly standardised testing is used to test the knowledge of the students, so the teacher can determine where the child's strengths and weaknesses lie.

Why am I against them? 

  1. Everything mentioned in the poster above!
  2. Think about it; how many facts do you actually remember from school? For most of us, this knowledge is forgotten by the time we reach the next grade. So what is the actual point? All we are testing is what the child knows right now, this discounts what they will remember in the future.
  3. Children that I work with, in my remedial practice, often complain that they struggle to recall facts, no matter how long they learn for. Some of these kids are the best divergent thinkers I have ever come across, but divergent thinking is not tested, so they are being penalised for struggling to learn facts. Knowledge accumulation should only be a small part of the child's education, however, when you base whether they will pass or fail using this method, it suddenly becomes what education centres around. 
  4. Steven Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) said “Reducing children to a test score is the worst form of identity theft we could commit in schools.” I cannot stress how many 'Likes' I could give this comment. In schools children are treated and seen as their testing ability, and no further. Often I have sat in a staff room and cringed when teachers have said, "So-and-so is lovely, she is an "A' student" or "So-and-so will only ever be a 'D' student." The fact that this 'D' student could volunteer at the homeless shelter or raise funds for abandoned animals is completely overshadowed by the results they achieve in their tests and exams. These results start to define how your child is seen.
  5. Just this year I had to council a mother and son, as their relationship was disintegrating, because he was struggling to learn his work, and she was losing patience. The more the tension rose between them, the more resistance he was showing to studying, until eventually he refused to study completely, and this is where it all hit the fan. I had to explain to the mom that her son was not being lazy or rebellious, all he was doing was removing the one thing that was causing the tension between them - studying. I have seen too many families thrown into turmoil due to the stress that tests bring. Child depression, stress and suicide that is directly linked to school performance, is drastically on the rise. 
  6. Mothers! Yes, I'm talking to you! Mothers love to boast about their children's achievements. This is all well and fine, until that need to boast becomes so great that they exert undue pressure on themselves and their children to achieve. I kid you not, when I tell you that I have had to council crying mothers in the school parking lot because they are so worried that their little darling is not going to get an award at the end of the year, because she/he didn't study hard enough for her/his tests or exams. Testing causes the school to become an unhealthy, competitive playground:not only for the children but the parents as well. This competition, while yes arguably can drive children to achieve greater results, more often than not lands up creating large amounts of stress and friction within the classroom.
  7. A few years ago I worked with a little boy called Patrick. One day, Patrick, ran out of his teacher's classroom and locked himself in a spare classroom and refused to come out. I was called and when I went to speak to Patrick he broke down sobbing and confessed that he felt stupid, because he was always getting the lowest marks in the class. Granted, Matthew had other problems too, but this feeling of worthlessness is unfortunately very common among children who do not always achieve top marks. Testing causes low self-esteem. No matter how much a teacher sugar-coats the low test result for a child, they will always feel inadequate if their test results are lower than the rest of their class mates. Children automatically label themselves as, 'stupid' or 'worthless' or 'thick' if they feel that their marks are not up to scratch.
  8. I never achieved good marks at school. My brain just never retained facts. Because of this I just thought I was dumb, I mean I must be. I studied, I wrote, I achieved a bad mark. Until I eventually stopped studying because I felt that I was just waisting my time. This all changed when I went to university. Suddenly at university, they were not just testing my recall but I had to give my own opinion, analyse work and formulate arguments. I came alive and started achieving results, I never thought would be possible for me. It was only then I realised that I wasn't really as dumb as I thought. Unfortunately though at the moment, tests have becomes a marker as to how intelligent someone is. This is largely untrue. Testing tests memory, you can be immensely bright but have a poor memory.
  9. Apart from allocating a child a result, standardised testing doesn't really serve as an educational purpose. Once the test is done, it's done. Some teacher's may choose to review the test and require that the children do corrections, but this process is superficial at best, and few children benefit from this overview.
  10. An important point to remember: "Education ceases to be learning when the 3 R's are read, remember, and regurgitate." "Boston Public" character of student protester.
What is the alternative? 

