The joy of testing

Rigorous exams motivate students and show who needs more help, said Michael Gove, Britain’s secretary of state for education, in an erudite speech that starts by praising the teaching of “French lesbian poetry.”

Now some people will say that if I believe in the adventure of learning and the joy of discovery,  how can I possibly be a fan of testing and examining? It’s like professing a love of cookery – hymning the beauty of perfectly baked souffles or rhapsodising over richly unguent risottos – and then saying the most important thing about food is checking the calorie count in every mouthful. Isn’t an obsession with measurement the enemy of enjoyment, the desire to assess and examine the death of learning for its own sake?

Gove says he understands the argument. Then he refutes it.

. . . Firstly, exams matter because motivation matters. Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges. . . . If we know tests are rigorous, and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning.

. . . Exams show those who have not mastered certain skills or absorbed specific knowledge what more they need to practice and which areas they need to work on.

For all these reasons exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all. Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it.

The fourth reason exams matter is that they ensure there is a solid understanding of foundations before further learning starts.

Gove cited research by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who says Gove got the science right, but not necessarily the policy.

People “enjoy mental activity that is successful,” such as solving puzzles, Willingham writes. However, it’s not clear students will be motivated to work hard enough to pass challenging exams. They could conclude it’s hopeless and give up.

Gove is right about the need for background knowledge, but went astray by using “memorisation,” Willingham writes. That inspired the Guardian to declare Gove is advocating rote learning.

(Gove) emphasized that exam preparation should not mean a dull drilling of facts, but rather should happen through “entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths.”

But whatever Gove may say about rich content and critical thinking, the teachers who most need to improve probably won’t listen, Willingham warns. In the U.S., many teachers felt pressured by No Child Left Behind to teach to the test and cram in facts.

Teachers believed it was necessary because (1) they were uncertain that their old lesson plans would leave kids with the factual knowledge base to pass the test; or (2) they thought that their students entered the class so far behind that extreme measures were necessary to get them to the point of passing; or (3) they thought that the test was narrow or poorly designed and would not capture the learning that their old set of lesson plans brought to kids; or (4) some combination of these factors.

So pointing out that exam prep and memorization of facts is bad practice will probably not be enough.

Testing is unfair to most students, writes Peter DeWitt on Ed Week.  Gove’s call for exams that can’t be passed easily is “not very sporting.”