Sunday, 22 December 2013

Taking the ... risk - I want the SATs back!

I am Scrooge. I have an extreme dislike about all things relating to Christmas. Not what Christmas represents but more about the baggage that arrives with it when the Christmas period starts mid-October. Aside from Slade playing everywhere, the wall-to-wall gaudiness of decorations, the fairy vomit of lights on houses (mental note to self: move away from my neighbours), the apparent acceptable bad taste in clothes and the obsession it has on people’s lives and daily existence, I mainly hate the following phrase: ‘Come on, it’s Christmas.’ It has become an unwritten motto for Christmas.  It is worse than some dictator’s rules, worse because there are no rebels against the dictator’s party line. Everyone MUST enjoy it. 

Wear this novelty tie that has naked snowmen dancing on it. Come on, it’s Christmas. Gorge your way through this plate of sugar with a thin layer of fat and sugar mixed in for good measure. Come on, it’s Christmas. Drink this yellow drink that has the consistency of tar. Come on, it’s Christmas. Dance this stupid dance. Come on, it’s Christmas. Smile. Come on, it’s Christmas’

I suppose it the enforced happiness that is the problem for me. Generally, I am a happy person, yet I struggle to be happy with someone insisting I smile ‘cos it’s Christmas. It completely puts me off Christmas. Furthermore, it is too structured. You have to do a, b, c, and z or it will not be the best Christmas ever. For me, it about getting through Christmas and not making it the best it can be.
The journey that people have to Christmas is like the journey that students have in lessons and … Oh, sod it. I am not, for once, going to make a tenuous link between two ideas. I am just going to talk about how I miss the KS3 SATs. Yes, you heard me right. I miss them. I am pining for the good old days, when we had them in Year 9.  Why do I miss something which was the constant bane of every teacher’s life for several years and months? Why do I miss the meaningless assessments and questions? Why do I miss the strange results generated by students sitting them? Why do I miss the preparation for students sitting them? Why? Why? Why?

The reason is simple: I think there are very little risks for students in schools. Yes, there might be a few sharp edges on a few tables, but do be really create an environment of risk? Or do we make learning too safe and too comfortable for students? Do we scaffold too much? Do we avoid using red pens because they are too negative? Do we always start with a positive comment so they feel happy about what they have produced? With our fear of being held accountable for results, do we stop students making mistakes? I think, if we are honest, we do. I am guilty of scaffolding work so much sometimes that there is very little chance for students to make mistakes. Very little chance of getting it wrong. I work so hard on making sure that they don’t get it wrong that maybe I am missing a point.

Our Year 11s have just had their mock results back this week and I felt that this has been the one moment in the past five years that has been very risky for them. They prepared for what they thought would be in the exam and it was a hit or miss if they were successful. Some have had great results; others have not been so successful. One thing is clear: those that did badly have made a huge milestone in the learning. They made some bad choices. Next time they do that assessment they will not do it again, or they might fail again.  Several of my students missed a question out. In the past, I have had students attempt write something for every set text in a GCSE Literature exam, even though they have only studied one of them. I can assure you none of them will do it again. They will make the right choices or different choices next time. Sadly, I think we take the choice element out of learning. We make the choices for them. We don’t let them decide for themselves. We, in truth, are preventing them from being autonomous individuals and forcing them to be good, rule followers.  

I think of phrases said by students over the years. Thankfully, they don’t say: ‘Come on, it’s Christmas.’ But they do say: ‘What do I need to do?’ Or: ‘Is this right?’ I usually answer these questions. I usually stagger the task, preparing them for it stage by stage. What if occasionally I didn’t do this? What if I gave them a task and they had to get on with? No bullet-points of what to include. No discussion beforehand to generate ideas. No examples of how to do it really well. No sentence stems to guide their writing. No question and answer of the main things they need to include. No, they just do it. You, the student, make the decisions. Not me for once. What would happen if we did this? Wouldn’t we have a better understanding of what they can and cannot do? I think a lot of assessments are a collection of things the student has remembered the teacher has told them to include. Not a true engagement with the task. Obviously the tricky point is: when does teaching become giving a list of things to include in an assessment or giving guidance?

