Written by Lynne Crook

In The News

We can’t get no SATs-isfaction

The current absolute testing system probably means the kids aren’t alright. Lynne Crook stresses the important differences to be noted between passing tests and learning.

empty classroom seats
There has been much ado about SATs over the last few weeks. They have already been sabotaged by leaks (not only the ones dependent on the bladder strength of over-nervous 10-year-olds). Parents all over the country have been questioning the worth of testing children at such a young age, not to mention pointing out that most of them can’t answer the questions either. Some parents even elected to boycott the tests.

Comparisons have been made with other countries’ educational systems, the laid-back Swedes coming top of my very liberal social media feeds. ‘They don’t go to school until they are seven!’, proclaim the headlines, ‘Why can’t we take our lead from them?’ (A note of caution: most Swedish children actually do go to ‘pre-school’, which involves bridging their learning between being a toddler and proper school.)

I worry about this, because of what I know about educational theory (having worked in HE since 2003). Some of the most abused theories are by Carol Dweck, who made some fascinating discoveries about the effect of praise on children. In her work with American schools, her team gave two groups of children a puzzle which they were all likely to get right. One group was told, “You got it right! You must be clever.” The second was told, “You got it right! You must have worked hard on that.”

“Testing should be there so children can learn more, not so they can think they’re innately clever or that having to work hard must mean they’re a thicky.”

Both groups were then given a harder test that they would probably get wrong. The first ‘clever’ group of children got stressed, annoyed and gave up. They were no longer ‘clever’. The second group just got interested in the problem and pushed themselves to try to answer it. They could ‘work hard’.

Her theory ended up splitting children into two rough groups. One group who value effort and one group who think intelligence is innate. You got it or you ain’t. The first group, if they fail, tend to pick themselves up and try again, maybe a bit harder and with a different strategy. The second group tend to throw their hands up in despair, stomp off to paint their bedroom black and refuse to ever go to school again.

What’s this got to do with SATs? The point is, these tendencies, as Dweck’s study shows, can be affected by how children’s education is organised. So much of our testing in schools is absolute. Are we basically just telling our young children they are clever or not? Most people can probably see the detrimental effects of telling a young child they are stupid and can’t pass a test, but even telling them they are brilliant can have a bad effect if they come up against a later failure.

Now, before you think I’m now one of those people that thinks everyone should get an A just for trying, and that school sports days should have races where everyone finishes first, I’m not. Neither was Carol Dweck, to the point where she has been giving interviews begging people to understand that effort is only useful when combined with a strategy to improve.

geometry on blackboardChildren do need to learn to cope with being tested occasionally. At a young age, though, this should be information for them, their teachers and their parents. There seems to be no room in which to praise kids who are just catching up. Or who took a bit longer to get to grips with something, but then found a way that worked. Testing should be there so they can learn more, not so they can think they’re innately clever or that having to work hard must mean they’re a thicky.

SATs certainly shouldn’t be used as a sword of Damocles to hang over schools and teachers. Despite the fact that many good schools, teachers and parents do everything they can to lessen the impact of SAT testing (and there are loads of good schools, teachers and parents), I suspect many children pick up on the importance of these tests to their teachers and the way it’s bandied about by the media as proof of how our schools are going to hell in a handcart.

It might be worth letting children know, though, that tests are not the same as learning. Now, if only we can convince Nicky Morgan.

Lynne also has a blog where she is attempting to talk about more things education-y (including Carol Dweck) here: lynnecrook.wordpress.com/


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Written by Lynne Crook

Born in Liverpool, Lynne has bounced her way around the north of England and through the venerable universities of Newcastle, Lancaster, Liverpool and now Salford while studying and teaching. She has written bits, performed bits and one day hopes to decide what she's going to do when she grows up.