Well, he’s at it again. I’d really love to avoid the subject for a while, but the Secretary of State for Education in England, Michael Gove, keeps coming up with outrageous statements and ideological judo moves, that I find myself compelled to offer a dissenting voice. Again. Incapable of taking his own advice, barely a day goes by when the poor educators he promised to leave alone for a while, get bombarded with his latest learning theory, garnered from his selective policy-based evidence making (no, I didn’t get that round the wrong way)
In a speech given today, Mr Gove argued that rote learning and test taking should be at the heart of the school experience. The judo move came by suggesting that ‘examinations are a key weapon of progressives everywhere’.
Don’t fall for it, fellow progressives, it’s a trick! We’ve been here before, when he argued that ethnic minority students’ chances of going to Oxbridge were blighted by the ‘progressive’ education policies of the 70s. If you argued against his preferred return to tradition you were therfore patronising people of colour. So, let’s not say that progressives are against examinations, because we’re not. We’re just against the place that the all-encompassing, high-stakes accountability, gaming-the-system, corruption of learning has taken us to.
But Mr Gove isn’t just in favour of any old exams. The ones we currently have, apparently, are “pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all.”
Hinting that the progressives display ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’, he presses his case for tests on the grounds of racial equality:
“tests show ethnic minority students performing better. So external tests are not only a way of levelling the playing field for children of all backgrounds they are a solvent of prejudice.”
It’s about now that his argument becomes, well, loopy: he claimed that academic tests – you know, the really hard ones that most people fail – have been a tool in the civil rights movement. And, of course, he has a point. Didn’t Gandhi famously say’ be the change you want to see in the world – you may turn over your papers now’? And then there was Martin Luther King’s promise that ‘I may not get to the mountain-top with you, but I’ll make sure it’s norm-referenced, because it can get pretty crowded up there’.
If tests are to be the instrument of change, then Mr Gove makes a case for rote-learning as the key pedagogical route to success. Citing Daniel Willingham as his source for evidence, he suggests that ‘memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding’. Well, I’ve read Mr Willingham’s book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’. There’s an interesting passage on memory and testing:
‘Doing a lot of studying right before a test is commonly known as cramming. I remember that when I was at school, students would brag that they had a crammed for a test and done well but couldn’t remember any of the material a week later (An odd thing to brag about, I know)’
I don’t think this is an odd thing to brag about at all. First, if the sole yardstick of understanding is to regurgitate facts through a test then well done that student. But that student’s response says everything about the corruption of their motivation to learn, and the shallowness of understanding which incessant testing promotes. Elsewhere Mr Willingham argues that we shouldn’t try to get students to think like expert scientists, historians or mathematicians because, well, it’s beyond them. The implication here is that ‘students are ready to comprehend but not create knowledge’ – not until they’ve put in around 10 yrs of practice.
And Mr Gove extends this argument to enhancing creativity :
“Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically (my italics) gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.”
Well, try telling that to Paul McCartney. I’ve worked with Sir Paul, and I know that he never practised a scale in his life, because he has never learned to read music. Does this make him (or the millions of other musicians who taught themselves how to play, without the use of scales) less advanced, or uncreative? I know poets who couldn’t recite Tennyson, but they still seem to sell books. And what about the explosion of peer-to-peer learning taking place? Do coders sharing, and learning from each other suffer because they’re not rote-learning coding language?
My point is this: as a recent Newsweek article pointed out, most research on pedagogy is scientifically flawed. And even when the researchers get it right it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions. Take the debate on direct instruction vs enquiry-based methods, for example. One of the few rigorous studies concluded that, ‘as long as students are actively engaged, direct instruction does just as well as inquiry-based teaching’.
But they key phrase here is ‘as long as students are actively engaged’. And we know that some schools keep their kids engaged while others don’t. So, rather than drawing battle-lines between traditionalists and progressives, presenting claim and counter-claim, maybe we should be trying to engage these kids a little more? I’d respectfully suggest that rote-learning and imposing yet more testing on these kids isn’t likely to do that.
And even if Mr Gove is right in claiming that ‘memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding’, there are more engaging ways these days to plant knowledge into the brain than tedious rote-learning. What about gamification, Khan Academy, Spaced Learning or any of the truly innovative classroom strategies being used in schools all around the world?
I travel a lot with my work, meeting teachers and policy-makers around the world. England used to be seen as hotbed of innovation in education. But Michael Gove’s half-baked, backwards-looking ideas, are turning us into a laughing-stock. It’s time for senior leaders to find their voice and disassociate themselves with this reversion to a vision of learning which is out-of-time and out-of-step with the world as it now is.