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What’s the point of learning

and why “for the test” is never a good answer

· school,learning,Tests

Last time, I wrote about avoiding testing in the early days with a new class. Since then, a number of conversations with learners and teachers have included remarks such as “It’s Year 6 now so we’re getting ready for SATs”, and anecdotally confirmed that even Year 7 and 8 students are starting GCSE preparation. I even discovered one child keeping herself entertained through the early doldrum days of Year 6 with a home-made bingo game; it involved tallying the number of times her teacher repeated all the stock phrases we associate with test preparation. Good on the child concerned for making fun out of nothing, but… how depressing.

We must resist the urge to lend false value to learning by reference to tests and exams, even when making lessons feel meaningful and relevant feels most challenging. Desperate to plough through such-and-such a text (that students can’t bear), or to focus a distracted class on their grammar preparation, we may well be tempted to cry “test” to justify, explain or excuse. But denigrating learning to test preparation is kowtowing to the national agenda in the worst possible way – letting high-stakes tests dictate our core purpose.

Here’s where it could get messy, for what is the core purpose of education? You and your school mission statement may disagree. Are you dedicated to standards, relentlessly focused on making sure every child achieves the best set of test results? Or perhaps your classroom is all about personal development, creating resilience and fostering a love of learning? Maybe, the whole child is your bag, and you’d sacrifice a grade or two to turn out rounded and compassionate citizens. For others, the extra-curricular may take precedence, and sporting and artistic achievements outweigh the benefit of a clutch of above-average exam results.

Of course, even if test outcomes are not your personal driving force, you will be held accountable to that national agenda. That’s why most of us will utter the words “because of the test” at some point. High-stakes tests have the power to dominate minds and nightmares, and make it harder to hang on to the value of learning for its own sake. They push us towards educationally questionable approaches. The phonics screen for pupils in Year 1 provides a good example. Many schools have ramped their phonics results up and up through an emphasis on this mechanistic making sense of marks on the page, and hence helped many children to become proficient decoders. But success in real reading and pleasure in reading do not necessarily follow, for they depend on fluency, independence, enjoyment and good comprehension skills – none of which can be taught through phonics instruction alone.

Even if we agree that a set of decent exam passes is a fundamental entitlement for all, justifying lessons by the threat or promise of final outcomes is risky, and only makes the job of making school feel valuable so much harder, especially when students – and their parents – may have built-in antipathy to tests. Research suggests that a more reductive approach to learning, focusing on end results, is less effective than focusing on the act itself. This is why trying and practising and being challenged are processes so fundamental to a growth mindset. 

Tests and exams are what our pupils pass when they have enjoyed learning, when they have understood the value of new skills and information for their own sake, and when they are thus ready to be reviewed against the agreed criteria. Using this rationale, we should stand our ground and hold up the value of learning – for its own sake. Yes, a small proportion of students with certain characteristics and backgrounds will always be motivated by the idea of the test, but the vast majority will not see this as a good enough reason to learn stuff – and nor should they. Only in the final stages of a course, especially now coursework is dead, is the exam rubric relevant – so say “yay!” to that and ban “because of the test” from your classroom.

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