Category Archives: Standardised Testing

The Only Real Failure…

Needing some relaxation after an intense but rewarding day, I  began to watch a film called “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’.* I didn’t know anything about it apart from the names of the actors in the impressive cast list. This is not going to be a review or even a summary of the plot. However, I am going to use some dialogue from the screenplay as a theme for this blog. 

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Near the end of the film, there is a voice-over, in which Judi Dench (…sorry, Dame Judi Dench OBE, CH etc. etc.) speaks the following lines…

The only real failure is the failure to try…and the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment…as we always must.”

As an educator and a learner, this struck a chord with me. So much so, that I ‘rewound’ to hear that phrase twice more before I let the film continue.

Without risk, there would be no failure. Without failure, there would be no learning opportunity. Perhaps we can see the destination and are unsure of how to get there. Or, perhaps we are exploring without any idea of our destination, creeping forward or leaping into the unknown. Either way, it involves a degree of uncertainty and risk. 

Fear of failure…or more specifically, the fear of the consequences of failure is a huge barrier to learning for learners of any age. If we do not have the ability to cope with failure, then success will constantly be elusive.

How we feel about the consequences of failure is an indicator of the culture to which we belong – family, school, community, society, tribe, nation etc. We may receive many mixed messages about risk and failure. For some it is a natural part of life, for others it is associated with shame, guilt, rejection and humiliation.

I wonder how many young learners witness the abuse heaped upon a losing side by sports ‘fans’, as if it is the worst thing that could possibly happen. They may be present when the mistakes of individuals are focussed upon and spoken about repeatedly, and their sporting hero’s best efforts are derided without mercy. They may be inducted into a tribal mentality, where the passionate hatred of other humans who wear different colour sportswear is their dogma and creed. I wonder how many learners exist in cultures where the worst thing you could be is slightly different to a perceived norm – ethnically, physically, sexually, or spiritually. You are labelled a ‘loser’ because of height, hair colour, disability, etc. Good luck to the educator who then encourages children to embrace errors as learning opportunities!! (Seriously…good luck…and don’t give up!)

For some learners, failing to try is not the worst thing you can do but a guarantee that the ‘worst’ will not happen – ‘If I don’t try, I can’t get it wrong’. For some it is better to endure anger than humiliation; better to remain in control and deal with certainty than the uncertainty of a less than perfect outcome.

Most of the time, ‘getting it wrong’ is not a matter of life or death. (Sometimes it is – such as the occasion I tried to fit a new light switch without turning off the mains electricity!). Failure to succeed in the education system can result in limited life choices and opportunities for many school leavers. However, we can be made to feel that any perceived failure is hugely important. In education, that feeling can be transferred through a whole system from national government to learner. (We are not ‘winning’ in the PISA league…! Panic! Fear! Anxiety! Blame! More Panic! Knee-jerk reaction! More blame!) 

Of course, the failure to provide effective education has potentially devastating consequences for individuals and society. That is undeniable. And, to quote a friend of ours:

 ‘Public education is the imperfect solution to the perfect problem.’**

There has to be accountability and systems to monitor quality of provision. However, what if the monitoring system itself adversely affects quality because of the climate of threat and fear it creates? Whether that fear is justified or not,  is the system able to detect its own influence and respond appropriately? Or, do we have to wait until a complete system failure? 

The only real failure is a failure to try

If any system of monitoring quality and school inspection is not at least trying to monitor its own impact – then it has already failed. Perhaps those with the power to change and improve these systems*** cannot cope with the disappointment of its failure (even if it is only partial failure) and therefore cannot admit it, perhaps for reasons of professional or political pride. When those who design and operate (enforce?) internal or external quality assurance systems are prepared to genuinely request, receive and act upon feedback concerning their effectiveness, we will indeed be making progress in education. 

Raise standards. Embrace errors.  Revive Learning. Encourage risk . Remove fear. Empower learners. 

*‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ is a screenplay adapted from the book ‘These Foolish Things’ by Deborah Moggach.

** Thanks to Zach Bullock for the quote. 

***Systems should be used for their purpose, not a as social engineering tools for whichever government (local or national) holds the balance of political power.

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Filed under consequences, Education, evaluation, Explore, Learners, Learning, monitoring, Passion, Potential, Practitioners, Primary, Professional Development, Quality Learning, Reflective Learning, Risk, Secondary, Standardised Testing, Values

A Different Permission…tread softly.

In the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of entering the magical worlds of several 3-5 year old children. Some within an Early Years Foundation Stage setting in Greater London, England and others within a Foundation Phase Nursery/Reception classroom in the South Wales Valleys. 

Yes, I was invited by schools to join their EY environments…but truly entering the world of a 3 or 4 year old requires a different permission – the permission of that unique child.

Anyone who has spent time with young children will know how carefully they judge you and your intentions. Those eyes that silently glance for seconds at a time or those hands that thrust something in front of you and watch your reaction. And for every child there is a different point at which they decide to let you enter their universe. It could take moments, it could take months, it could take years. But only they can decide you are trustworthy and let you enter into their magical world. 