There are a handful of countries have come to realise that standardised testing is the least effective way of monitoring a child's progress, Finland being the most infamous of them. As a teacher, I could easily tell you which children in my class are struggling and what they are struggling with, without using a test. I honestly do not see the point of testing. Effective teachers are easily able to monitor and record a child's progress without the means of tests. 
This is when people ask, "But what about your ineffective teachers? At least the poor test results show them up." Well, no they don't. Ineffective teachers, first and foremost should be removed from the classroom, far away from our children, and as much as I'd like to believe that low test scores could do this - they don't. I have over the years, seen teachers blame their poor performance on the children. Blaming them for being below average, lazy, demotivated, stupid - the labels go and on. The saddest thing about this is that people tend to believe the teacher and shake their heads in pity that she always gets the weak class of the grade, meanwhile, the poor children are just being exposed to weak teaching skills. So no, testing does not even help to highlight bad teaching. 

Once we drive schools away from being content driven, we can get rid of tests. Our children should be taught higher order thinking skills, creative thinking skills and problem solving. The focus of education should be preparing the children to become adults who are out of the box thinkers. Adults who are able to take a look at problems and come up with suitable, working solutions. Adults who are able to be creative, empathetic, courageous and leaders. Unfortunately at the moment all education is doing is preparing our children to become are followers and regurgitators. 

The alternative is to do away with all testing and exams that count for marks. If teachers want to see how their children are performing, why not give them a performance-based assessment that doesn't count. If testing is purely used for the sake of checking a child's ability then it really does not need to be quantified. 

My next blog will deal in more depth, with how are able to help your child, with tests and exams (as obviously until we can make changes our children have to fit into the system) and how we can move forward to try and effect changes within the education system.

I leave you with this quote: ""Standardized tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning." Bill Ayers (an American elementary education theorist).

Monday, 21 October 2013

Schools Delivering an Archaic Education System.

Why Education Does Not Prepare Your Child:

Think about it. Why do we send our children to school, other than the fact that it is compulsory and we could be jailed if we didn't? Most parents would answer, "To prepare my child for the future." Or  "To get a job to support themselves in the future." All ideas of sending children to school, centres around creating a better future for them. This idea, of future preparation, is also what the government centres their vision of education on. So if the main idea of sending children to school is to prepare them for the future; how do we do that using an antiquated system that was developed over 200 years ago and has not changed much in any way? The education system, with its rigid, structured, content-driven curricular and standardised testing, is the least equipped system to help our children prepare for a future, in a world that requires flexibility, divergent thinking and problem solvers.

So how did this system of education develop and why do we still use it today? 

Well to cut a long, boring story short, the education system that we still follow today was established in Prussia (in the beginning of the 1800's) to meet the demand for obedient soldiers and productive factory workers. 

Up until the 1800's there was no state run, compulsory education system: children from wealthy families had tutors, children from poor families were working as soon as they could walk and had no time for something as frivolous as education. This all took a turn when Prussia found themselves falling behind in the industrial race and suffering massive defeats against Napoleon's army. The ego-wounded nation enlisted some of their brightest minds to develop a solution to this problem. The solution that was presented was to develop a compulsory education system, where the students could be taught basic reading, Mathematic skills and some general knowledge about the world we live in. But most importantly, this schooling was to teach people how to follow instructions quickly and accurately without question. So they set about putting together a system that would help them to achieve the goals, previously mentioned. This is what they came up with:

  1. Segregate information into subjects, so that students get some general knowledge, but no real deep understanding of the world we live in. 
  2. Students were not to spend too much time on each subject, as this would lead to them pondering or thinking, which was not to be encouraged. In order to achieve this the teachers would stop the children every 20 - 30 min and change topics. 
  3. Subjects were also to be taught in an unrelated fashion, so that the students gained pieces of knowledge, without, gaining insight into the whole picture. 
  4. Also to get them used to the assembly line it was decided that a bell would be used to indicate the end of one subject and the beginning of another - sound familiar? 

When Prussia started leading in the industrial race, and their army went from one victory to another, other countries pricked up their ears, so to speak, and sent their "educated" minds to Prussia to see why they were becoming so successful. They determined that these mind blowing Prussian advances were due to their compulsory, formal education system. This is how this one model of education spread throughout the world and with very few exceptions is still used today.

