On Teaching and Learning

There is a report in the Guardian this morning on the sorry state of primary school education in Britain. This is one of those cases where I found my culture shock at moving to the UK to be the greatest: they have a completely different idea of what schooling means, both in primary and secondary school, and it’s probably at least partly related to a University system that has so little to do with an American university that it’s not recognizable. I truly was not expecting such immense philosophical differences in the field of education, nor have I been able to be convinced since being here that the English system is a particularly effective one when it comes to true teaching and learning. It involves specialization at a very young age and lots of stressful examinations, which is one of the key points in the Guardian piece.

For background for those unfamiliar with the English system, the end of a “general” education is at age 16, as the years from 16-18 involve detailed studying of only three or four subjects, and in the area in which you will major at University. University has no “general education” element, which results in a 3-year instead of 4-year Bachelors degree. I am not questioning the qualifications of these students compared with American degrees, but the philosophy is just so different that I have a difficult time comprehending. (Perhaps one or more of my friendly British readers will provide some commentary, especially those cases where both systems have been experienced directly!)

One of the most pressing issues in all of this is the UK’s emphasis on examinations. I can honestly say that there were only a few times in my life where I had a reasonably stressful examination, all above the age of 15 or 16 and never for more than a day: the PSAT, which determines a scholarship for University, the ACT, which determines part of Uni entrance competitiveness, and the GRE for grad school admissions. We had standardized testing in the schools, but it was not stressful, at least not for me (who knows what the teachers felt!) I don’t feel as though the student body in general was particularly fussed about these exams, it merely represented a day in which we did not have our normal classes at the normal times.

My views of my American education are quite positive. The emphasis on learning instead of examining meant that we had far more of our total outcome for any subject based on projects, reports, take-home examinations where libraries could be consulted and the overall level of creative thinking was high. Exams were one small part of the picture, at all levels including high school and University. And the broader curriculum meant that I was able, as a science/math geek, to still take English literature, Russian language and literature, psychology and sociology as subjects at University level, even though technically they have nothing to do with my Engineering degree. How less broad my education would have been without that needed diversion and distraction from purely math and physics! And how better prepared I was for working in the real world, where outcomes in jobs are most certainly not evaluated by formal seated examinations!

I do not mean to cause offense by criticizing a system that is not my own. But I put this out there because I am honestly having a difficult time understanding the merits of this heavy testing schedule for children, and clearly I’m not alone–as is reflected in the Guardian piece–since the criticism for testing children so much is now reaching fever pitch. I had a casual conversation with a friend a few weeks ago in which she said that if she had kids she would have to leave the UK, as she could not subject them to this system. I had not thought of it in quite such stark terms (not having or planning on kids myself) but I could see her point, and it came back to me in reading this Guardian piece right now. It brings up broader philosophical points too: what is the role of education, and how does that role change in primary school, secondary school and University-level education? My own grandparents only went through American “8th grade” living out in the wilderness of southwestern Minnesota, although they did supplement their educations several times each later in life. It’s clear that with the passage of time, over the last 50 years especially but 100 years as well, that the importance of University education has increased, which has increased the pressure on students at younger ages to consider their competitiveness for Uni admissions. But at what point do we have to stop and say that up until the age of 18, we are still dealing with CHILDREN here, and take some of the pressures off to allow for the enjoyment of freedom that one never sees again with the commencement of one’s working days?

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12 responses to “On Teaching and Learning

  1. It is important to note the Cambridge Review reported by the Guardian does not concern itself with secondary or tertiary education.

    So far as primary education is concerned, it appears that educational standards in science and mathematics are higher in the England than they are in the US, according to the TIMMS report, which I brought to your attention back in December (14th). If you want to revisit the findings of that study, there is a summary here: http://tinyurl.com/5dfkrv . Please notice that TIMMS is an American study.

    > University has no “general education” element

    Well, mine did!

  2. That study does not show that actual ability in science in math are increasing, only that ability to take science and math exams is increasing in the UK! Which only makes my point for me. Even more worryingly, the linky you provided says:

    “But the downside to these good international rankings is that children appear to be enjoying maths and science less than they used to.

    Professor John Holman, head of the National Science Learning Centre, said: “It is clear that England is among the higher performing developed countries for science and mathematics, although progress needs to be accelerated if England aspires to be on a par with some Pacific Rim countries.”

    But he added: “However, of great concern is the disappointing data about students’ attitudes towards these subjects: good achievement is not enough without the positive attitudes that make pupils want to continue their studies to become the scientists and engineers of the future.””

  3. For me the question that is raised by your comments above is around just how do you measure what ability is. The Dept of Ed. clearly thinks that their assessments do the job. If that is not to be the measure of progress or attainment then what? Validation against job outcomes? – fine in principle but those longitudinal studies take so long that there no longer reflect the education system once the results are available.

    I suppose for me the telling aspect is that based on US data the British aspire to raise their performance to the level of the Pacific Rim. The US is well behind.

    The issue of the fall in positive attitudes towards science and math is a serious concern for England, as it is for the US. The falls seen in England bring the levels down to figures comparable to the US. In both countried the lack of interest in these fields concerns me, as an engineer, although one that works in another field now.