I am not suggesting that we ditch drafting. It is a valuable process. Only this week, I made my Year 7 class redraft, a film review they wrote, three times. All of them made progress along the way and surprisingly they enjoyed it. They got it. Hopefully, they will make a few less mistakes next time we do it. However, I am suggesting that we need to have some points in the curriculum that are about risk taking.  An assessment that has no introduction, no instructions and no build up; they just do it. Let’s call them ‘blind assessments’. In English, this is quite easy. I can easily invent a task; other subjects might struggle. Students do the task and I assess it.  Yes, they might get it wrong, but it is in those mistakes that I will learn far more than what they do with scaffolding. I will see what they can and cannot do. What comes naturally? What parts of their writing are ‘artificial components’? Look at GCSEs papers and you will notice that examiners frown and dislike artificial component writing like AFOREST. Sadly, I think our current assessments, in English, lead us to this component lead writing. Across the country you will find Year 11s trying to crowbar a fact in because they have a witty acronym. Good writing isn’t formulaic. It just works.  

The SATs provided a clear ‘blind assessment’ for students. They had an idea of what the paper looked like, but the texts and the tasks were unknown. It wasn’t perfect, because there was too much teaching towards it, but it upped students’ game. They worked hard for it. Sadly, it was a measure for schools rather than anything meaningful for students. I always felt sad for students when they got their results as it was brushed off in the education journey. Yes you have a level 6, but now we use grades in GCSE, so really that number is a bit meaningless. Sorry.  What it lacked was a direct consequence for them? To be meaningful for a student, it must have some consequences. There were no consequences for them. You might have a grumpy teacher after the results, but usually the results were received so far after the assessment that there could never be any meaningful consequences.

At the moment Ofsted are pushing for 3+ levels of progress in schools. We are, apparently, not pushing students enough in their education. Gove is changing the GCSEs to make things tougher for students. Things are too easy so students don’t feel driven to work hard. About this time of year, Year 11s start panicking about their future options. They start realising that they need to work harder to get the grades they want. They start becoming aware of the consequences of their actions in lessons. Some lucky few are aware of this from the start. However, a fair few suddenly have moments of realisation of the consequences of their past actions. In reality, they want to get better. No matter how many times I have told them that they must use paragraphs, they don’t. Yet suddenly after this moment of realisation they do it. In fact, they do it again and again, without me prompting them. They even fix their handwriting that I have never even mentions, because they want to get better. The student is aware of the consequences. They are aware of what they need to do. They want to do something.

What I think we need to do is to make them care sooner rather than later in education. Year 11 shouldn’t be the time that students realise the consequences of not working hard. They should know this from the start. There have to be clear consequences for not working hard enough. There are students that coast throughout Years 7-10.  These students need to know the risks of not working. Telling a student over and over that they are not reaching their target grades is meaningless. Having clear consequences for not working hard will give them more momentum. If you don’t get X, then you will not be Y. I constantly live with data, yet I think the data can be meaningless when there are no consequences or risks for the students. Lots of students want to get better. However, there are some that are apathetic and have level blindness. There needs to be some consequences for these students. Telling them that they might not get a C at GCSE might be meaningless in Year 8. Therefore, an immediate consequence is needed such as changing sets or something else. And, no I do not think giving them monetary rewards or prizes are the solution. It could be moving sets or limiting their options.

Anyway, the  SATs. They originally provided some risk to the curriculum. An assessment that could have had so many consequences for the students, but it didn’t. Gove has highlighted the current obsession with levelling and has put things in place to deal with this, but I am under no illusions that we will not see some other form of testing making its way into the curriculum. He’s changed KS2 testing. He’s changing the GCSEs. In time, KS3 will change and I reckon an assessment is due. Otherwise, we are looking at a huge gap between KS2 and GCSE in terms of monitoring progress. For DfE, education should be a line graph that goes up and up and up, yet most of us realistic teachers understand that progress happens in peaks and troughs. However, to maintain a climb in progress, they will add another test sooner or later so that they can monitor the climb.

Like Scrooge, I am visiting the ghosts of past Christmases. The SATs remind me of the good old days. I feel so much happier now; I think I understand Christmas now. I am putting on my Santa hat and singing carols as I type this. God bless you – I wish you and all a very, merry and happy Christmas!

Thanks for reading,


P.S. I am taking a break for blogging  for a fortnight, but I will be back in the new year.

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