Maths Fear and Anxiety

Teachers and parents need to be aware of their role in the creation of maths anxiety. At times, I have seen students suffer massive debilitation because of it. One young lad, who had strong academic credentials and was expected to do well, go to a good university and have a strong academic future became so anxious that he required me to meet him outside the examination room before the exams, to talk him down to stay calm and to walk him in to the exam room. He then wanted me to be there to meet him when he came out, after the exam was over.

If we care about students fulfilling their potential, we have to acknowledge the existence of maths anxiety and do all in our power to help children to address it and to empower themselves with the tools and the confidence to be in control of their feelings about the subject.

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Great At The Game. The Right Game?

Within the education field, there are some who believe that the only things worth measuring or caring about are those that can be measured. To them, data is everything. Their logic suggests that if you can’t reduce something to hard data, then it probably doesn’t really matter in education.

The result of this mindset is articles like this:

The Washington Post: This Company Says It Can Predict Whether A Teacher Will Be Any Good – Before Entering A Classroom

Quite simply – what they’re saying is that they can isolate the features of those teachers who are capable of getting children to score higher on standardised tests, identify those attributes in prospective teachers and thereby short-circuit the recruitment process.

Of course, their whole premise is based upon the idea that ability to get children to get high scores in standardised tests is the most (only?) important attribute of a teacher. To my mind, this is so dangerous as to be daunting. Worse, it can look to the public like it makes sense – who won’t be tempted by those who promise that their children will get better exam results and as a result have better higher education prospects, better work and professional potential and even a better life.

Who cares for the skills and competencies of the twenty first century? Just because you can simplify our profession down to one or two simple measures, doesn’t mean that’s wise or moral.

Cramming For Exams

The world over, the imminent approach of formal, standardised examinations has the potential to cause the flight of rationality and reason on the part of students, parents and (dare I say it) even sometimes teachers.

I’ve often said that whilst cutting educators some slack, we also have to take responsibility and remember to always have our guard up against the pernicious impact of our past. We are all ourselves products of the education systems of the past. Our school experiences as children impacted us at the most impressionable time in our lives. As a result, whilst today’s educators may learn, be trained in and practice all sorts of new perspectives, ways of doing things and practices based on the latest in psychological and neuroscience awareness when stress takes over it’s all too easy to resort to doing things the way they were, the way they were familiar when we were children.

Today, we all talk in terms of wanting or children to be lifelong learners, to own their own learning, to take responsibility and to acquire, learn and master skills of time management, planning, strategising and approaching the learning process with a long term perspective. A lot more is known than 40 years or so ago about how learning happens best and what works (and what doesn’t). Yet, across the world, if we were a fly on the wall outside exam halls 10 minutes before the doors open to admit the students, we would see school or college students hunched over notes or even sometimes the textbook in the hope of squeezing some last few morsels of knowledge in to their brains in the hope of extracting a little extra in marks from the exam. Many students almost feel that if they’re not doing this, not stressing, then somehow they risk being seen as not caring enough about the outcome of the exam – in the eyes of others or themselves.

In the weeks running up to the exams all parties join in with this stress momentum. All too often, educators unfortunately give students all the evidence they ever needed to believe that we’ve been deceiving them all along. We never really meant it when we said that they owned their own learning. We never really meant it when we said that learning was a marathon and not a sprint. We never meant it when we said we trusted them.

Instead, the adults start making decisions and imposing them on the students. One of the most common is the imposition of revision classes, cram sessions or whatever else we want to call them.

Here’s a perspective on this from a blog post of a concerned UK teacher;

The Guardian – Secret Teacher – Last Minute Revision Classes Do More Harm Than Good

I do believe there’s a duty on us, as educators, before jettisoning these habits and trends of the past to ensure that we are doing the right things all year around with our students. That includes, making the learning meaningful, guiding them to be self-motivating, self-organising and working from a position of proper understanding of how their own minds work. Students who see their learning as something they’re doing for themselves, motivated because they see how it contributes to their long term goals and working sensibly with skill and finesse don’t need us to doubt them in those critical final weeks. Rather, they need us to be reinforcing our faith in them, letting them know that if they need help or inputs we’re there for them, but that we have faith in them to deliver to their full potential.