But we do not live in the same world today. Everything is different, and because of this the education system should emulate that. To put it into perspective,these are the children the education system was developed for:

These are the children of today:

Just looking at the two pictures we can clearly see the huge differences in our children over the past 200 years. How do we expect a model of education that was developed for children over 200 years ago, to be adequate for the children of the 21st Century. The last 20 years has seen the largest advances made in technology in the history of mankind, with this in mind our education system shouldn't even be the same as it was 20 years ago. 

So why leave it the same? Well my theory is that the governments of this world still do not really want to create thinkers. It is easier to rule and indoctrinate people that have been told their whole lives to, "Shut up, sit down and listen." People who have been forced to respect authority, regardless of whether that authority deserved the respect or not. People who have been taught to follow instructions blindly, without questioning what was being asked of them. Why would the rulers of this world want people to think and question them? That would make their lives way too difficult. This education system does not produce thinkers, and because of that it also makes people fearful of change. Therefore people are quite happy to leave things as they are, as they do not have the foresight to envision that anything different could be successful. 

When voicing my concerns, I often get people saying to me "My schooling worked for me, so why shouldn't it work for my child?" Well for many reasons:

  1. Looking at the state of the world today, education has not really worked for anyone. Debt due to inability to run budgets (both household and national), war, hunger, intolerance, single mindedness, bullying - I could carry on and on, are all failings of a system that did not teach people to think and live effectively.
  2. The world you lived in as a youngster, is not the same world your child lives in today.
  3. Just because something worked for you, doesn't mean that it has worked for everyone.
  4. We are preparing our children for a world that is changing faster than Lady Gaga during a concert. We should be teaching them to cope in this futuristic, fluid world.
  5. Education should be seen as something that changes and evolves, as the world advances and morphs into something new and unexpected.
So where does this out-dated education system fall short?
  1. The old, archaic system leaves children bored and demotivated. The 21st century child is exposed to huge amounts of stimulus, from TV to Gaming to Internet. This stimulus is what has fed them from tiny and it is the pace and 'glamour' that they are used to. Then we expect the child to sit still and listless in a classroom, while a teacher drones on - yeah, that's not going to cut it for our technology driven child.
  2. The education system continues to deliver workers for industry, whereas the world desperately needs more inventors, entrepreneurs and problem solvers. 
  3. In the past education was a guarantee for a job. This is no longer true. While, you have a greater chance of getting job if you have an education, many university graduates sit at home, in their parents basement, because there is no longer place for them on the workforce. Knowing this, surely education should be driving entrepreneurship as an integral part of their curricular (if they are really preparing children for the future, as they claim to be).
  4. In the past children went to school to learn information that they didn't have access to anywhere else, this has shifted. A child knows that any information that a teacher supplies them, they can easily find online (and often in a much more interesting format) In fact studies have shown that children are very capable of teaching themselves, without any adult intervention, at all. Take a look at this experiment below (the first 7 min are quite theoretical, if it bores you jump to 7:29. What you see will blow your mind):

Schooling does not prepare your child for the future. If you are lucky enough to send your child to a private school, they will definitely be at an advantage but private schools are still regulated by state. Children (and they are in the majority) who have to go to state schools, especially state schools in poorer areas, are at the largest disadvantage  There are schools in rural and poverty stricken areas that children go through their entire schooling career, never even getting to touch a computer. These areas are not necessarily only in third world countries; there are first world countries too where children have no or very limited access to computers and technology. How do you possible prepare a child for the future without an in depth knowledge of technology?

If we are hoping to prepare our children for a brighter future, we need to work at driving change into the very institution that is preventing our children from becoming thriving, contributing members of society. A staid 200 year old system, is just not working anymore and large changes need to be made. Not just superficial, curricular changes, but large shifting completely away from the current model, type changes.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Education: The dumbing down of your child.

The Travesty They Call Education

Learning Problems? It Is Not Your Child's Fault.

There is a raging debate going on at the moment. People are so serious about getting their point of view across in it that they have ranted their opinions on countless websites. The debate centres on the validity of an Einstein quote. You have one group that vehemently claims that the quote is most definitely something that Einstein said, and then you have the other group that says there is no way Einstein would have said something so soppy and commercial.

