The Problem with Tests

We now live in a relentless, evidence based race to brilliance…  or so some would say. If you can’t measure progress, current rhetoric holds that progress didn’t take place!  ergo… If you can’t test it,  don’t teach it…  some say.

Others reject regular progress testing…  but who is right?

The recent debate about a Singaporean logic/math question has highlighted the difficulty in applying and interpreting tests.  Whether Cheryl’s birthday is in July or August has become a real debate.

As it turns out,  there’s more than one way to answer this question!!  (click here for the alternative solution).  And although I am a fan of diagnostic baseline testing – this does give us an enjoyable and vital reminder of the limits of testing and the importance of looking beyond the test.

Perhaps it’s best summarised in the words of learners…

calvin and hobbes - creative maths

If we are to meet the challenges facing tomorrow’s scientists, then we’re going to need a little more flexibility and creativity in our education.

But some people seem faster learners than others…

Chess Champs have Superior Memory !!

or do they?

It seems obvious – surely Chess Champs are champs because they have superior memory?  Or maybe they have mastered their learning style?  Or perhaps they just have better genetics?

Such claims are the enemy of hope.  Students that hope to excel. Parents that dream for their children. And teachers looking to inspire future doctors, poets and innovators.  It’s kind of akin to cutting down the Amazon rain forest… all that lost opportunity…

Tesia Marchik tells us, in simple terms,  that the secret to ‘expert learners’ can be learned. And it has nothing to do with our ‘learning style’.  Such myths, for myths they are, only serve to stand in the way of knowledge that works.

Learners learn by making meaning.  Knowledge is constructed and co-constructed. Discourse builds learning. Patterns, built in to theories – tested, reformed, challenged, amended – allow us to learn quicker.

Teachers, parents and pupils – all need to throw aside self defeating, deterministic views of learning.  Most of all in the UK where the best indicator of your later educational success is your familial socio-economic background. This travesty is not fixed in stone. If it were, it would be the same across other rich countries; and it is not.

This is a poverty for us all in the UK. For “the able” and “the wealthy”,  their children’s success occurs in a narrow and impoverished homogenized world. This world suppresses thousands of creators, makers and dreamers and leaves us all poorer for it.

What’s the answer?  Education needs a mind-shift in to a new mind-set. This has to include communities, parents, employers and teachers. We need to collectively examine what works. We need to extinguish discourses of despair. Most importantly teachers must reclaim their profession.

Can you win at anything if you practise hard enough?

The UK has an attitude problem.  Our education is stuck in outdated and self-limiting ways of thinking.

Is ability in-built?  Do some fortunate few have a ‘math-gene’ or is sporting talent a ‘gift’?  Are some truly ‘gifted and talented’ whilst others consigned to fate by their genetics?  Not so, says Matthew Syed, international table tennis champ.

Rubbish!, people cry when Syed tells us that practice is all that it takes. He’s not alone; Gordon Stobart agrees. Professor at the UCL Institute of Education, he is author of a new book The Expert Learner:  Challenging the Myth of Ability.  You will enjoy reading this book – it offers hope for all.

Sports coaches know this secret to success … deliberative practice, focused on your weaknesses, given by experts, leads to real improvements.  This was the premise behind a fascinating experiment in London: could coach, Ben Larcombe, turn 24-year-old Sam Priestley (a self confessed non-sport type) in to a champ with a mere 500 hours of guided instruction? Only an hour and half a day. While the results were not world record breaking,  they were very promising.

What about becoming a world class memory champ in under a year?  Joshua Foer, a science writer took up this challenge and won. Focused, regular practice … of the right sort… it works!

So why is it that schools seem loath to believe this? Setting pupils,  streaming by ability, and selecting at age 11.  All these are common features in the UK educational world.  China offers an alternative to this where “there is a very widespread cultural belief that you get better with training, so people tend to persist longer.”  In the land of Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood, the secret to success is said to lie in conscientiousness, self control and a growth mindset.

