“You know nothing Jon Snow” Ygritte

SATs are a game. If you think any different you may be delusional (or a politician – don’t panic there are tablets!) and you may have bought in to the single greatest lie about a ‘good’ school out there.  Why is it we feel that the greatest way in which we can judge schools worth is through this testing system? Are we that lacking in knowledge and understanding of learning that the test is the only way we can investigate the effectiveness of our system? Ofsted do it, though I wish they were braver and had more time; Government’s do it! Even Finland does it. We compare the effectiveness of education globally on moments of knowledge transfer within a set time… that’s it? So, technically evolution will have perfected the human race when our minds become INTEL tm processors (cue the music). I am not saying this is all bad (Well the INTEL tm (*music*) bit is a bit creepy). I think it has a real place in education… but I also think it has made many people (mainly head teachers) very scared and conservative regarding our approaches to educating children. It has constrained us and instilled fear.

We are terrified of failure, wrapped up in our fragile paper armour desperately hoping all goes well (X turns up, Y doesn’t panic, Z remembers what they forgot last week, teacher A knows what they are doing etc). We are holding on for dear life as our finger tips bleed from holding ourselves above the threshold. Furtive eyes looking left and right as a bead of sweat trickles down our noses… OK, a little melodramatic. But I believe educational success in primary is weighted heavily upon SATs and getting children of this age through the test is something that a decent manager, with decent teachers can do time and time again… But it does come at a cost.

How does it go? “You spend so long weighing the pig, you forget to feed it.”

I sometimes ask myself, “What does it take to be brave in education?” To set your own path based on your knowledge and experience multiplied into your morals and belief? How many can do this today and trust themselves to see it through? Or, more likely, how many have tried this and fallen foul, impaled upon their own sword?

Is it a test or is it life we prepare children for?

I have always loved the Barometer tale (by Alexander Calandra – an article from Current Science, Teacher’s Edition, 1964), ever since I was told it in 1991 whilst training to be a teacher. It’s likely one of those Urban Myths but is about a student who failed a test and had to go to a hearing about it:

…the examination question, which was, “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”

The student’s answer was, “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

Now, this is a very interesting answer, but should the student get credit for it? I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit, since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify that the student knows some physics, but the answer to the question did not confirm this. With this in mind, I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed to this, but I was surprised that the student did

Acting in terms of the agreement, I gave the student six minutes to answer the question, with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, since I had another class to take care of, but he said no, he was not giving up. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him, and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer, which was:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula S= 1/2 at^2, calculate the height of the building.”

At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded and I gave the student almost full credit. In leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.

“Oh, yes,” said the student. “There are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”

“Fine,” I said. “And the others?”

“Yes,” said the student. “There is a very basic measurement method that you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method.

“Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of ‘g’ at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of ‘g’, the height of the building can, in principle, be calculated.”

Finally, he concluded, “If you don’t limit me to physics solutions to this problem, there are many other answers, such as taking the barometer to the basement and knocking on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Dear Mr. Superintendent, here I have a very fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.’”

At this point, I asked the student if he really didn’t know the answer to the problem. He admitted that he did, but that he was so fed up with college instructors trying to teach him how to think and to use critical thinking, instead of showing him the structure of the subject matter, that he decided to take off on what he regarded mostly as a sham.

Now, how do we manage to get pupils like this leaving our schools? Able to use their knowledge but not be restrained in their approaches to solving problems?

Pupils who could get creative on Q24 in this year’s SATs Reading test:

  1. Where would you expect to find the text Weird but wonderful… The Octopus?

Tick one

On the front page of a newspaper

In an advertising leaflet for an aquarium

In a report on a scientific investigation

In a magazine about the natural world

At my most creative I could have given a reason for three of these. I worry that the way we test the knowledge in these tests is restrictive. I would rather have a spelling, grammar, written maths and mental maths tests with expectations for children leaving Primary… Test knowledge that is important and non-negotiable… But when it opens up a little I want a little danger and creativity – I want the see where the knowledge can take us… With an attitude like this I’d lose my job in 99% of England’s schools…

I have seen so many head’s roll over poor SATs results over the years. Men and women who seemed to fail to understand that they needed to ensure that children could navigate the tests. They stick to their guns, their principles – that education is more than a test – and they shoot themselves. Some of them probably have the answer to producing a school full of children who could approach the Barometer problem with knowledge and creativity that creates new ideas and knowledge. Whereas, us SATs-game-playing-robots? Well, we still have our jobs…