• Dan Boorman

Curriculum and Teaching to the Test

I often hear the phrase ‘Teaching to the test’. It is said in a withering tone, with eye rolling and a general air of gloom about the future of education. It is beginning to resemble the teaching equivalent of ‘political correctness gone mad’.

I recently had a discussion with a colleague, that started as friendly debate on how students learn things - “How should it be taught in the first place?”, “How many times should learners practise something in lessons before they have successfully modified their long-term memory?, “How do we model retrieval in lessons?”. By the end of the discussion, though still good natured, my colleague was fully in the “We’re not just an exam factory”, “I want them to have a passion for my subject”, “My subject can’t just be rote learned” zone! Then the inevitable “this is just teaching to the test!”.

I thought hard about this phrase, and where it falls into the curriculum and learning discussion.

Teaching to ‘the’ test

The most cynical approach, and probably in response to pressures placed on teachers to make internal data look good or ‘catch up’ if they feel they are falling behind schedule with a class. There is a well-considered specification or scheme of work, but the teacher knows what will be in the assessment - and so teaches just that content, often cramming it just before the test. The result will be a pleasing looking spreadsheet/mark book, but a class full of pupils who will have no recollection of the ‘learning’ or the test four weeks later.

Teaching to the ‘big’ test

If the teacher assumes each GCSE or A-level specification is written by experts in their subject, teaching pupils the entire specification seems sensible. As a Chemistry teacher, most of the GCSE and A-level examinable content seems appropriate for pupils of that age to be learning - and will provide them with either a platform to understand the Chemistry around them, or continue on to study Chemistry at a higher level. In this sense, teaching to the test is really ensuring pupils know the Chemistry (both content and strategies) deemed appropriate by the exam board (theoretically experts in their field). If the pupils are to successfully learn the subject, they will need carefully considered explanations, multiple opportunities to retrieve the factual information and varied practise implementing strategies for the skill-based elements.

Teaching to your own ‘personal’ test

If the teacher doesn’t agree with the specification or scheme of work they’re teaching (they feel there are important ideas missing, or the specification is too vague to use as a structure for lessons) - then they are still teaching to a test…just their own personal test. One possible difficulty here is they may be the only person who is aware of this ‘specification’. Whatever the teacher has decided the pupils should know and be able to do, they will still need many opportunities to recall the factual information and plenty of practice implementing strategies. It would also be useful to share this ‘personal’ specification with the pupils.

Not teaching to any test

The teacher is knowledgeable and enjoys free-wheeling discussions, debates and pupil questions. They fly off at tangents, intersperse anecdotes and jokes and everyone has a jolly good time. I’m convinced there is room for some of this in the school day - however if the teacher wants the pupils to actually learn something - research suggests they will need clear explanations, repeated opportunities to retrieve important ideas and practise strategies. These lessons may inspire and engage, but will the students be more knowledgeable at the end of the course?

This leads to a curriculum discussion for each subject and key stage. At some point each department has to decide what their ‘test’ will be. What would they like their students to know and be able to do at the end of the course? This would seem an important and healthy discussion, and will likely require plenty of compromise. It would be tricky to teach the entire history of scientific discovery in a two-year course! Most GCSE and A-level specifications have been carefully considered by experts, and so provide a good starting point for the content - but a well-considered alternative approach is just as valid. It would be a difficult to argue one course is categorically better or worse than another.

Once this has been decided, the structure of the course needs to be considered. Most teachers and pupils like to have a clear idea of what should have been learnt by the end. Providing them with a clear outline at the start gives them a feel for how much they have to learn, and the timescales involved, and provides a useful checklist against which to gauge progress.

The next step is designing the course to encourage long-term learning. The temptation is to take the total number of weeks, then divide that by the number of topics to teach and leave a month at the end for revision. However, this will not promote long-term learning and will likely generate panic cramming at the end of the course. The most depressing part of this approach is that the pupils will have forgotten all of their, and your, hard work by the summer holidays.

Imagine planning a GCSE two-year course, where you had to teach the pupils content and strategies - but the exam would be taken at a random point in the following 2 years! No Easter revision sessions, no cramming the night before, no pep talk on the morning of the exam. There would be a far greater emphasis on clear explanations and long-term learning, which in turn would require regular practise and low-stakes assessments throughout the course. I feel this is would be an interesting starting point when designing a new course.

Perhaps this is a fifth approach - ‘Teaching to an imaginary random future test’


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