My last memories of GCSE physics are of constant panic. Our teacher was flapping because she needed to get through the syllabus. She prescribed mandatory lunchtime lessons and dashed through topics at breakneck pace. Once she’d placed a tick next to the topic in the syllabus, we were on to the next thing. We copied out of the textbook. I must have an innate hatred for plagiarism as my copying skills rendered me 8 pages behind everyone else. That was it. I became a lone protester against academic theft. Those physics authors had worked hard to produce that book. Who was I to copy their life’s work and claim it for my own? Nope. I sat there in silent protest. Either that or I was a lazy slacker. I forget the detail.
Jean Piaget was an educational thinker famed for developing the ideas of constructivism. This educational philosophy sees learners as investigators who learn via their experiences and reflection upon them. Like constructing a building, further knowledge can only be built on top of existing foundations. Learners can only build further knowledge upon strong foundations. Learners who build strong foundations will be able to assimilate new knowledge successfully. Students with weaker foundations might see their construction tumble. In the world of learning, a tumbling building is represented by confusion and misunderstanding.
The teacher’s role in a constructivist classroom is that of assessor and facilitator. There is a fantastic book on this by Bill Boyle. The teacher should constantly assess the understanding of their charges and amend the pace to suit. This guards against weak foundations and misconceptions. Constructivist teachers identify learners who struggle to grasp a topic at the first attempt. They then remedy this in situ. The learner builds foundations at the correct pace, freeing them up to construct further knowledge on top of a strong base.
“Getting through the syllabus” neglects the learner. A student’s knowledge is ignored. Their ability to construct new knowledge is brushed over. New bricks are installed regardless. The building must be up! The fact that it might fall down as soon as anyone tries to live there is irrelevant. Learners who’ve been dragged through a syllabus have creaky foundations. Apply pressure to their knowledge and the whole structure will disintegrate.
This is malpractice. Teachers are professionals who are experts in developing knowledge and skill in others. Education policy forces teachers to abandon their professional judgement in favour of a pace of learning set externally. Teachers know the deleterious effects this has on learners, yet their jobs rely on getting through the syllabus. Not only do they have to go against their better judgement, they also have to do it successfully. Should students fail to make the grades, the consequences on a teacher’s career are dire. Teachers have to plough on. Learners have to keep up.
A better system
Could we have a system that allows students to take exams when they’re ready? Could we enable teachers to identify the point at which they feel a student is “ready”? Would this create happier educational experiences for young people? Education is designed to develop individuals. It is not meant to categorise people as a consequence of a test they take at a point outside of their control. Are we missing an opportunity to create a better educated population by enforcing unnatural timeframes?
Forcing undercooked students to sit exams they aren’t ready for is irresponsible. We can do much better in accommodating people’s individual pace of learning. We’re hampering national progress by enforcing the current system. People leave education with gaping holes in their knowledge. They become disaffected workers lacking productivity, ability to learn and confidence in their own ability. Getting through the syllabus is malpractice. It’s time for a new approach.