Delivering great results doesn’t start in those last few weeks before exams. That’s true for a student, for a parent, a teacher or a whole school. Therefore, if we’ve all been doing the right things in the right ways, it’s vital that we resist knee-jerk behaviours in those final weeks that can actually undermine the great work.

Maybe our mantra should be – if it looks, sounds, feels, smells or tastes like when we went to school, we should probably STOP doing it !!!

Chasing Bits of Paper

Teaching Times – English GCSEs Could Be Harder For Pupils

In a logical and rational world children, parents and educators would want that examinations are a fair test, skillfully put together in such a way that all students get to demonstrate their capabilities and what they’ve learned to the greatest extent. Those who have embraced the learning best would be able to demonstrate that.

Instead, what we’ve increasingly finished up with is dumbed down simplified tests that enable vast numbers to score the top marks, to the point where they no longer act as a good and effective test of who are the best students. One of the results is that Universities increasingly struggle to find any value in them to determine who would be the best students to permit to pursue further studies. Sadly, all parties conspire, consciously or unconsciously to dumb the system down and render it worthless.

If we could hav an education system in which everyone really embraced a love for learning, what would the assessments look like? How would we reward and recognise those teachers who embrace the work of enabling every pupil to learn to their best and how would we hold those who cynically tech to the tests to account?

Testing – For What?

“If we are insistent on having exams for these Primary School children, then what are we testing for?”

“Well, of course, we want to know what they have learned and what they can do.”

“In that case, is there any legitimate good reason why there should be time limits on the exam? Doesn’t that test something else?”

The room full of teachers looked at me with such horror that I felt I might need to do a quick check to see that I hadn’t just grown a second head.

I’ve long believed that there are times when, as leaders, one of our most valuable responsibilities is to ask naive and simple questions that challenge and question those things that are taken for granted within a profession. The reality is education and teaching have many of these things – practices and processes that are applied without question or application of curiosity to see whether they really make sense. This is a particular issue in schools that espouse a desire to move to more child-centric and learner oriented education methods (especially personalisation) but still do a multitude of things that aren’t really compatible with those goals – simply because they haven’t been questioned.

The conversation at the top of this post really happened. It was about 11 years ago, but I’ve also had similar conversations with teachers in other places much more recently. So, I was interested when i saw this article from New York Times and wanted to share it;

New York Times – State Will Shed Clock For Some Statewide Tests

Seeing the headline and the initial part of the article one might have reason to believe that this was all positive and a recognition and response to do something that makes sense for positive progress in education. However, reflection on the final part of the article suggests that the intent is more manipulative and potentially a devious move by those hell-bent on pushing forward the agenda of the standards movement in US public education. Could it be that this is a sop to appease increasingly frustrated and angry teachers and parents? These are people (politicians particularly) who are convinced that the way to raise standards in education and have a higher level of quality is to change the nature of teachers’ jobs by linking their remuneration and even job security to performance in standardised tests.

We only need to stop for a second to see that what they’re doing doesn’t make sense. If the question in their minds was about how to have a system of assessing children’s learning that was beneficial, meaningful and led to genuine progress n leaning for every child, then why continue with the standardised formal exams? Why not advocate for a form of more formative assessments and application of a fuller range of assessment tools and strategies? Secondly, if the time limit on the exams is removed, how does this create a level playing field for all teachers such that the data nerated can be trusted as a basis for judging their performance, determining salary increases and even issues of job security and tenure?

I continue to believe that if we are truly putting the children/ learners first – then there’s no place for examinations in the earlier years of their education at all. There are so many more effective ways of assessing progress that provide meaningful ways to plan their way forward for continuous learning progress. Exams are not some holy sanctified process for which years of learning and practice are necessary – we want to create great citizens and young people who can make a meaningful contribution to the world, not exam ninjas!

