Teaching knowledge or teaching to the test?
Posted on 15-01-2017
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.