I only bring this up because my blog is based on this quote, and normally I like to credit the person, if I am using something they have taken the time to conjure up. So with caution, and only because no one has given me an alternative, I will credit Einstein with saying: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” In a way I could just leave my article there and not write another word, as this quote sums up our education system to the 'T'. It pains me to think of the amount of children who were, are and will be damaged by an education system that does not cater to their needs. Reflecting back on my years of teaching, it pains me even more, to think of how many children I didn't give the right aid to, because I did not know any better.

This, maybe-maybe-not Einstein quote has been picked up by many educationists, satirists and cartoonists, mainly because the education system has a lot of disgruntled customers at the moment. One of my favourite interpretations is the one presented below:

I love it because it sums up the standardised assessment procedure and schooling goals in a few words. What saddens me, is that I can tell you right now that there are millions of children, worldwide, that feel just like that fish, dog, seal, penguin and/or elephant in this cartoon. They are given tasks and assessments to do, everyday, that are just too daunting to even consider. Sure the monkey and bird may be happy, but the point of education should be to make everyone happy (besides if you think about it the bird will soon also be unhappy, when he is penalised for cheating, because he will more than likely fly to the top of the tree instead of climbing it). Now, because I believe that all students should have a fair chance, let's turn things around for the fish, seal and penguin and place them at an advantage. Consider this: what if that test had been: 'Everybody must swim across the lake'? Would those three not have excelled then? Precisely! This goes to show that everybody has the ability to shine if they are presented with the correct educational environment. 

We have had hundreds of years where the education system has blamed our children for not achieving, when maybe we should rather be blaming the education system for our children not achieving. The current education system caters for a few, and if your child does not have the learning style that the education system caters for, then they are labeled as being learning impaired, ADD, ADHD, dyslexic, lazy, disinterested, a non-performer and I could go on and on.

Now, before you get your knickers all in a knot, and start emailing me proof of the existence of the above mentioned learning barriers, as a remedial therapist, I am very aware that dyslexia, apraxia etc. are very real problems, but on the other hand I also firmly believe that we as educators have simply not found the correct way to present information to people with these learning barriers. I really do believe that there will come a time when someone, somewhere will find the way that these brains process information and then their true learning will begin.

 The problem we are faced with at the moment is that, unfortunately, until education authorities are willing to admit that everybody's brains process and assimilates information differently, and drives that into their policies; education will continue to fail children all over the world for many reasons. This is beautifully explained in the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson:

So why start this blog? Seeing as I am a teacher, you would be very right to think that it is pretty much like biting the hand that feeds. You could also accuse me of being a hypocrite, as I work at upholding the policies and laws of a system that I am hugely critical of. I would completely understand your reservations. But I am also a parent, and as a parent of a child that is exposed to this system, I have a real vested interest in trying to drive change. Not only that, as an educator that now knows that there is a better way forward for the wards in her care, I feel that it is my duty to speak out on their behalf and work at exacting change in this outdated and largely defunct system. I live by the saying, 'all that is required for evil (or our current education model) to prevail, is for good men to sit by and do nothing'.

However, at the same time, I do not believe in posing problems just for the sake of ranting and raving. If I am to present a problem to you then it means that somewhere in the deep, dark crevices of my brain I have firm solutions in place, for these problems. In saying that though, I am also a realist, and I know that changing such an entrenched institution is a near to impossible task. First of all, it means changing the mindset of millions of people; people who are by nature very resistant to change, and people that have invested a large portion of their lives driving this system. Second, I also know that humankind can become completely unbalanced when faced with quick, radical changes that they are not really ready for. Third, I am also very aware of the costs that are involved when implementing changes at governmental level, and because of this governments are very anti any type of radical changes, besides that, the government has a huge stake in the education system, they like the education system just the way it is. But, and this is a big but, this doesn't mean that people shouldn't be enlightened to the problems, and it doesn't mean that we should just leave things the way that they are. Drastic change is needed if we are to honour the 'no child gets left behind' policy, and how we drive that change is what this blog is all about.