Is this going to be on the test? I remember hearing that many times when I was at school. Everyone just wanted to cut through to the answers so they could pass the test of course. Why else would we be sitting here taking this class?
So what happens when what’s on the test requires more than a regurgitated answer?
The NSW Board of Studies recently produced a sensational example of what happens when you put a question on the test that isn’t given as an answer in class (or tabled from a previous test). According to the newspapers, when students at the “Studies of Religion I” HSC exam got such a question there was a state-wide revolt.
Before I suggest a simple reason for this revolt – and I do believe that the Exam preparers were taken by an educational seizure – here is what those on the end of the exam had to say:
"I think the exam was very unfair because it didn’t test what was specified in the syllabus, it was more based on general knowledge.
"People were very disturbed throughout the exam and as soon as they saw that final section there was uproar. Students were crying.
"It caused a lot of stress to all of us and impacted our ability to study for other exams." – Holy Spirit student Adam Reich from the Illawarra Mercury
We were like, there’s a question in there that has got nothing to do with what we learnt, and everyone flicks to see the extended response, because that’s a big question and that’s the one that was written wrong," – McAuley Catholic College student Lauren Priest from ABC Online.
”Like a number of other Catholic schools, we are extremely disappointed with the studies of religion papers. The questions were worded in such a way that students were not able to express their full knowledge on topics. If the examiners are going to change their emphasis, teachers should be made aware.” – St Ignatius’ College headmaster Shane Hogan from The Brisbane Times:
"I can tell you there has been a near-mutiny in schools across NSW… We had to coax students to continue with the exam. They were in a state of shock and so were the teachers.” – Holy Spirit College principal Mark Baker from the Illawarra Mercury
You have to think that the general panic amongst students is understandable when this test accounted for 50% of their final subject score.
It reminded me of something that I read in a book by John Taylor Gatto called Weapons of Mass Instruction. Gatto says that school teaches you to memorize the dots, not to connect the dots. If you are classified as an advanced student, you might get to memorize how a so-called expert connected the dots too. But connecting the dots yourself is frowned upon.
So why did this Board of Studies suddenly forget what it was there to do? In the spirit of Michael Gerber’s book the E-Myth (Gerber refers to the Entrepreneurial Seizure), you could say that the Board of Studies had an Educational Seizure. That is, they suddenly thought that they were involved in education, but in reality they work exclusively in schooling (If you don’t know the difference between education and schooling, it’s time to find out!).
There is a well established pattern that ensures that students study diligently for their tests. They even get copies of and study past exams! How did the board of studies confuse studying to score well on a test with diligent study and meditation on a subject matter? Again, it confused schooling with education.
You could easily see from the quotes above that the students, teachers and principles were all clear on the mission: Getting the best possible score on the test. Until now it is clear that the Board of Studies were playing along. Suddenly they decided to change rules without telling anyone and mayhem ensued.
In reflection, I could never really see the point in
taking the tests memorizing the dots at school, so I don’t remember asking, “is it on the test”… I did pass the tests recall the dots of course, and I did reasonably well through school with minimal effort and got into university twice without any dramas.
I didn’t really study hard and I left most things to the last minute. I was always told that I had lots of potential, and I guess I believed it in a way… Probably in the same way that the kids who were told they were dumb (not directly of course, but subtly) believed that too. Lets just say that in school I lived up to expectations.
The reality is that none of this dot memorizing prepared me for life, especially in this day of industrial obsolescence (I mean where are the factories now?). But nobody that I talk to seems to think that school really prepared them for life either. In fact I find – and I’m in good company here – that the majority of university graduates that I speak to are not prepared for life too and I find that odd.
So I guess the question is, why do I think that school should have prepared me for life? I’m well past starting to wonder why I was sent there at all. Everything that I do today that is meaningful in my life wasn’t taught there.
The reasons for schooling that you think of from the top of your mind tend to be things like these:
- Reading? My kids learnt that at home (and still love learning it)
- Writing? Never learnt that at school, in fact it took me years to overcome my hatred of it. Once I started writing for a living I had to learn the basics… still learning too.
- Arithmetic? Can’t remember it, but I knew my way around an excel spreadsheet and accounting system before it ever came up at school.
- Critical thinking? Nope, not taught there
- How to learn? Quite the opposite
- Public speaking? Started at age 10, but not taught at school
- Passing tests? You bet
- Passing time? Bingo!
According to Gatto, “nobody can give you an education, an education must be taken.” Unfortunately most kids are too busy and damaged from test taking to have time or energy for that.
The final word for now:
"So we are aware that this is an issue, and we will just approach it as we usually do with the best interests of the students at the centre of whatever we do." – NSW Education Board’s chief executive Carol Taylor
Ms Taylor, does that mean that you are going to abolish tests? Or should students continue memorising the dots?
If you really want to know where your kids are at with their education level (not schooling level), test them with performance. Give them a job to do. Let them have a go at something. Set up a safe stage for them to perform on. See how well they do.
Stop treating displays of memory (tests) as anything more than what they are,
displays of memory and not skill.