Examinations, What for?
John Mason discusses effective assessment in the Primary School
Teachers of Primary Schools are realising that full blown examinations – Half Yearly or Annual – detract from rather than add to the quality of learning of their pupils. Consider the sheer weight of the undertaking. Examinations of 1/2 to 2 hours duration are staggered over a week. Teaching is suspended to give way to this imposing juggernaut. After the examinations, school may remain closed for another couple of days to enable teachers to plough through the matter produced by their wards. Feedback if it can be managed is perfunctory, again on account of the extent of content being assessed at one time. Now, add the child’s misery of days of cramming several months of syllabus for the event, most of which will evaporate over the ensuing vacation! You can’t miss the cruel futility of this exercise. Do we need examinations in the Primary School?
The more enlightened are switching to a system of Continuous Assessment comprehensively and are happier and more productive as a result.
Readiness underpins all effort at learning and attempts at teaching in the Primary Section. Particularly with younger children – six and seven years old – one size does not fit all, neither physically nor cognitively! Most of the children are just too young at this stage for a regimen of common tests to give a reliable measure of their capabilities. In any case, why should we be interested in how a six years old performs in isolated tests when we have the means to observe the whole child grow?
It is altogether more valuable to assess six and seven years old through regular and formal observation, not only of their work but also of their activities and interaction with each other.
What children learn at the formative stage of the lower primary (Classes 1 and 2) has a remarkable effect on how they learn in later years. It is wise to frame a curriculum for six and seven year olds which focuses on the development of language and number skills. The reason for the emphasis on language deserves elucidation.
The more a child’s confidence in a language grows the better his/her chances are of becoming a self-reliant learner. Proficiency in reading and writing particularly, enable a child to learn better in the Primary School. Around the world reading and writing are taught explicitly and assessment of these skills constitutes a vital part of instruction. Strangely, in our country we do not seem to give the same value to the acquisition of these skills. The assessment criteria for Reading in our Primary Schools generally emphasize ‘correct pronunciation’, ‘good expression’ and ‘fluency’ as desirable features of an effective reader. This is because most reading exercises in the Primary School are oral. The story goes that an inspector in a village Primary School once asked a boy if he could read. The boy blithely replied, ‘Yes, I can.’ ‘Show me,’ said the inspector. ‘Shall I read with or without the book?’ asked the boy. I am sure this delightful story is a fiction, but it shows up the deep-rooted view of the perceived function of reading in our schools. It is a fact that less attention is given in our Primary Schools to the assessment of silent reading whose objective is the comprehension of the text.
Writing too is not sufficiently developed in our Primary Schools. It tends to be stereotyped in approach and content is often fed to the child. Children can be encouraged to write on a variety of subjects and guided to express their own ideas.
We tend to point out the constraints of time when considering innovative initiatives in the classroom. There is no denying that transaction time is always short, which is why we must prioritise and make smart choices that translate to better opportunities for learning. In the Lower Primary one could save time by restricting the number of subjects taught and avoiding a content-heavy syllabus.
This would clear the deck for better reading and writing skills.
Continuous assessment by way of a variety of short exercises works well in the Upper Primary (Classes 3-5). The quality of these exercises is distinguished by the following distinctive features: Are they clear to every pupil? Do they provide for a spectrum of abilities? Are they interesting? Do they challenge all the pupils to think? Can they help the pupils to understand what they know and what they don’t, of the subject?
Teachers, who want their pupils to think, favour open-ended questions which elicit a variety of answers. This is a bold step because it affirms the idea of diversity of opinion. We teachers have often been accused of being addicted to only one right answer. It may have something to do with our innate love of order! Once, a teacher followed up a lesson on ‘Safety at Home’ with a short exercise. The children were required to recall what they had been taught on the subject and add their suggestions. A little girl added, “My Mummy says that when she is out I must not open the door to a stranger.” The teacher was delighted: she had not thought of that!
|It is wise to frame
for six and
seven year olds
which focuses on
of language and number skills.
In the new culture of assessment children are encouraged to be assertive in absorbing the matter being taught: after all, learning is what one does – not what is done to one! In British schools two mnemonics are popular reminders for teaching thoughtlines of a subject: WALT says, “We are learning to…..”, a conscious effort to be aware of what is being learnt. WILF says, “What I’m looking for….” – here the ubiquitous voice of the teacher reminding pupils, before an assessment, of the essential features of the subject!
|Most of the children are just too young at this stage for a regimen of common tests to give a reliable measure of their capabilities.|
In conclusion, a word on an effective method of assessment. Responding to a child’s written answer a teacher follows the child’s line of thought, with constructive remarks, commending the strengths and calling attention to omissions or weaknesses. The teacher’s remarks have far greater value for the learner than marks, and are a far cry from the time-honoured ‘corrections’ that teachers painstakingly entered in every book, to little purpose.
Formative assessment has opened the way to a fresh and dynamic approach to learning. Today, through appropriate questioning, neither the teacher nor the pupil needs to wait for an examination, to know if s/he knows!
John Mason has been an educator for 48 years. He taught at La Martiniere, Kolkata and, subsequently, was Head of St. James’ School, Kolkata, The Modern High School, Dubai, and the Doon School, Dehra Dun. Mr. Mason has written a number of text books on his subject, English, published by Oxford University Press. Interested in teacher development he set up Teachers’ Centres in Dubai and Dehra Dun and travels widely conducting workshops for teachers. Mr. Mason serves on the Board of and is advisor to a number of schools.