Slow Education

Can we do away with the hot-housing, ditch the obsession with testing, boost learning — and STILL keep accountability in schools?


China’s drill-and-kill education system makes kids very good at passing exams but very bad at thinking + innovating.

The first rule of Test Club is…

What are the two most depressing words in the English language?This week, my vote goes to “test club.”That’s where my daughter is this afternoon. She’s at her school’s “test club.” Instead of running around outside chasing a ball, or dreaming up a dance routine with a friend, she’s burnishing her exam-taking skills for the upcoming test that will determine what secondary school she goes to.

This is what education has come to in Britain and so many other countries. Exam scores are now more important than learning itself. Mastering the art of taking tests has become a central part of the school experience.This is absurd. But it’s also part of a broader obsession with targets and metrics.Measuring progress can be useful, of course, but too often the metrics become an end in themselves.When Sears set quotas for its auto repair teams, staff began overcharging customers and inventing faults.In the public sector, a fixation on targets has led to police forces redeploying detectives to easier cases to meet arrest quotas and to doctors moving patients who are less ill to the front of the queue to keep down waiting times.In 2011, investigators uncovered the largest cheating scandal in the history of the public school system in the US. Nearly 180 teachers and principals across 44 schools in Atlanta, Georgia, were accused of routinely correcting their pupils’ answers on standardized tests. Whistleblowers were bullied, hit with professional sanctions or fired. Meeting those short-term targets, and harvesting the concomitant kudos and cash, had become more important than the long-term goal of giving children a solid education.

Trapped inside the current system, parents have little choice but to prepare their kids for exams. That’s why my daughter is at test club today.

But how useful is all this testing? What do exams really tell us about children?

What they mainly tell us is how good they are at sitting exams. And how useful is that in the real world?

The good news is that pressure for change is building, at last. And not just from frazzled parents and dispirited teachers.

Today, the Chamber of British Industry released a report today hammering Britain for turning its schools into exam factories.

Bottom line: we need a Slow Education movement now more than ever.

Fast teachers

News of more acceleration in schools – only this time it’s the teachers who are being sped up. The British government today announced that in future “able candidates” can train to become teachers in just six months instead of the traditional one year.

The aim is to attract clever people who have lost their jobs in the economic downturn, especially in the financial sector. Said one government minister: “We know there are a lot of fantastic mathematicians, for example, who would have once perhaps gone into the City but now actually might be more interested in a career in teaching.”

But is this the right way to beef up the teaching ranks? I’m not so sure. Teaching is a hard job and the best teachers have a real vocation: that’s why they put up with low salaries, pushy parents and red tape.

Can we expect the same from those who colonize the classroom because they can no longer make absurdly inflated wages in the financial sector? And what happens when the economy rebounds and the City starts hiring again? How many of the fast-tracked teachers will choose to stay in the classroom?

Even if they do stay, I’m not convinced that halving the time devoted to teacher training is a good thing, even for bright candidates with lots of life experience. Just imagine if we did the same for surgeons, pilots or dentists. Learning a craft takes time. If anything, countries like Britain should be investing more energy in teacher training.

Just look at Finland. By any yardstick, it has one of most successful education systems in the world. Competition for teacher training is fierce in Finland, and those who make the cut study for five years before qualifying. Yes, five years.

Finnish teachers are so well trained that the nation holds them in high regard and trusts them to do well by its children. That means instead of dealing with endless inspections, assessments and bureaucracy, they can get down to the most important job of all: teaching.

I suppose the one benefit of speed-training teachers is that we’ll know very soon whether it works or not. My guess is that it proves to be another false economy.

Blinding them with science…

At breakfast this morning, I heard an alarming report on theBBCabout falling standards in science in UK schools. The Royal Society of Chemistry says that the obsession with exam scores means that even the brightest pupils are being “taught the test”rather than how tosolve problems, think critically or apply mathematics in science. The RSC spokesman argued that exams now mainly reward students for regurgitating facts instead of for using their imagination to think a problem through in stages. A similar lament is heard from universities who now spend a fortune on remedial maths and science courses for pupils, and from businesses who are snowed under with graduates who boast luminous exam scores but lack basic science skills. And the problem is not confined to science. Imposing a rigid curriculum and then making exam scores the only barometer of academic success narrows horizons in the humanities, too.One couple I know have been asked by their seventeen-year-old son not to talk to him about any literature, history, or art that is not on the syllabus at his school in London. He’s worried it will get in the way for his exams, says his father. Part of me admires his focus, but it’s also pretty depressing that education has become so tunnel-vision.It’s not all bad news. Today’s students are very good at finding and manipulating information, and at analyzing visual data, but other skills seem to have fallen by the wayside.University professors complain that students now balk at reading whole books, preferring much shorter excerpts and articles. They also seem impatient with ambiguity, demanding instant answers that are black and white. The reasons for this are complex, but the obsession with test scores plays a role.A century and a half ago, England tried paying teachers according to how well their pupils answered questions asked by visiting inspectors. Schools, in response, put more energy into rote learning and began encouraging weaker pupils to play hooky on inspection days. Today, with so much kudos and cash riding on test scores, educators around the world have been caught doing the same or worse. A fourth-grade teacher in Spokane, Washington, recently gave her pupils answers to the mathematics portion of a state exam in advance and allowed some to swap answers during the test itself. Investigators reported that, in the section where students were asked to show their work, one had written, My techre [sic] told me. In England, the headmaster of a primary school was caught helping pupils cheat on science and math SATs. Not long ago, Japan was rocked by the revelation that hundreds of its schools allowed pupils to skip entire courses to allot more time to studying for the country’s notoriously competitive university entrance exams.

And let’s not forget the basic drawback of exams: the one thing they measure better than anything else is how good a child is at taking exams. Is that really what we need in the New Economy? In the future, the biggest rewards will go not to the yes-men who know how to serve up an oven-ready answer but to the creatives, the nimble-minded innovators who can think across disciplines, delve into a problem for the sheer hell of it, and relish the challenge of learning throughout their lives. These are the people who will come up with the next Google, invent an alternative fuel, or devise a plan to slay poverty in Africa. The problem is that relentless pressure, scrutiny and measuring can make children less creative: rather than take chances or push the boundaries, they play safe, opting for the answer that earns the gold star.

Where do we go from here? The UK government says there is nothing to worry about because science test scores have risen, which seems to misses the point entirely. Part of the problem here is that exam scores have become an end in themselves. But change is coming, even from those most resistant to it. A few weeks ago the UK government abolished all SATs (national standardized exams) for 14-year-olds.

Testing times

Around the world, exam season is switching into high gear. Months of studying, training and sweating are all coming down to a few lonely hours in a testing hall. But will children emerge from their exams better equipped for life in the real world? Maybe not. Over the last generation, many countries have put standardized testing at the core of their education systems so that kids now sit more exams than ever before. English pupils, for instance, take a whopping 70 national tests while at school. The trouble is that the obsession with targets and measurable results is backfiring. Instead of inspiring pupils to learn, teachers end up teaching to the test. The curriculum narrows. Children learn how to serve up oven-ready answers rather than how to think outside the proverbial box. What exams do better than anything else is tell us how good a child is at taking exams – and how useful is that? Of course, testing has a role to play in education – it can spur children to work hard and it can help measure their progress. But it’s folly to make exam results the sole measure of a child or a teacher or a school. That is why pressure is building around the world to reduce the emphasis on testing. A couple of days ago, a parliamentary committee concluded that testing is now doing more harm than good in England. Read morehere.