Is the enemy of success, a blame culture and politicised education? Consider the calls of employers and university professors who decry falling educational standards. To believe them, schools must be in serious decline. While acknowledging that recent social economic factors do have an impact,  people are too keen to wash their hands of their own responsibilities to aid and assist learners.  Harvey Daniels and Stephen Pinker chart this tendency over time. Ever since 2400 BC, older adults have wailed in about falling educational standards and predict disaster:

1961: Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannon construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally o in writing. They cannot spell common, every day words. punctuation is apparently no longer taught.

1917: From every college in the country goes up the cry, “Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.” Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.

1889: The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small…

1883: Unless the present progress of change is arrested…

1785: …degenerating very fast …

This ‘blame game’ keeps safe, policy makers and professors alike. The fault, if there is any, surely lies with parents and teachers – possibly even with children themselves. The peg is square, wails the round hole,  and must be reshaped!  Such discourses re-enforce notions of ability and futility: the great merry-go-round of ‘somebody else’s fault’… While divide-and-conquer was appropriate in The Art of War, it is hardly healthy in our schools. At its heart, this is a broken, fragmented and counter-productive education system. It weakens the very professionalism of all educators, even those most vocal, which is so critical to success. Failure, after all, is a stain upon us all.

UK academics have lead the world in the development of Assessment for Learning (AfL), at the heart of which is a focus on learning,  targeted timely feedback and the development of learning autonomy.  It is a shame that in our high-stakes, targets driven culture, that AfL has yet to create the revolution it promises. Perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle is professional collaboration, as modeled by Finland, Singapore and Ontario. Perhaps, we can even take a lesson from our very own London?

If we were to deeply embed these lessons throughout our education system, might not every child start their day impatient to go to school?

On a conveyor belt to university

Is the aim of schooling, only to produce ‘university ready’ students?   Is school just a conveyor belt??

If we take this logic backwards,  are primary schools’ simply to prepare students for secondary school?  So they are either ‘ready’ or ‘not-ready’?  The Finns believe this is putting the horse before the cart. Apparently the job of secondary school is to craft an education around their students … for schools to be ‘student ready’, as it were.  What a happy shift from making students ‘school-ready’.

Of course, the Finnish model is based on a belief in, and support for, early-childhood education. And they do.  Sahlberg says there’s a lot of trust in their early intervention and primary schooling.

What’s so infuriating, is that we have known this secret to success for many years. Public health has ample evidence that prevention in the early years, 0 to 5, is key. That policy has neglected this, is a mystery, despite, even, Sure Start’s ‘thousand flowers blooming’. Paul Tough, writing in ‘How Children Succeed’,  highlights many advantages to early intervention – especially for our newest infants. That, in 2012, some suggest this is news, is deeply worrying.  This was not news in the 1970s; the message then was clear… just look at the Child Health and Development Study of Christchurch, NZ, one of many longitudinal studies starting in the 70s…

Finally, current politicians talk of little else than early years education – this has to be very welcome. Let’s hope this is a genuine shift in policy thinking that keeps it’s eyes on the needs of children and not universities.

Perhaps universities themselves can help – why not scrap our outdated system of admission to the elite institutions?  Moving to portfolio assessment, would certainly offer a holistic view of applicants and disbar those who know how to game the exams system.

Modern policies, poor results?

This week Finland announced it was no longer going to teach math, science and English – as discrete subjects – in favour of joined up lessons, thematically based lessons. However scratching beneath the surface reveals a nuanced reform, not a radical one. Certainly, this is a reform that John Dewy would have approved of.  Pasi Sahlberg, a leading Finnish educator and international heavyweight has long contended Finland’s success comes from meeting the individual needs of pupils, and favouring the holistic development of pupils; PISA success he says, is merely an unintended by-product.

Although Sahlberg is not a fan of tests like PISA, he should take heart. The resent OCED international study on adults’ skills (2013) had some worrying pointers for leading ‘G.E.R.M.’ countries like the UK and USA. Here, young people appear to be doing worse than their parents and grandparents. Despite years of rising focus on targets, standards, strategies and inspections,  young adults’ reading and numeracy have declined when compared to older adults.

The Finnish reforms reflect a little of the spirit of Singapore’s initiative – Teach Less, Learn More. This was intended to favour more student-centered teaching and holistic academic development. This promotes curriculum which allows students to “better relate different topics in relation to each other and the subject discipline.”  (Tan, 2007).

