I wasn’t going to blog about my thoughts on education. I was going to stick to mathematics and resources, but a conversation on Twitter this week got me thinking, to the point where I had to write. I know none of the people involved, but engaged with a tweet I simply didn’t understand. If the people on the thread happen to read this, please be aware I am only trying to make my point in a way I couldn’t on Twitter.
It started with this:
I read the article, which says year 2 pupils will be tested on basic fractions (like half, quarter, third), spelling of words such as paints and thanked and knowledge of grammatical terms, including adverb. My response was this:
Of course, Twitter is not a platform for sustained and reasoned debate, but neither was my question really addressed. The first reply said, “No but being tested on them at 7 is.” Yes and no. I am going to stray into the realms of anecdotal fallacy here, but stick with me. I sat some tests in primary school – at least I think I did. I remember being taken to a room with a handful of others and told to answer some printed questions on a sheet of paper (I remember it because it was unusual) before returning to the classroom to get on with the normal day. I didn’t think anything of it, no one mentioned tests, no one talked about it afterwards, it was only when I became a teacher that it occurred to me that I must have taken some kind of external assessment. How vastly different that is from the current situation, when so much time in year six in numerous schools is given to SATs revision, and where we hear that the exams are built up to the point of inducing stress in children. The existence of tests isn’t something to be complained about, but the way they can be administered is.
We will not get away from tests, the government wants to hold schools to account and chooses to do this through testing so, accepting that testing is here to stay, here’s my first thought: at no point in their seven years does the primary school child need to worry about a test. This means they don’t need to do lots of practice papers, they don’t need to attend extra revision sessions and they don’t need to know that they are doing anything which is, to the school, high stakes.
My second issue with the Twitter thread is more about fundamental beliefs of education. When a six year-old can learn the difference between a verb and a noun (which they absolutely can) a seven year-old can learn what an adverb is, they can put them in their writing and identify them in others’. They may be crude or basic in their application of this learning, but the knowledge is not beyond them. The suggestion that learning a part of speech takes something away from childhood is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Young childhood is a wonderful state, where the brain soaks up the most fabulous information and the most pointless trivia with innocent delight, and the quest for more is unending. So here’s my second thought: the child who wants to know everything should be taught as much as we can teach them, from grammar to mathematics to history to music to art to science and everything in-between. Good spelling and grammar increases our capacity for engagement with the world, our ability to understand and to be understood. By encouraging this in our children we help them to access so much more – please tell me why that is a bad thing.
They can still go home and play pirates in the garden.
Instead of giving any real reason why seven year-olds learning adverbs is so very wrong we moved to out-of-context Stephen King quotes (“The road to hell is paved with adverbs“) and proverbial babies in bath water with mention of the errors in the DfE’s exemplification materials for the year six assessments.
There are plenty of valid reasons to bemoan the new primary assessments. Jon Brunskill, for instance, describes the physical impossibility of doing them properly, but the fact that adults cannot do the grammar is not one of them. It certainly doesn’t render them pointless. I’d contend it’s more of an indictment of the education those adults received – what a shame 95% of adults don’t know the grammar of their own language.
Is something really pointless because 95% of adults cannot do it? I expect more than this proportion cannot do advanced mathematics, but that discipline is certainly not pointless. Of course that doesn’t quite address the argument here, since we are not teaching eleven year-olds advanced mathematics, but the comment highlights an attitude I dislike in education, and leads to my third thought: knowledge is not only useful if it is relevant. If I taught my students only things they found relevant (or things they envisaged would be relevant in their next twenty years), they would learn very little indeed. They would end up rather empty-headed, able only to work out how much discount they were getting on their sale clothes and to explain why they should never trust a statistic on TV. As an adult teacher, and more expert than they in my field, it is my responsibility to expose them to more, to open their minds and to open doors.
Primary teachers are exhausted, coping with more curriculum change than most of us, with less non-contact time to do so, and it would seem many are resentful, but that is no reason to lose sight of the opportunity here: we can raise the bar, the next generation can be better educated than us.
And they can still go home and build their Lego.