There are so many theories about Early Years Education, so much research, so many recognised practices and documents. All of which are helpful in terms of gaining knowledge and information. But when faced with that young learner, it is the quality of the interaction that takes precedence. The quality of those moments shared. These young children are busy making sense of their surroundings. They are busy constructing their immediate world. And, as educators, we attempt to enter these worlds and become co-creators and guides. Yet it is how we enter and how we aim to interact that can determine whether we co-construct or unintentionally destroy that magical world. 

Educational change is occurring everywhere. Advice is everywhere on how to provide enabling environments that allow the unique child to learn and develop. Yet the pressure is on to measure that development, to speed up the development, to get those children to attain and reach the expected levels. And, measurement of how this is being done does not always take into account that children and educators are people, not just sets of numbers and data to be entered into a system. Maybe, because of the types of measuring tools we use,  it can’t be taken into account. Maybe the systems have no space for the ‘human’ element. But if this is so, at what point do we lose the very essence of who we are and who we are helping our young learners to become? How do we maintain the quality time needed to build relationships, create worlds and enjoy learning moments? 

This is not just a UK pre-occupation, it is happening in many places around the world. I have been alerted to one principal in the USA who decided to take action and write a letter to parents/carers in response to the increase of testing and assessment. 

If we, as educators, attempt to enter into a child’s world purely with a measuring tape and an assessment purpose, then we run the risk of ‘treading on those delicate worlds’. There is a growing concern. A fear that ‘targets and assessment’ are becoming the driving force. ‘Yes’ to accountability. ‘Yes’ to aiming for quality. But, not at the expense of losing our souls and destroying the natural wonder, curiosity and imagination of young learners. 

So, how do we continue to create opportunities for ‘quality moments’ with our young learners? How do we stand tall and hold onto our values…because actually, for many educators, there is fear involved and a feeling that they are being ‘railroaded’ into operating in a way that is incongruent with their passionately held beliefs about learning. Moreover, what will be the real cost? 

This post is for the many educators that we have spoken with in the last few months. Thank you for what you do, often in the face of adversity and the snapshot judgements of others who are operating with a different, often ‘political’,  agenda. 

Lets hope that education never loses the human touch in the name  of ‘systems’ and ‘politics’ and can find the balance needed to inspire individuals, to help them uncover their dreams and to explore their potential – whatever their age. 

‘I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’  

English: Footprints, Omagh An ecco footprint h...

William Butler Yeats

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Filed under Designing for Learning, Early Years, Education, Formative Assessment, Quality Learning, Single Steps Learning, Standardised Testing

Standardized Testing — The Brutal Search for Factual Data

George Bernard Shaw once said: “Live in contact with dreams and you will get something of their charm: live in contact with facts and you get something of their brutality”. When it comes to the current preoccupation with standardized testing in the United States (and, more particularly, in New York State), my fear is that we are replacing dreams and compassion and thoughtful analysis with a quick but brutal search for data and statistics. And it is wrong to do this. We ought not to acquiesce to that which diminishes the quality of life for our children, our teachers, our schools and our communities.

via Standardized Testing — The Brutal Search for Factual Data.

We recently published a blog about a child’s response to the standardised testing regime that they had been subjected to over the past few weeks. Testing that teachers may not necessarily agree with, but are forced to administer and then (in some places) publicly named and shamed in the media – and we are not talking about the ‘banding’ or listing of schools based on their performance (which happens in the UK), we are talking about the names of individual teachers. This is happening in parts of the US. How long before this trend spreads?  

The above blog by gilboafox caught our interest. It is well worth a read. 

This sentence in particular resonated with us.

“We ought not to acquiesce to that which diminishes the quality of life for our children, our teachers, our schools and our communities.”

We have just completed a 3 day event in Stirling, Scotland. Assessment within ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ was a major theme – something that everyone is working towards. Assessment that encourages learners (of all ages), helps them to progress and involves them from start to finish. Assessment that does not just reduce the learners (of all ages) to a number, a piece of data that can be used by politicians to justify their existence and policies. Every practitioner this week talked about learning and learners with passion, respect, understanding and accountability. If only ‘those in charge’ talked about the teaching profession (who are also learners in their own right)  in the same way and applied an ‘indivisibility of principles’ approach.  All too often teachers are used as scapegoats…and forced into situations that are incongruent with their principles and values.  

If ‘health and well-being’ is high on the agenda, how do we as a profession help to create an assessment system that is not soul-destroying…a system that involves the learner (of all ages) at the centre of the process…a system that is accountable to the learner and not just the politician? Do we, as members of the education profession, have the confidence to stand up, stand tall and be heard? Do we have the confidence to question?

“To question is to grow” (Great line in ‘Proud’, M People)

Now is the time to question more loudly than before. Now is the time to grow. 


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Filed under Community Learning, Designing for Learning, Early Years, Education, Learners, Practitioners, Primary, Quality Learning, Secondary, Single Steps Learning, Standardised Testing, Teaching, Values