Against this background,  UK reforms get a mixed report card and we wonder, might the cure be killing the patient? Universities believe that new students’ subject knowledge has “grown broader but shallower” and that A level graduates do not always possess the necessary foundation academic skills – of course, this is not a new cry from universities (Ofqual, 2012a).  The government’s response was ‘stretch and challenge’ but Ofqual (2012b) find a lack of evidence to support a widespread and positive impact Link.

Michael Gove also called for more “deep thought” which sounds very reasonable. However, the Finnish conceptualisation of this appears different when examined along side Mr Gove’s calls for academic rigour – a return to traditional curriculum, styles and assessment. The scrapping of coursework, and a return to high-stakes, terminal exams is surely going to focus students on grades and exams; the content of which was heavily guided by universities via the A-levels Content Advisory Board.

Again, this turns our education system in to a conveyor belt designed to produce university degrees. However time and time again, this is not what employers or parents necessarily want. A key finding of the OECD’s report on Adult Skills for Life suggests that it is skills and not educational attainment that is strongly associated with employment type. There is a criticism that businesses are using universities not for what they teach, but as elaborate selection machines. In high-stakes UK, is this what has happened to schools as well? It is high time we rethought the very purpose of education – once again, Finland may be leading the way.


OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing.

Ofqual. (2012a). Fit for purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels,

Ofqual. (2012b). Comparative Analysis of A Level Student Work. London: Ofqal  (Ref. OF151)  Link

Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0.  What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? 2nd ed. London: Teachers College Press.
Tan, K. (2007). Is teach less, learn more a quantitative or qualitative idea? Proceedings of the Redesigning pedagogy: culture, knowledge and understanding conference, Singapore, May 2007.

The early bird misses the worm…

Teenagers need more sleep!!

Jet-lagged Teenagers …

Two statements that all of us have heard,  but why are we so quick to dismiss? Are we so distant from our own teenage years? Have we forgotten about biological natural variation?

Very interesting reading lies in a review of the research literature, conducted by Kelley, Lockley, Foster and Kelly – variously of the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, Harvard Medical School  and the University of Nevada.

Simply put,  teenagers vary and some suffer extreme effects from sleep deprivation. But all teenagers are affected to some degree.

If policy and practice took account of this,  teenagers would be:

  • more cheerful and talkative
  • healthier and less prone to infection
  • physically fitter
  • less prone to risk taking behaviour
  • safer drivers


  • achieving much better results in school.

In fact,  some American school districts observed a 72% reduction in student related car accidents and a one standard deviation improvement in attainment – Overnight we could eliminate the gap as between African American and white kids in American schools … just by letting African American kids sleep in!

When this costs next to nothing, the real question is why do many schools still start at 8am?

Andy Hargreaves: Why It is Impossible to Reform Math and Reading All at Once

Imagine parents impatient with their daughter’s physical development, force-feed her steroids and HGH. Such parents would (hopefully) soon receive a visit from Social Services !! Andy Hargreave’s research gives excellent proof of the need for systems thinking; Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline, 2006) would be pleased! Hargreaves quickly shows how huge collateral damage can occur from such poor policy decisions! It’s a worthwhile read.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Reformers like to tell us that they are in a hurry. They want everything reformed now, or yesterday. They can’t wait. They can’t even wait to find out if their reforms make any sense. Their motto might as well be, “Don’t just stand there, reform something.”

But Andy Hargreaves explains here why the hurry up approach doesn’t work. Hargreaves is one of our most sensible thinkers about education. He is now advising the Ontario minister for education.

Ontario, he writes, has tried to learn from the mistakes of others. It has aimed for slow and steady improvement, not overnight transformation by forced march of teachers, administrators, and students.

It paced the change agenda so that achievement gains would be steady and sustainable rather than spectacular but unstable. It also provided a stronger spirit and much higher levels of support than in England in terms of resources, training, partnership with the…

View original post 154 more words

Phonics… something doesn’t sound quite right…

Today’s Guardian lauds the success of synthetic phonics in primary schools:


Which surely appears like good news to the Government and bad news to doubting academics who seem in abundant supply (Marshall, 2012).  However not content with such success, the DfE has even taken a broadside at teachers, implying they previously tried to manipulate results in earlier years.