In the meantime, I will consider it my duty to continue to ask naive questions, challenge and probe so that together educators can bring positive reform in our profession.

Noam Chomsky – Dangers of Standardized Testing

“Not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important.”
Elliot Eisner, Educator

In this short video (under 7 1/2 minutes), Noam Chomsky very neatly summarises what's wrong with today's obsession with standardized testing and the harm that it's doing in school systems, individual schools and at the level of the individual teacher and student.

For those who might want the interview in written form, the link is here:
Creative Systems Thinking - Noam Chomsky

Experience tells us, throughout the world, that when these standardized systems of assessment are challenged the people who defend them are the children who performed highest (or expected to) and their parents under the rigid system. They happen to be the children who have figured out how to 'play the game' of giving testers what they want and are happy for their A grades to just keep rolling in without any real effort. However, I would argue that even they are failed by the standardized system as they don't get stretched to fulfill their potential or challenged to go ahead of where they are. More formative assessment processes focus more on momentum and progress forwards for each and every student.

Probably the biggest hurdle to getting real, across the board, effective change is that the testing industry is now vast and highly profitable. I've seen suggestions that in the US alone the revenues from testing are around one and half times the revenues earned by cinema box offices. This is a powerful force with strong political connections that is determined to spread their approach throughout the world. A further challenge comes in those places where the teachers see their lives as easier where there is standardized testing and therefore don't speak up. Administering some multiple choice based exams developed by an external party takes far less effort than engaging mentally and continuously with the formative process of figuring out for each and every student in the class what they need, where they need to go and how they need to learn to progress from where they are.

We know there's something wrong when the teachers and learning have become subjugated to the testing, instead of the other way around. Never mind that the tests fail to give feedback of any real value or merit, especially when it comes to the development of twenty first century competencies and skills. There is very important work to be done in this area by educators throughout the world.

Getting in a Mess Over Testing

In the last week or so, the debate about testing in the US took a significant new direction with a decree from the President, Barack Obama with the headline – “We’ve been doing too much testing.” Here’s a New York Times story with more background on the issues:

New York Times – Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools

There is real irony in this story and the way that it’s reported. Politicians dictating to educators about how children will be educated. For example, no clues are given as to how they’ve arrived at this figure of 2% of instructional time to be given to testing. As the article quite rightly suggests, with testing not defined, who decides what forms part of the 2%? Also, if the testing is rubbish it doesn’t matter whether it occupies 2% of a student’s learning time in school – it’s still going to be wasted time.

Further, we have to be realistic. part of the problem with high stakes testing isn’t the actual time the tests take to conduct. it’s all the other associated lost time that worries me. If, as is often the case, teachers are going to find their performance assessed according to the performance of the students in the exams, we can hardly be surprised that the teachers turn over large amounts of learning time to ‘test preparation’. Before you know it, even with one annual cycle of exams, way more time is lost in revision lessons, exam priming sessions, practicing for the processes of answering the exam questions etc. Before you know it, learning to excel in the exam has become far more important than learning.

Then, in most Indian schools, my experience suggests that combined pressure from the parents, the students and the teachers will see one exam take place per day, with the remainder of the day written off for the child to go home and ‘mug up’ for the next. Then, there are often some days declared as ‘non-instructional’ while the teachers do the marking of the exam papers. Then, we lose some more learning focus and time whilst everyone fills themselves with angst about the results afterwards.

The net effect in an academic year that typically amounts to about 190 school days is that, easily over 10% of learning time is lost to this process. I have always felt that this was truly bizarre if the purpose is really to check progress and point the way for future learning.

So, while the US tackles the mess it’s got itself into with a new limit on testing time, the Indian educators need to take a long cold hard look at the entrenched habits of examinations.

School must be for learning, not testing.