Teaching knowledge or teaching to the test?

This is part 2 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

For many people, teaching knowledge, teaching to the test and direct, teacher-led instruction are one and the same thing. Here is Fran Abrams from BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme making this argument.

In fact, there’s been an increasing focus on knowledge, as English schools have become ever more exam driven.

And also Tom Sherrington, who writes the Teacher Head blog.

If anything, we have a strong orientation towards exam preparation; exams are not as content free as some people suggest.

Teaching knowledge and teaching to the test are seen as similar things – but what I want to argue is that they’re actually very different.

I think teaching knowledge and direct teacher instruction are good things – but that teaching to the test is a really bad idea. I also think, perhaps slightly counter-intuitively, that teaching to the test is more likely to happen when you don’t focus on teaching knowledge. It’s when you try and teach generic skills that you end up teaching to the test.

First of all, what is teaching to the test and why is it bad? I’ve written at length about this here, but briefly, teaching to the test is bad because no test in the world can directly measure everything we want pupils to know and be able to do. Instead, tests select a smaller sample of material and use that to make an inference about everything else. If we focus teaching on the small sample, two bad things happen. One, the results a pupil gets are no longer a valid guide to their attainment in that subject. Two, we stop teaching important things that aren’t on the test, and start teaching peripheral things that are on the test. My favourite example of this is a history one. A popular exam textbook on interwar Germany doesn’t mention Bismarck, and barely mentions Kaiser Wilhelm II. It does have lengthy sections on how to answer the 4-mark and 8-mark question. That’s teaching to the test.

Direct instruction and teaching knowledge are very different from this. Direct instruction is about breaking a skill down into its smallest components, and getting pupils to practise them. Teaching knowledge is about identifying the really important knowledge pupils need to understand the world they live in, and teaching that.

A knowledge-based approach to teaching inter-war Germany would teach lots of key dates and facts and figures about not just about inter-war Germany, but about, for example, the growth of nationalism in 19th century Europe.

One possible difficulty with the knowledge-based, direct instruction approach is identifying what knowledge you should teach, and in what way you should break down complex skills. For example, I’ve said that to understand inter-war Germany, you should teach 19th century Europe and Bismarck – but am I right? How do you decide what content you need? And given that we presumably expect pupils to be able to write historical essays, surely some direct instruction in the 4-mark question, say, is valuable? This question – what should we expect pupils to memorise – is the subject of the next post.

0 responses to “Teaching knowledge or teaching to the test?”

  1. ‘Practical experience shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrot-like repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum.’
    Vygotsky, 1987, Thought and Language

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    The DVLA used to have a pretty simple solution to testing knowledge. They published a booklet with all of the 800 questions that might appear on the theory test for a driving license. When you took the test, it selected 35 questions, and each paper was different. To pass the test, there was no option but to study all 800 questions. Admittedly, a lot of them were common sense–when I went over these with my son, we quickly narrowed the number of questions that he needed to work on to under 100. He scored 34 when he took the test, and if memory serves the pass mark was just under 30.

    Michaela’s bi-annual tests in each subject do much the same thing. One of my colleagues has been introducing a similar system of tests in a Lancashire comp with a disadvantaged intake, and the doubters are being won over once they see what a dramatic difference it makes in pupils’ performance and behaviour. Testing knowledge–as opposed to ‘skills’–is what makes the difference. Knowledge is relatively easy to define, and children respond far more readily when given a well-defined goal than some nebulous ‘success criteria’.

    For the question you pose about Bismarck and 19th century Europe and its relevance to inter-war Germany–were I teaching the subject, I’d use AJP Taylor’s biography of Bismarck as a set text. It’s extremely well-written and it covers a complex subject in such a way as to be comprehensible to someone who knows very little of the period. It’s a good example of how a complex question can be broken down into its elements and re-assembled in such a way as to create a schema which renders all kinds of historical questions much easier to understand. Why should the teacher worry about selecting bits of knowledge to teach when you’ve got someone of the caliber of AJP to do it for you? This, as I recall, was pretty much what Tim Oates said not so long ago.

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