The 2014 phonics check was the first in which the DfE refused to publish the pass mark before the test was administered. Interestingly, the data analysis shows that the clear spike in marks at precisely the pass mark in 2012 and 2013 has disappeared in 2014 – suggesting that some teachers had been tempted to rig the check in a pupil’s favour.

I do wonder how teachers, apart from teaching to the test could be so influential?

There is another explanation to cheating. Chris Berdik (2012) highlights the very many ways people influence outcomes unintentionally. Take police line ups – officers with prior knowledge of the suspect give unconscious prompts to eye-witnesses. Wine tasters also fall foul – easily influenced by environmental cues such as labels. Even medical tests need to be double blind to avoid biasing the results. The KS1 phonics test was far from double blind.

phonics test results

Looking at this graph (click here for clearer picture),  something is going on. Could it be children picking up on teacher expectations? Could it be the motivational effect of teacher approval, even subconsciously?  Such effects have been shown to lift IQ scores by 12 points (Tough, 2012). This does not constitute cheating, even though high stakes environments can promote this.

Of course, should the DfE alter the pass mark … well, might that not simply serve a political purpose? The accusation of manipulation can go both ways; a little more transparency would go a long way to growing the trust and dialogue required for real improvements.

There is no doubt that more ought to be done to aid, motivate and improve children’s love of reading. However, as Bethan Marshall (2012) rightly accounts, the jury is still out on synthetic phonics. Perhaps the best sounding advice comes from 1905 when Katherine Bathurst, an inspector for the Board of Education said “I must own an indifference to the point (of phonics) myself, and sympathise with teachers not allowed to settle it for themselves” (Bathurst 1905 in Marshall, 2012: 123).


Adams, R. (2014).  Rise in children passing literacy benchmarks as phonics method pays off. The Guardian. Online:  accessed, 26/09/2014.

Berdik, C. (2012). Mind over Mind: The surprising power of expectations. New York: Penguin.

Marshall, B. (2012). Synthetic Phonics: the route to reading?  in Bad Education: debunking myths in education. Adey, P. and Dillon, J. (eds). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Tough, P. (2012). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

It’s a tempting mistake to make…

Schools can be so busy, right?

But what if policy and actions, designed to help, are detrimental to the time available?

Theoretical simplicity – easy to understand, fast to apply and generates rapid and catchy headlines. However, the potential for serious problems also exists. Making the wrong decision can lead to countless more hours and lost opportunities (Alton-Lee, 2009). Schools can and should still learn from research, but sophistication and a sensitivity to context is required.

Among a range of methodological problems, a key issue is the danger of generalisations born of structuralist intrepretations. Such ‘grand themes’ can be very influential.

Take Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment 1971 conducted at Standford University, where people took on the roles of prison guards and prisoners with far too much zeal. Often used as evidence that we are merely products of ‘the system’,  Zimbardo follows in Milgram’s 1963 footsteps of how otherwise ‘good’ people could be ordered to administer electric shocks to other people, even at a supposedly lethal dose. Although surprising at the time, these studies have come to shape our views and actions ever since (Reicher et al., 2014).

It now appears that there have been some serious over-simplifications (Russell, 2014). Methodological flaws, selection biases, publication bias and selective reporting have led to over stating the role of structural factors (Carnahan and McFarland, 2007) – the same sort that shape our actions and policies in school. A repeated and more complex look, shifts the focus on a more nuanced interaction between the research subject and their context (Russell, 2014; Haslam and Reicher, 2014).

In ontological terms, the question is – are we nothing more than an expression of large structures, shaping our very lives and communities?  Is there actually such a thing as personal agency?  This is not just a theoretical question. This matters in schools as we debate issues of equity, access and learning for all. Even the structure of the curriculum – is this something done to, or with pupils?  Just how much should we engage their families?

