Can The Testing Of Children Ever Be Compassionate?

They knew me. They encouraged me. They helped me through tough times. They cared for me & I learned. 

I can’t claim that every child looks forward to our mental maths test or spelling tests. Many will run up the stairs into class and it will be the first thing they ask about. When I tell them there will be one today and will give a little ‘yes!’ and clench their fist.

The UK education system and particularly the changes to the primary curriculum have given the ill-informed impression of order and uniformity in how children learn. There is an unhealthy assumption that children perform in neat, straight lines of progress, roughly in line with some bizarre ‘master child’ who is deemed to be the archetypal ‘average’ learner. – What a thought and what a poor child!

There seems to be no room for sickness, bereavements, neglect, abuse or parental involvement. Nor is there appreciation for difference, diversity of talent or aptitude.

For tests to be effective, they should focus on being ‘checkpoints’ for the understanding of key foundation concepts only. Used exclusively as low-stakes internal processes, not external end points. They certainly are not an adequate or reliable way of assessing depth, criticality or enjoyment of a subject.

Our school is clear that there should never be the assumption that everything that is worth learning can be tested in an examination. There is compelling evidence in the field of cognitive psychology that regular low stakes testing can help build secure knowledge of concepts in the memory, and certainly for those elements of knowledge schema to aid the more interesting and complex ideas involved in learning. It’s just a question of how this is done in a compassionate way.

I would suggest:

  • We only mention examinations in terms of an aside – something that will happen but isn’t central to the importance of what is being learned.
  • We always go beyond the syllabus if that’s where the children’s learning is heading.
  • We focus on what makes learning really memorable in the long term.

The first point is actually hugely important. If we can have this attitude towards testing, not only will it benefit the child and their understanding of what real learning is, but it also gives the teacher for the first time organic and reliable evidence of what the children really know. Not what they have learnt simply for a test & to soon be disregarded.

The third point is particularly profound. The principle should always be that learning is something to be loved for its own sake, and that when a child has a passion it is the duty of a school to allow it to thrive.

Luckily my school is very clear on this and our use of assessing children’s progress. First and foremost we ensure we know the children incredibly well as individuals. This is the most effective way of assessing what learning a child has undertaken in a school year. We also acknowledge that learning can be represented in many forms and that written work is not the only valid means of checking a child’s understanding. Other interactions with their learning are held in just high regard. Interactions such as verbal discussion or other creative means. There is also the understanding that it may take more than one attempt to get through a ‘checkpoint’ and the border remains open to further attempts throughout their time at school and is fine to carry on from one class into the next. To give children only one shot at success is an act of gross irresponsibility and is certainly not compassionate towards the child.

They knew me. They encouraged me. They helped me through tough times. They cared for me & I learned. 

Written in response to Dr Debra Kidd Teaching Notes From The Front Line.

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