Physics, Pigs and Pumpkins

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has many implications, including the recognition that it is not possible to measure something without affecting what is being measured.  This is as true in the ‘real’ world as it is in Quantum Physics, and has been known ever since the first cook tried to check on the progress of a soufflé by opening the oven to look at it.

Unfortunately, politicians who find themselves in charge of education must be neither cooks nor Physicists, as there seems to be an unshakeable conviction that the best way to improve children’s learning is by testing them.  Which tests will provide the magic cure to all perceived ills varies with the jurisdiction and with the political leanings of those in charge, but all seem to have become mesmerised by the ease with which we can now use technology to generate and analyse statistical data.

The latest ‘Eureka moment’ comes from the British government, who have decided, against the advice of just about anybody actually knows anything about education, that children should now be tested when they start school to provide ‘baseline data’, which will then be used to judge how well the school does in teaching those children.

For several years I was responsible for the admission decisions to a very successful and highly regarded international school in Bangkok.  Like most international schools, we existed primarily to meet the needs of the international community, and we had a fairly open admissions policy for such students.  However, we also admitted a limited number of local students, depending upon available space, and given the prevalence in Thailand of what might be termed ‘encouragement to a favourable decision’ (but which a cynic might call bribery), it was essential that our admissions process be seen to be transparent and objective, and so we were forced to develop a time-consuming assessment for the Early Years grades (our largest entry point).   Because the candidates were pre-literate and pre-numerate, we relied on conversing with the candidates and observing them in play and social situations.  Nevertheless, although we were successful in getting an objective and defensible basis for our decisions, we were well aware that the results indicated little except the ease with which the children would adjust to school, and were skewed in favour toddlers from private child-cares and pre-schools which would spend considerable time on coaching their charges for the admissions sessions.

At least in our case this meant that the pre-schools increased their focus on areas that were age appropriate:  sociability, independent and group play, communication skills etc.  Imagine the effect on pre-schools who feel that their success will be measured by how well their 3- and 4- year olds perform in the sort of mass test that will be used in the UK, which will apparently include counting and letter recognition?

Ironically,given that the declared purpose of the UK tests will be to measure how effectively the child learns in the subsequent years,  it will actually be in the interests of schools to minimise the scores of their new entrants, in order to give themselves the lowest possible baseline with which future measurements will be compared.  This could lead to some interesting planning meetings:

Principal:  So, Miss Evans, are we ready for the first Baseline Tests for the 4 year-olds tomorrow?

Vice-Principal:  Nearly.  We’ve turned the heating on, closed the widows, removed some of the lights bulbs so that the room is a hot, stuffy, and gloomy, and we’ve removed all the cheerful pictures from the wall.  We’ve replaced the kindergarten furniture with some full-size desks and chairs, so the children should feel uncomfortable and suitably stressed.

Principal:  Good. What about the grass outside the window?  They seemed to be mowing it today, which made a lot of noise.

Vice-Principal:  Yes, I’m sorry about that, they had it half finished before I could stop them.  I’ve told them to leave the other half until tomorrow, so there will be some distraction for part of the test.

Principal:  Hmmm.  I suppose that’s better than nothing.  Perhaps I could arrange for a puppy to be playing where it can be seen through the window.  What about the teachers administering the tests?

Vice-Principal:  I’m a bit concerned about them.  I’ve coached them to take sharp intakes of breath and raise their eyebrows if it looks as though the child is going to choose the right answer, but it’s been very hard to break their habit of greeting the children with a warm smile and trying to put them at ease.

Principal:  Try telling them that we are being inspected next week;  that should put them in a foul mood.

We are warned of the limitations of measurement by the proverb ‘You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it’.  Unfortunately, unlike weighing a pig (which may simply be unproductive), testing children distorts the whole educational process.  Tests are certainly useful, but only to measure relatively narrow, simple variables.  These can provide insight on the development of individuals in particular areas, but once they become generalised and used to make broad judgements of teacher or school effectiveness, then the specific skills being measured will inevitably come to dominate the programme of the school.  It would be professional suicide for any teacher or school not to ‘teach to the test’ if the test results will provide the basis on which their competence will be judged.

A more accurate analogy that the fattening of pigs might be the growing of prize marrows or pumpkins.  These are judged by weight and girth (both easily and objectively measurable), with the result that growers focus solely on these aspects.  As a result they succeed in producing huge vegetables;  unfortunately, they are essentially inedible, because taste is not tested.