“You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and, indeed, are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.”
If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.” Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
We suppose that if pupils work under the direction of their teachers they will be well educated and that exam assessment will reflect the qualities inherent in the child, his teacher, and the institution he attends. Exams should be the cherry on top of the trifle of education, a celebration of learning rather than a precise calibration. Amanda Spielman, the Chair of the exams regulator Ofqual, is quoted in the Times as saying: “There is more to life than grades,” which she calls “a thin measure of real ability”; and she is absolutely right when she says: “Don’t let curriculum thinking collapse into qualification thinking. Curriculum comes first.” But, exams distort our education system, they are there to serve the needs of utility – precision measurement to sort out the sheepish ones from the goats and, too often, curriculum comes a distant second. In some secondary schools GCSEs are now taught over three years, some English departments teach the same text over and over, at key stage 3, GCSE and even onto A level if they can; too many teachers are prepared to narrow the education of their pupils to suit the precise needs of exam assessment and what it supposes they need to know.
This is a thought that came to mind when I read about the extraordinary story of Nigel Richards, a New Zealander, who has just become the ‘World Champion’ of the French version of Scrabble. The astonishing thing is that he is not a French speaker, apparently he knows the word ‘bonjour’ and can say the scores in French but that’s all. The French Scrabble association call him ‘the Chris Froome of Scrabble…’ Richards says about his strategy, “I try to score points. The goal is to score more points than your opponent.” His technique is to memorise the French Scrabble dictionary and to not overburden his memory with meanings but to ensure he focuses on ‘high-scoring combinations of letters.’ Something akin to this is afoot when children are spoon fed to pass exams, it is possible that the subject knowledge can suffer in the pursuit of measurable success. Richards is also a recluse who loves cycling and clearly can spend a lot of time revising and committing things to memory, though with no overarching need to know the ‘subject’.
The word ‘Scrabble’ was coined for the game and given the definition: ‘to grasp, collect, or hold on to something’ and it could be argued that Richards has done this with French except that he has missed out the whole point of French and that is the ability to communicate in it. Now Scrabble doesn’t purport to make you conversant in a language nor is it an exam, if it were a primary mode of language assessment it would be an Ass indeed but how many other exams or forms of assessment get in the way of learning about something?
As a drama teacher I would always tell my students ‘don’t worry about the exam grade, just make and learn about great theatre’ the subject was more important to me than the grade. For some children this might mean they got a B instead of an A because, as I told them in cases when I thought it might be true, ‘the examiner is not as good as you’. What they had written or produced on stage was the work of real interest, scholarship, talent and enthusiasm and some of those for whom this had occurred are now involved in the world of theatre making, teaching and/or writing about it. Many would get A grades which, of course, was delightful to see but my attitude was to treat both those imposters, the A and B, the same; bugger the grades it was the quality of the work, the art and the scholarship, that mattered.
Michael Gove said: “There is nothing wrong with teaching to the test, as long as ‘the test is right.’ But was he right? If we teach the subject right which would include how to communicate knowledge and argument in a thoughtful manner, then an exam would be a way of expressing a joy of learning a subject and rather than involve the student in learning exam speak the examiners should be aware of how to award ‘subject speak’. The examiner needs to be spoon fed by the subject.
In Trivium 21c there is an interview with Daniel T Willingham in which he says: “A cognitive psychologist would tell you that if your goal is for kids to know things, a terrible thing to do is to give them a disjointed list of things to know and ask them to try to memorise it.” Clearly Nigel Richards has shown, in the context of Scrabble, the disjointed list approach can work except, of course, he has worked out in the context of the test how to ensure, mathematically, he is capable of winning the game and good for him! However, as teachers, I think we need to remember that for us the subject should be more important than the assessment and for students it should be the experience of studying the subject that opens their eyes to the world rather than trains their eyes towards a mere grade.