Teaching, learning, and exams – can’t they all just get along?

When I left my teaching post at a sixth-form college* last year, I thought I was finished with the classroom, especially classrooms with high stakes exams lurking at the end of the year.  My main frustration with the exams was the singular ‘snapshot’ they provided of the student on a particular day.  In the cold light of exam results, the teacher’s opinion or observation of a student’s progress was irrelevant.  Given that my population did not have the strongest study skills, work ethics, or even literacy and numeracy foundations, they were largely undermined by their past preparation as students.  During my lessons, I witnessed intellectual stretching, imaginative thinking, and much growth.  This kind of learning rarely happens in linear, predictable, measurable ways.    Sadly, I found nowhere to celebrate and acknowledge the progress that didn’t happen to align with a tightly focused, very specific set of delineated learning outcomes.   With so much emphasis on exam results, it felt as though much of our hard work as learners over the course of the year was neither seen nor valued.

As a matter of professional standard, I was meticulous in ensuring that the content and skills I promoted were directly relevant to the aforementioned outcomes.  I hoped the learning would then fly above these foundations.  However, too frequently, the undertone in the class, and even throughout the institution, became  ‘Do we need to know this for the test?’ and ‘This is how you gain marks on the exam.’   Such an undertone constricts the flow of thought necessary for deep learning.  Combined with the pressure to attain certain results, our focus quickly narrowed to the utilitarian.  The beauty both of the subject and the students’ individual growth was lost.  As an educator, I found this demoralizing and depressing.   I had no room to breathe and they had no space to learn.

I have always been a teacher.  My surname (which I don’t use on the blog) means ‘teacher.’  That is one of the reasons I didn’t want to change it when I married.   I can’t not teach.  I have never been able to stay away.  Something always pulls me back.  This year, I have loved working with undergraduates who have already cleared the university entrance hurdle.  Yes, they will eventually have exams. And yes, those exams will be high stakes. But my role has shifted.   My role is to explore, expand, and delve into the subject matter with them.  The onus of exam preparation and success is largely on them.  I take a backseat to that drama and enjoy instead a front row view of people learning.

But I’ve found I can’t stay away from the classroom.  I’ve volunteered in my kids’ classes a few times this year, feeling so at home in the buzz of a happy, busy classroom.  The reception (kindergarten) kids are fantastic.  Every single one is so full of ideas, opinions, personality.  For me, it is impossible not to enjoy each child.  How can we, as parents and teachers, protect that precious essence as they go through school?

This week, I visited a local independent school.  The students I observed in year 7 and 8 had skills and knowledge that equalled or excelled the general level of the students at my previous post, who were 5-6 years older.  I could not say whether the students at the independent school were ‘brighter.’  In my gut, I don’t believe they were.  I would definitely say their schooling to date had enhanced and empowered their natural intelligence much more effectively.  Most notably, they had the same puppy-dog brightness I enjoyed in the reception class.  They had so many theories they explained to me.  They asked and answered questions.  They knew when they didn’t know.  They were articulate enough to argue finer points with each other and find support for their reasoning.   In both classes I observed, they managed to create, solve problems, work together, and walk away with new ideas that had been practiced.

Granted, for these students the external exams are years away.  The teachers can afford to ‘play.’  Actually, I believe the teachers can’t afford not to play.  These are the foundations that will make exam results more a natural reflection of a steady state of learning, and less a peak to summit precariously and likely topple from.

My visit made me want to go back to the classroom.  It made me want the same chances for my own children.  So I’m deep in thought about what happens next.  Not a bad place to be.  Not where I expected to be a year ago.  I suppose that even for adults, clearly defined expectations and outcomes don’t always serve us well.

*Sixth-form is a UK analogue to the final 2 years of high school in the US.  It is typically 2 years of study for students aged 16-19, often in preparation for taking A-level exams that have a significant weight in University entrance applications.

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