When independent learning meets high stakes success

//When independent learning meets high stakes success

I’ve been thinking: our Year 11 students have just had their results back for the January sitting of the English Language GCSE exam. Currently English is a modular course, and this accounts for 40% of their final grade. 70% of our cohort have already got the marks for at least a C grade and now we are mobilisling a phenomenal battery of resources to ensure that this figure rises to at least 84% in order to equal last year’s results. Obviously there is a certain amount of pride in our achievements, but make no mistake; this is high stakes stuff and I’m well aware that neither I, nor my school, can afford to slip up.

Now, we put a lot of effort into trying to make students independent learners. When they’re in Year 7 – 9 they get a steady diet of Critical Skills challenges, project based learning, growth mindsets,PLTS objectives and independent homelearning tasks. Then when GCSEs start we don’t just feed them, we practically shovel the skills and knowledge into their stunned and slackened brains. Why do we do this?

Well, you really don’t have to look far for a reason. Teachers, and schools, cannot afford to fail. There is now a prevailing attitude that ALL students MUST succeed. At my school, quite laudably, we have a ‘100% ethos’ which means we work on the assumption that every student can make 4 levels of progress (and get at least a C grade.) It’s hard to argue against an aim like this. After all, aren’t students’ life chance improved by qualifications? Roy Blatchford, director of the National Education Trust, says, “Every secondary [school] should say that, no matter the child’s starting point, they will achieve at least a grade C in English at 16+.” He also says that no child should be condemned “to a life of fractured literacy.”

Worthy aims. But I know from bitter experience that it’s more than possible to train students to jump through C grade hoops whilst failing to make sure they are much more than functionally literate. GCSE exam success in English does not ensure that students can read easily or for pleasure.

Education blogger Michael Merrick writes that the system is seriously flawed and that as long as we persist in an “All will win prizes” approach to schooling we will never create truly independent learners. He says, “the game has shifted disastrously: if a student does not achieve their grades or predicted levels of progress, then primary responsibility for this lies not with student but with teacher”. And if you think for one minute that this might not matter that much, you’re wrong.

Take a look at this:

About 6 and a half minutes in, Michael Gove says, “It is [teachers’] responsibility to ensure that children behave and that children succeed.” So, that’s clear: if children don’t make ‘progress’ every term, the teacher responsible should be sacked!

Now, I’m not for a minute arguing that we should tolerate ‘bad teaching’. We shouldn’t. But why is the responsibility for students’ learning dumped solely in teachers’ laps? Don’t we want young people to take responsibility for themselves? I worry that the message we’re sending out to today’s students is that someone else will always be there to carry the can and take up the slack if they can’t be bothered to put the effort in.

Seth Godin has made available free ebook he’s called Stop Stealing Dreams in which he attacks the school system to failing to prepare young people for the realities of the modern world. In it he says, “Learning is not done to you. Learning is something you choose to do.” He goes on to say, “There are only two tools available to the educator. The easy one is fear. Fear is easy to awake, easy to maintain, but ultimately toxic. The other tool is passion.” He adds that to “efficiently run a school, amplify fear (and destroy passion).” Does this sound familiar?

Godin doesn’t have the answers, any more than notorious educational windmill-tilter, Sir Ken Robinson does. But he does ask some interesting questions; I for one am worried. There is no way that I can afford to try to buck the system and suggest to anyone that getting a C grade doesn’t matter. I just can’t: my professional reputation is on the line. Godin makes the point that, “In the connected world, reputation is worth more than test scores.” But what about teachers’ reputations? It’s all very well to say that grades don’t matter that much to kids. It might even be true. They certainly matter a hell of a lot to those of us on the inside of a high stakes success system.

So, if we really value independence, should the examination system change to better reflect students’ independent ability? Or should students rather than teachers be held accountable for their progress? Maybe there could be separate measures for student progress that made gaming exam results unnecessary? I don’t have the answer, but something’s gotta give unless we’re resigned to creating a generation of increasingly feckless, needy kids.

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Teaching to the test

2012-03-10T22:09:40+00:00March 10th, 2012|assessment|


  1. Mike Yule March 10, 2012 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    This captures very well the bind practising teachers find themselves in. Having recently left the classroom to become a consultant I know how easy it is to propose solutions to educational problems that have limited traction in the classroom.
    But teachers must remain unwavering in their criticism of the current high stakes testing -eventually a sympathetic minister will pay attention to the expert voices of classroom teachers.
    Thanks as usual for your great post.

    • learningspy March 10, 2012 at 11:46 pm - Reply

      Thanks Mike. Hard to stay optimistic in current climate. Has there ever been a minister who’s interested in the expert voices of classroom teachers? I love teaching and generally find being in the classroom enormous fun. But the pressures of accountability are grinding us all down. Year on year, I keep saying to myself, I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Surely the aim is for the kids to work harder?

  2. Julie March 11, 2012 at 10:43 am - Reply

    Thanks for a really interesting read. I couldn’t agree more. We are creating a generation focused purely out outcome rather than the skills needed to get there. Where’s the motivation to learn for learning’s sake? Maybe that’s idealistic, but I feel I’m doing a “better” job when a student engages me in a conversation about how they have applied their learning outside the classroom than them knowing how to “get a c.” As teachers we should be fostering that love of learning rather than teaching to the test – and turning students off.

  3. Sarah March 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Thank you – interesting and timely reading! What does a C in English mean about that learner? My set 11 (out of 11) did well in this exam – many exceeded their target grades. A couple who had targets of F are now inches off a C grade and I’m delighted.

    However, where their strengths lie are not the traditional skills of spelling, punctuation etc, but thinking and making connections. One of these students spoke – unprompted -in a lesson of the connection between the role of Tybalt and Curley in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and how they do something violent & unpredictable in order to set the narrative off on anther course. He was able to identify how their language shared common features (insults, imperatives)and we had an extended discussion about the similarities between these two texts. So I’m thrilled that this independent thinker has been rewarded for his abilities – but I’m guessing these are not the C grade standards Michael Gove values.
    And yes, before you say it, it’s time I got to grips properly with my hexagons.

    • learningspy March 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm - Reply

      That’s some darned impressive extended abstract thinking and it’s given me a great idea for the Literature controlled assessment: why not compare R&J with OMAM? Brilliant!

  4. Sarah March 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Hope it goes well!

  5. Steve Clark March 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    You have highlighted the cleft stick we all find ourselves in. It’s a relief to see that even a good school as yours (84% A*C in English is better than our 73) struggles with the same issues around independent learning and the push for ever higher attainment. And you’re right about the moral imperative to improve literacy above progress measured by a grade in English GCSE. Perhaps the answer will be in a change in how English is assessed. Maybe there will be appropraite qualifications introduced that bridges the gap between L1 functional skills and GCSE English.

    • learningspy March 11, 2012 at 6:40 pm - Reply

      Hmm. Maybe. But not anytime soon.

      Then again, although there’s lots of outrage about the phonics ‘reading’ test, maybe this is a step towards valuing functional literacy above grades?

  6. Lindsay March 11, 2012 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Why not boost those S&L marks, re-do that CA after feedback and allow annotated texts, dictionaries and notes? Who would know? So much of this present system relies on the professionalism / honesty of the teachers under enormous pressure to achieve results, especially when Jan entry means they are 1,2,3 marks off that magic ‘C’. My paranoia can’t help but feel people are ‘tweaking’ out there, it would be so easy to give in to temptation… I know what the pressure is like in my place; fortunately, I’m too well brought up (and competitive) to cheat! Hope everyone else is…

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