Weighing the pig


I said I wasn’t going to talk about our Secretary of State for Education – at least till Christmas – on the grounds that it would only encourage him. But his appearence at the recent London Education Festival got people talking, leaving me in a quandry.

So, let’s just say that some bloke got up out of the audience, sat awkwardly on a chair, and said, to most people’s astonishment, that you couldn’t have learning without assessment. If you did, it was just play.

This assertion was made in response to a comment from the audience that ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it any fatter’. This is a great analogy – though not as good as John Holt’s, when he said that over-zealous testing was like a gardener digging up their plants to see how well the roots were forming.

Thank God that bloke from the audience isn’t in a position to do any damage with his crackpot theories, because the notion that learning only happens when it is assessed is ridiculous. Tell that, for example, to the millions of people who’ve downloaded Walter Lewin’s physics lectures from MIT Online without doing any of the tests afterwards, or the billions who spent time on Wikipedia, or even those who have been able to improve their health conditions through user-patient forums. Are we all just playing?

But, let’s turn the assessment assertion on its head, for a moment. Last week, I visited a couple of schools that are under pressure from less than favourable inspections from OFSTED. ¬†Towards the end of an otherwise excellent lesson, kids were asked to list what they’d learned, and grade themselves according to their assessment level targets – not, I hasten to add, for the year, or even, term. Just for that lesson.

After the teacher left the room, I heard most of them say, ‘well, my target was a 6a, so I think I was a 6a for this lesson’. I asked if they had to do this for most subjects, most lessons. They did. So, tell me, random-bloke-from-the-audience: are these kids learning how to objectively assess their own learning like this, or are they just going along with the game, so that another box can be ticked? And, given that I estimate they’re spending about an hour a day doing this, how much learning are they losing out on? There are times, you see, when the reverse is true – there’s no learning when assessment takes place.

Weighing the pig, at least like this, is clearly not going to make it any fatter. Nevertheless, schools under the cosh are going to do it, because OFSTED expects them to show progress in every lesson, for every child. So, this goes to the great myth behind all of this: that learning is a consistent linear process, and it’s possible to document it happening in this atomised fashion.

Everytime I go to High Tech High, I play golf with their CEO, Larry Rosenstock. Now, even that bloke from the audience would have to concede that High Tech High are some of the best schools in the world, so Larry must know a thing or two about learning, and assessment. Larry and I are about the same handicap (12) and we’ve been like that for, oh, at least, 10 years. Sometimes we shoot lower than our handicaps, sometimes higher. We practice, we take occaisonal lessons (well, I do) yet our progress, according to the scorecards, is almost non-existent, and, bewilderingly, goes into reverse, sometimes when we’re practicising the most. Does that mean we’re not learning about golf? Absolutely not. We’re learning every time we step on to a golf course. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t show up on the scorecard, but rather in the post-mortem in the car journey back , or the emails we bombard each other with. We may not be giving Rory McIlroy any sleepless nights, but our love for the game remains undiminished, and we’re still learning.

This week I saw another school’s attempts to engage parents better in improving their child’s performance. In a single sheet of advice, the word ‘target’ was used eight times. The word ‘learning’ was never mentioned. Parents at this school are urged to make sure their child knows their current level for every subject, and get them to bullet point at least two actions that will get them to achieve the target that has been set for them. There’s a helpful accompanying sheet, predicting what grade a child should achieve in the GCSE exam, based upon the national level they achieved at the end of primary school.¬†¬†Assessment levels are further broken down into sub-levels, expectations and targets. As a brilliant US teacher I know says, ‘you cound’t do a better job of saying ‘school sucks’ to a kid if you tried….

As we all know, assessment is not the same as grading. Assessment can be a very important part of learning, but too much of it will skew it towards grading. The kind of obsession we in the UK (and in the US and Australia) increasingly have with levels and targets has two disastrous side-effects. First it debases any language of learning we might want to develop with parents and students. Second, it kills any love of learning our young people may have and makes them complicit in the myth that, if we set a ‘target’, and achieve it, then significant learning has occurred.

Let me repeat: this is not the school’s fault. They are simply under so much pressure to improve outcomes, that they are afraid to do anything other than force kids to aim higher, work harder, and repeat till results improve. And the effect this is having on teachers was powerfully described in the secret teacher blog, at the week-end:

“There is a generation of children who have been arriving at lessons for years now to be greeted not by an enthralling demonstration or an enthusiastic teacher, but by a whiteboard displaying the outcomes for today, which the teacher will have to read out in order to tick the ‘sharing the learning outcomes’ box on the observation. Worse still, pupils may even have to copy them down. They are then subjected to formulaic lessons delivered by teachers so exhausted by the demand of planning for all these priorities that they cannot deliver with the passion and enthusiasm for their subject that they once had. Whatever this week’s top priority is will be forced upon them five times a day. Every child knows the meaning of the word ‘plenary’…..this creeping and relentless workload is getting the better of me and my department. Right now I spend nearly as much time documenting as I do doing. We need to allow teachers to get back to their best. We need to allow them some professional freedom, and recognise that a lesson is just one episode in a very long series. Our children deserve passion, enthusiasm and energy. We need to make this our top priority.”

OFSTED have now set two standards that they look for in their classroom observations: progress and engagement. Somebody needs to tell them that weighing the pig 6 times a day may fool people into thinking that the former has been achieved. But it almost certainly rules out the latter.


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One Response to Weighing the pig

  1. Bill C Martin says:

    Excellent, insightful, thought-provoking blog, David. Why is it that this all seems blindingly obvious to anyone who is on any journey towards the mastery of anything – whether golf, learning an instrument, creative writing, learning languages, juggling, photography, or any academic study – yet Mr Gove just isn’t achieving the learning outcomes himself?

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