Consider how many times you might hear well meaning colleagues say “she’s just not that bright”,  or “he comes from a broken family”.  What about the times you will hear pupils say “girls are much better at coursework and boys are better at maths”? Finally, think about the times when you catch yourself saying “I just haven’t got time… I’ve got to get through the syllabus”

What if we are making a rod for our own backs?  Indeed we might be.  Too busy for ‘group bonding’ in your science class? Think how social isolation can lead pupils to caring less about making more mistakes and the knock on for teacher workload and stress. Are girls worse at maths? … consider how easy it is for girls to give up early, simply because that’s the way things are! Expectations matter (Berdik, 2012), and by not combating this gender stereotype, how many more lunch time help sessions will be needed? Indeed, how many more meetings with concerned parents. Ultimately, how much class time will be lost to disruption, learning delays and worse?

Consider whose responsibility is it to teach all those ‘strategies’ and cross curricular issues that seem to accumulate:  ‘learning to learn’, eLearning, numeracy, literacy etc etc…  But what if teaching pupils how their brains acquire and retain knowledge leads to better revision and study skills?  Or taking time on eLearning makes pupils more discerning, thus gaining a ‘deeper’ more synoptic knowledge. Obviously taking time to learn how to digest a text book has immediate benefits.

This is not to say that context and structural factors are unimportant. Indeed they are very influential. For example, adverse childhood effects between the ages of zero and two do disadvantage children; however it is not immutable (Tough, 2013). Context matters.  Advertisers have understood this for a long time … effective advertising is very contextual. Worried about many failed campaigns to prevent roadside littering, Texas state commissioned “Don’t Mess With Texas” targeting 18 to 35 year old males. Fronted by well known and similar Texans, this appealed to Texan identity:  rugged, independent and proud. (Heath and Heath, 2007). That roadside litter fell by 72% speaks to the importance of understanding the context.

Returning to consider Milgram’s work, a closer examination of  shows that much greater complexity is required to explain how people are influenced, and why people did what they did (Russell, 2014; Reicher et al., 2014). Lessons from this are two fold;  be wary of sweeping generalisations and be cautious of research methodologies.

Schools need to take more time to understand delve in to research, and question research methodologies and contexts. Through a thorough analysis,  aka ‘a learning process’,  policies and pedagogy can be made more effective, improve learning and in the long run, save time.

To say “change requires buy in”,  is surely self evident.  As Hallinger and Kantamara (2006) show, people find all manner of ways to subvert ‘orders’. Generating successful change requires systems thinking and a focus on learning for all (Senge, 2006;  MacBeath and Dempster, 2009). This must involve staff, students, parents and leadership. The five principles of Leadership for Learning offer clear direction:

  1. A focus on learning
  2. An environment for learning
  3. A learning dialogue
  4. Shared leadership
  5. Shared accountability

In the face of a high stakes environment and ever increasing pressures, one thing is for certain – schools don’t have the time to NOT do it.


Alton-Lee, A. (2009). Foreword.  In School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why, p 33. Wellington NZ, Ministry of Education.

Berdik, C. (2012). Mind Over Mind: the surprising power of expectations. New York: Penguin.

Carnahan, T. and McFarland, S. (2007). “Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 33 (5): 603–14.

Hallinger, P. and Kantamara, P. (2006). Understanding and contributing to school improvement in Thailand: a research and development project. In Wallace, M. and Poulson, L. (eds). Learning to read critically in educational leadership and management. London: Sage.

Haslam, S. A., and Reicher, S. D. (2014). Just obeying orders? Rethinking obedience and atrocity. New Scientist, 2986: 28-31.

Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick. London: Random House.

MacBeath, J. and Dempster, N. (Eds). (2009). Connecting Leadership and Learning. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge.

Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A. and Miller, A. G. (2014), What Makes a Person a Perpetrator? The Intellectual, Moral, and Methodological Arguments for Revisiting Milgram’s Research on the Influence of Authority. Journal of Social Issues, 70: 393–408. doi: 10.1111/josi.12067

Russell, N. (2014), The Emergence of Milgram’s Bureaucratic Machine. Journal of Social Issues, 70: 409–423.

Tough, P. (2013). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. London: Random House.