Should students be able to sue if their school teaches to the test?
If in teacher training teachers are expected to consider childhood development in designing suitable teaching and learning activities, and if there is indeed enormous amounts of research validating the different cognitive and emotional capacities of different age groups, could it be argued that a parent could sue the school for denial of learning if the school’s curriculum is exam focused rather than developmentally focused?
Sometimes when I am talking about the importance of being able to prevent overloading students with homework, I will hear some educationists say that it is not such a bad thing if the student is overloaded. They believe that there’s value in the pressure created, as it will help to prepare them for the examination period, a period where students may have more than one exam on the same day. The issue with such a strategy though is that it forgets that students are continuously developing.
As a teacher you know what it’s like to have to come home having taught all day and then having to spend up to 2, possibly three hours preparing/marking for the next day. We hate it, are exhausted by it, and quite rightly complain about it continuously. Yet rarely do we speak out when we become aware of 15 to 18 year olds under the same pressures. We just expect them to knuckle down and get on with it. We expect that because we believe it is preparing them for when they leave school. But not only does it seem like a strange thing to be promoting (to feel the same anxieties that we feel by having to work for long periods outside of work), it is assuming that a teenager can cope with the same pressure. It is assuming that developmentally they can cope.
How many of us are aware of how much pressure a 15-18-year-old can actually handle? Where have we got our numbers from? How conscious are we of the developmental needs of a student of this age? I’m not sure anyone can say we are if this Psychology Today article is correct. There's also plenty of research into the impact of stress on learning. What if the increased pressure we now apply due to the new more difficult curricula is not appropriate to this developmental period, and in fact only stunts progress through it? The idea of developmental stages is hardly refutable, with countless renowned theorists espousing, albeit with minor variations, distinct stages characterised by increasingly complex cognitive and emotional capacities. A 13 year old doesn’t have the same tolerance for pressure as a 16 year old, nor does the 16 year old compared to an adult. Yet as teachers, because of external pressures to demonstrate progress, we are driven to prepare students for the next developmental stage, by providing contexts that are from it: by teaching to the test, and by overloading them with homework.
The perils of teaching to the test
Teaching in the upper grades practically demands a seriously strong focus on examinations and their content. The pressure to succeed in such a context is enormous, and not only for the student. Many teachers fall into the trap of immediately teaching to the test. Taking direct examples from past examinations and designing lessons around them is common practice. Yet there isn’t any level or key stage around the world that is not categorised by what the student should achieve by its end. The examination at the end of this stage should be characterised by a building of skills up until perhaps the last month or two of that stage. When teachers begin the course with questions on a par to what they would receive in the exam they actually deny the developmental process to take place, and inadvertently dampen the students’ ability to succeed to their potential.
Take for example a students beginning an English GCSE course. They could hardly be expected to produce a sufficient response to a 10 mark analysis question if on the very first day the amount of time given to complete such a question was the same that they would expect to have on the examination day. The chance of success is minimal. In fact they would, at worst, undoubtedly lose motivation to continue, and at best usurp valuable energy to overcome the pressure. Many students will of course pull through, but at what price? Have they become significantly stronger people, or have they just persevered through an unnecessary, never to be reclaimed period of their lives? The amount of exhaustion that I see in students in the upper years seems to prove the latter. The building towards skills process is absolutely necessary, and it requires an incredibly experienced and skilful teacher to always be guided by a child’s development rather than the schools performance table.
And analogous situation is the increasing trend of English faculties beginning to cover GCSE texts in year eight and nine. What a teacher must carefully consider however is whether or not that aged student can cope with the type of skills that are required in the examination, let alone the emotional capacities for such texts. For example, the very strong focus on analysis in the English GCSE examination is a skill more suited to someone on the verge of adulthood compared to a young teenager. The mental capacity has just not been developed yet, and so the insistence on an analysis focus becomes merely just robotic learning rather than meaningful learning. Consider also emotional variances in the year eight student compared to the year 11. Are we actually destroying the love of English by presenting themed texts to the wrong audience? An ultimate irony perhaps in our focus on audience?
Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development urges the teacher to carefully plan activities based on cognitive capabilities. The zone of proximal development surely applies to emotional capabilities also; that is after all why there are age restrictions on viewing certain films and television programs. Pitching tasks to a student who’s not capable of handling them is a waste of time.
The perils of setting too much homework/revision
Setting more homework and revision tasks when students already have sufficient work for that developmental age does not therefore serve to strengthen the students and prepare them for a future pressurised context, but actually weakens them. The random assignment of homework, a process that happens in every school that doesn’t have a strict schedule, creates such a context. By doing so it denies recognition of developmental theory, and therefore has a lot to answer for. The inevitable consequence is a compromise in the performance and the quality of the tasks undertaken, and an inevitable effect on the student’s well-being.
It all makes me wonder. Could we potentially face a time when a parent could actually sue their school for failing to provide adequate learning for a specific developmental age? If a student is highly demotivated by the schooling process, or emotionally exhausted, preventing them from succeeding in the final examination and thereby affecting their entire future, wouldn’t that be grounds for a class action?