Bringing out the best?

I did a little triathlon this weekend. Six weeks ago I couldn’t run for two minutes without stopping. I think we can say that’s rapid and sustained progress. But there were some problems. I swim a lot. I was confident, getting into the lake that the swim would be the easiest part. I’m used to swimming up to 2 miles at a time and this was a measly 250 metres. I set off, powering close to the front when something odd happened. My breathing was off. The effort of lifting my arms in a wet suit seemed greater than it had ever done before. I was gaspy (and in swimming, breathing is everything). I started to panic. If I struggled with the swim, what was the rest of it going to be like? The last 50 metres were a blur of panting, taking in water and worry. I got out knees trembling and realised that I had completely underestimated the impact of fear and nerves on performance. The rest of the event was fine and I finished, but it made me think.

I was ready. I was fit. But I underperformed because of anxiety. Every year, thousands of children are ready. They are fit and prepared. They walk into an exam hall and fall apart. Maybe only for part of the exam, maybe for all of it. But they crumble and the consequences stay with them for life. What are we really testing in an exam situation? I don’t think it’s knowledge – even for a confident candidate, there isn’t enough time to demonstrate a really good range of knowledge. And given the move to linearity, it’s not resilience – we’ve removed the ideal of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” and replaced it with “one chance, don’t mess it up”. So we must conclude that exams are there to weed out the anxious and to place them on a scrapheap. Why?

I can see that in competitive sport, you need to be able to hold your nerve. But in the workplace? Are there really that many high risk jobs that require people to have strong nerves under pressure? Where is the line between brave and foolhardy? Look at the risks taken in the banking industry by people who could hold their nerve while making transactions worth billions in a matter of seconds. They brought the economic world to the brink of collapse. Are these the character traits we really want in society?

When we seek to assess a child, we need to ask whether or not the assessment model is there for the convenience of the system, or to meet the needs of society as a whole. I don’t think our current system meets the needs of society or the needs of individual children. There has to be a better way. A system that offers a balance of examination, creative portfolio based assessment, work experience with character references, volunteer work…. this kinds of assessment package would allow all kinds of human traits to thrive and be recognised. It would offer us a real set of skills applicable to all kinds of future situations. It would be more humane. And so, if the swim went belly up – there would be other events to offset it. It’s worth a tri – surely?


9 thoughts on “Bringing out the best?

  1. I agree, Debra, but it’s not just the assessment model, it’s the whole education (and workplace, management etc) model, which has increasingly been based on the failed and false notions of the still widely accepted neoliberal economic model of the past 35 years or so. The question is: when are the compliant going to stop allowing themselves to be fooled and wake up to this to bring about the fundamental change needed where human beings actually matter again?

    You can see the problem clearly enough when, despite the resounding mandate from grassroots level for Jeremy Corbyn and a change of philosophy, stubborn Blairite dinosaurs in the parliamentary Labour Party (who followed Thatcher and signed us up to the illusions of neoliberalism responsible for the rise in inequality, the financial crash and ongoing global instability) are bleating loudly about the allegedly “dangerous” Corbyn threat to the very system which has already failed us several times over. The point has repeatedly been made by leading economists, including Nobel Prizewinners, but it has been systematically drowned out for decades by our media and most politicians on the contemporary groupthink bandwagon.

    I am led to the disturbing question: is all this mess the effect of several decades now of “education” and the failure to question?

  2. And it goes right down to primary schools, too, with the pressure to perform in SATs. So many times I have looked at a child’s answer paper and thought, ‘But you KNOW how to answer that…’ Trouble is, the child gets stressed out by the test conditions, and they can’t access the knowledge. Not good.

    1. Why am I reminded of the “Shawshank Redemption”? Perhaps because it’s a disturbing metaphor for our society in recent decades and our corresponding educational system – for sadly, as Morgan Freeman observes at one point, when you’ve been in the system too long, you become institutionalized. I would suggest the primary role of the teacher, (as the doctor, scientist, engineer etc) is to question – by which I do not mean question how to meet government targets, how to fill the prescribed boxes or pass exams, or even where the next funding is to be found – and to teach the child or student to question, not to promote compliance or the prescribed measuring of outcomes. If we are concerned about real “outcomes”, we simply need to open our eyes and look at the state of the world we have created, and which our children and pupils are now inheriting, and ask “why?” Because that is the real challenge they are and will be facing. We owe it to them.

  3. Fully agree. What exactly are exams for? To rank children for access to further education and employment? As a quality control mechanism for schools to ensure they are providing good schooling?
    Do we think these are important, if so we need some way of measuring outcomes.
    If you switch to a continuous assessment model with a tracked grade point average (gpa) then you increase the amount of testing rather than reduce it and increase stress levels.
    I’ve always favoured the skills based approach. Rather than having a single GCSE you would instead break it into modules which could be taken in a low stress environment whenever pupils were ready. Once they passed sufficient modules they would receive the certificate. This is how professional qualifications work in my experience.

  4. Examinations are probably the worst form of assessment for the individual – but probably the best for a high-stakes no-trust accountability system – they are easy to administer, easy to mark, and easy to rank – at least we have not gone down the multi-choice route which is easy more biased towards the systemic.

    And herein, I believe, lies the problem we are not interested (at the macro) level in a system geared to the success of the individual and their striving and growth but to a system externally driven systemic approach. We value what we can measure and ignore the rest (the McNamara fallacy). This is a system which was developed for a “sorting out” model (seeing who should go onto higher school and university) and those in power (who have succeeded under this model) are terrified to let it go least there is the perceived slippage in “standards” (though I am still struggling to work out what those are). After all if I cannot prove that my O levels, GCESs, A levels, degree, doctorate are not better then yours then who am I? The mantra of competition is strong.

    I am working with a school at the moment to consider how we might “assess” some other things – things that are in the values system of our school rather than those which are externally imposed upon us (Ma and En at SATs). I am interested in working with others who might be interested in this. We are thinking about things like kindness, friendliness, cooperation, support, collaboration, perseverance, resilience – things that we think might be useful in the child’s later life alongside the academic.

    Hope you are recovered Debra.

  5. (Just to clarify, my second comment is not a reply to TeachPeach, where it appeared for some reason, but a response to various comments and so should have appeared here.)

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