Quoting heavily from Why Students Don’t Like School, a book by American cognitive scientist Professor Daniel T Willingham, education secretary Michael Gove argued this week why “regular, demanding, rigorous examinations” are the best way to advance the doctrine of liberal education.
Meanwhile, quoting the work of Wellington College head Anthony Seldon, Mr Gove’s political opposite, Stephen Twigg, argued from the same stage that we must not forget the importance of character development and the need to address the skills challenge of the 21st century.
The head-to-head debate was played out before an audience at the Independent Academies Association autumn conference last Wednesday (November 14).
Mr Gove focused on the importance of exams – arguing that students who are successful in the exam hall are invariably successful in other, non-academic ways.
Mr Twigg argued, conversely, that a greater emphasise on character development and skills would improve exam performance.
Mr Gove said education “properly understood” introduces children to “the habits of thought and bodies of knowledge which are the highest expressions of human thought and creativity”.
He went on to argue that exam halls, despite their forbidding air, were “agents of liberation”. Quoting Prof Willingham, Mr Gove referenced “the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought” – something the secretary of state said that exam success provides.
He continued: “I’m aware that some will argue that the problem with exams as a preparation for deep thought and rounded study is that exam preparation involves dull memorisation, stress and an excessive concentration of mental effort and at the end we forget everything we learned the moment the test is over.
“But the precise opposite is the case. (Exams) facilitate proper learning and support great teaching.” Referring back to Prof Willingham, he said that “memorisation is a necessary pre-condition of understanding”.
Mr Twigg disagreed. He said: “We have had a preview of the secretary of state’s remarks in the papers this morning. I do not believe that building an examination system based on rote learning is the answer. Rigour is about so much more than rote learning – rigour is also about understanding how to use concepts and how to think for yourself.
“Examinations need to assess the foundations for a good education. But we must reject the idea that this has to be at the cost of creativity and a broad curriculum.”
Mr Gove, however, maintained that “there is no feeling of satisfaction as deep, or sustained, as knowing we have succeeded through hard work”.
He continued: “Subjects are nothing if they are not coherent traditional bodies of knowledge, with understanding and appreciation of basic facts and simple concepts laying the ground for understanding of more complex propositions, laws, correlations and processes.”
Again quoting Prof Willingham, Mr Gove said: “Research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyse and think critically – require extensive factual knowledge.”
Mr Twigg said that skills such as leadership, resilience, the ability to work in a team, and self-management are “vital qualities”.
“Together with good exam results, these are the skills young people need to succeed. Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, has also championed the case for character development in schools. We need to address the skills challenge alongside ensuring our exams system is robust and our curriculum is fit for the
“I absolutely agree with him when he argues that instead of compromising standards, placing a greater role on character development does in fact improve performance – whether that be in attainment, behaviour or in developing more round and engaged citizens.”
Mr Gove believes, however, that the academics come first and the rest follows: “Schools which are academically successful are invariably successful in non-academic areas. Whereas the converse – sadly – is not always true. Schools that take tests seriously take students seriously.”
Elsewhere in the addresses, Mr Twigg referenced the taskforce recently set up by Labour which, led by the Institute of Education’s director Professor Chris Husbands, is to review how the qualification system can best meet the needs of both vocational and academic learners.
Mr Twigg added that the forthcoming raising of the education leaving age to 18 in 2015 “prompts us to examine the merits of the existing examination system”.
Mr Gove, meanwhile, defended the need for the “clarifying honesty” of league tables and said they were a “progressive development” in education.
However, he acknowledged that they can be “corrupted” by too much reliance on one measure as a target. He said: “There are still nevertheless problems with the concentration all these measures generate on the C/D borderline. Which is why we will be consulting soon on what a future – more intelligent – accountability system would look like.”
Commentary by Russell Hobby, general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers
"Different ways of testing and assessing children have different pros and cons. Teacher assessment can be subjective (although that can be dealt with by moderation and training) but it can also take a more measured look at a wider sample of work. This can be particularly important with younger children.
Formal examinations are less vulnerable to subjectivity but have their own problems. The sheer industrial scale of the process, with millions of papers sat every year, the poor pay and training for markers, and the narrow sample of student performance force many mistakes into externally marked exams.
Different markers and exam boards take different approaches and unexpected shifts in grade boundaries can throw everything up in the air. Exams as delivered in this country are not necessarily fair, objective or error free; as shown by the huge volume of appeals each year.
We must all be careful not to take a selective slice of the evidence and argument to support our own preferences. However, the real problem is that we cannot have a rational and productive debate in this country on the best form of assessment for each task while the products of assessment are used so crudely by the school accountability system. We are reduced to choosing and designing assessments on the basis of their incentives to teachers and schools, not on their accuracy.
As for the pleasurable rush of exams? It exists if the stakes are high but not too high; the goal stretching but within reach; the process fair and transparent. However, a student’s character, motivation and ambition will have been shaped long before they sit their GCSEs at 16 and by many other forces at school and home.
This is not a strong argument by itself in favour of external assessment. We would surely want work throughout school life to be suitably challenging and stretching. As Prof Willingham himself notes, it is problem-solving per se that is stimulating and which takes many forms. Every day in school should be mentally stimulating.
The right approach to this dilemma begins at the other end: by determining the outcomes of education and the curriculum and experiences which will deliver them, then selecting a range of assessments for each subject, then designing a more subtle and intelligent approach to accountability which uses exam performance within a bundle of judgements."