    My daughter went to school here in the UK but to compare her experience with mine in the American system all those years ago probably makes no sense at all (it was a long time ago!). The system here is very competitive and the early specialization is a challenge. It did mean that the areas she did cover were learnt very thoroughly, more so than I ever did. Fortunately she had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to do. to be honest the assessments were not that much of an issue. I think it has a lot to do with the way the schoolposition them. In our case they were presented very much as
    “business as usual” so they really didn’t become that high stress.

  4. I agree that there is far far too much testing in schools in the UK. Testing at primary level is completely overdone, and has really dampened imagination in the primary sector, as teachers find it hard (understandably) not to teach for the tests. It’s a crying shame.

    Here, though, I’ve found there is much more grading at lower ages. This has been a frustration for me. Does my 8 year old really need to have every spelling test, math quiz, vocab exercise, etc graded? I can look up all the results on the school database. In my book, the point of a spelling test is to learn to spell the words. If you get some wrong, you re-learn them. The idea that the point is to get a good grade seems the wrong emphasis (although I can see that for the kids, the two approaches amount to the same in practice). The moms seem very focused on the grades.

    The UK has always done education by exam, but it’s only in the past 20 years that it’s gone so mad. I agree that we do specialise too early (16 is too young). Scotland seems a happy medium. They keep 5 subjects till they’re 18, and then have a 4-year degree.

  5. It is interesting that you reject an American study for an English one. This must surely be a ‘first’!

    I am sorry that you dismiss the TIMSS evidence. A number of American information-providers do not do so. Here is an example of one from Minnesota, from a publication which may be known to you: http://tinyurl.com/caxbsv

    Please may I ask: Is what you write in your blog reasonably typical of the information-gathering, sorting and analysis, editing, checking and publication, of an American education, ?

  6. > nor have I been able to be convinced since being here that the English system is a particularly effective one when it comes to true teaching and learning

    How effective would you say that Sarah Palin’s education was?

  7. Could I suggest that if you want a more balanced view of the British education system you widen your reading a little beyond The Guardian, which is just an left-wing propaganda machine? Try The Times and The Telegraph as well, and you might find less bias. In international tests, British children score more highly than American ones, so perhaps the system, though not as good as it once was, is not suffering too much from testing. Lack of discipline in schools, and failure to permanently eject disruptive elements, is the real cause of the recent fall in standards – and I say this as a primary school teacher myself. To prove my point, Asian student (look at results for Korea and Singapore), who have strict testing and strict discipline, wipe the floor with both US and UK students.

  8. SuzyQ, the point is clearly not coming across here. This has nothing to do with who is publishing the story, it came out of Cambridge University and I happened to pick it up in the Guardian but it was in other news outlets as well. The point is this:

    If British students have an education system where teaching is replaced by training students to take tests, the students will perform better on tests than a system in which teaching is about actual learning. I see that British students do well on tests. We see the same thing in East Asian students who also perform well in tests, especially entrance tests for Western Universities, but then arrive only to find that people under-perform if the tests are not the exams they are used to. Teaching students to take exams is NOT the same as teaching students full stop.

  9. Notfromroundhere, why would you think that teaching followed by tests is any less effective than teaching not followed by tests? At least at the end of testing you have some empirical testing to prove the pupils have actually learned something, and that teachers are doing their jobs (not always the case in some schools I have worked in!) Actual learning, as you call it, and tests are not mutually exclusive. I am also baffled by your insinuation that East Asian students perform less well at university than others – this is certainly not so in my experience. Is this opinion of your based on fact or prejudice?

  10. SuzyQ, the problem I have is with “teaching to the test” which was also the problem discussed in the article linked, the idea that the content of the syllabus gets limited by the things that are “examinable” and that the only form of proper assessment is a written exam. I believe in broader forms of assessment, as well as teaching for completeness in the subject even if some topics are not easily examined by pen and paper (computer projects in this day and age, as well as long projects with public speaking as a major part of the assessment with peer grading… always makes people think about their audience!)

    I was a PhD student at the Uni in the states with the largest population of Chinese graduate students, and they often seemed to arrive with significantly less English than the standardized test scores would indicate. Yes, it’s anecdotal evidence and related to language, not, say, mathematical performance. But it does make one query the usefulness of exam scores yet again.

  11. So far as secondary education is concerned, your fellow expat bloggers seem to think that the English system is better than the American.

    For an example, here is what Ilya (in http://burlaki.com/blog/category/children-schooling/ ) has to say:

    “I firmly hold that, if taught right, British approach to school education is both wider in its range and deeper in its substance than American schooling approach. The simplest example of greater depth is the fact that pupils actually learn how to prove mathematical theorems as opposed to just checking them off as “facts”; the former trains the mind, while the latter is pretty useless on its own merits, in my humble opinion. […]
    Having said all that, I have no doubt that, all other things being equal, my kids will end up more well-rounded and open-minded individuals than their American peers because of the years they will have spent in British schools.”

    You might want to add this very reasonable man’s blog to your list of expat blogs, NFAH.

  12. Oh, and a bit more of what Ilya says:

    “I have no doubt that, all other things being equal, my kids will end up more well-rounded and open-minded individuals than their American peers because of the years they will have spent in British schools.”

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