The hate that dare not speak its name

I gave an assembly to Year 9 boys this week. They sit mid-year examinations during Term 2 and I speak to every year group about how to approach the tests. I give revision tips, explain how to behave during examination season and how to use papers for academic improvement once they are returned. By the time they’ve heard the same thing a few times, boys tend to tune out, so I mixed things up a little this time, and talked about exams in the context of the overall learning process. I explained that exams are a fair form of assessment; that they provide useful feedback to boys about their knowledge and understanding and feedback to us about how to adapt our teaching. I also talked a little about poetry, and I’ll pick up on that later.

Exams are neutral. They are diagnostic, like an X-ray or a dental check-up. They are neither good nor bad, though it seems that adult thinking makes it so. The hysteria about examinations (whether it be SATs in the UK, the examined component of the VCE in Victoria, or (going full tonto) NUI Galway’s need for ‘therapy dogs’ to calm students frazzled after a study session) has surely reached peak. There are two significant reasons for it, neither of which involve the children taking the papers.

Teachers: do not attempt to motivate your pupils by telling them how important exams are; by telling them these results will define the rest of their lives; by talking about how ‘this time it really counts’. Do not put countdown charts on walls. Do not attempt to improve performance by the introduction of fear. This is lazy teaching and the opposite of genuine motivation. You do not develop a healthy group dynamic by collective panic. Ensure your pupils are well taught, know how to revise, understand the style of the examination and how to approach the paper on the day. Make sure they take things seriously, but not to the point that the exam’s shadow is larger than the exam itself. Make sure they take joint responsibility for their performance, and know what they need to improve for next time. Make sure they know that almost examinations are formative; they take a reading, which may lead to certain adjustments being made. Help them to understand what these adjustments are and how they are implemented. Do not entertain phrases like ‘exam technique’ unless this is a genuine concern – most of the time ‘poor exam technique’ is ‘didn’t know the work well enough’. Disappointment when performance is not good is to be expected, and occasional disappointment is inevitable. Speak to performance in terms of individual progress and the individual’s journey, not in terms of absolute grades or relation to year level averages.

Adults in general: encourage your children to embrace occasional testing, as a necessary part of Schooling and an opportunity to show off all you have learned to that point. Do not reach for words like ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’, ‘pressure’  and ‘overwhelming’, unless these are genuinely observed. Be careful with your words, for they may end up being self-fulfilling if used liberally and in advance of the tests themselves. Remember what it was like when you were a child faced with exams and tests, and try to find the words you wish someone had said to you. Build up children, don’t encourage them towards ‘learned helplessness’. Encourage them to face challenges head on, and to overcome these challenges, whilst providing that support to do so. Do not take away the obstacles before they have even reached them. Most children are far more resilient and robust than caring adults seem to think.

In my assembly, I referred to the Edward Thomas poem ‘Rain’, in the context of how much more enjoyment can be gained from a poem by knowing a little about the structure and rhythm of language and by understanding something of the historical background to the poem. I am not one for making children feel guilty, but a certain irony was not lost on me. Edward Thomas was meditating on his own likely death whilst sitting listening to the rain spatter on his corrugated iron hut [in fact, he was killed at the Battle of Arras, just one year later]. This experience is likely to provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. The idea that studying poetry like this and having to provide a written response under timed conditions could have a similar effect is grotesque. We must retain a sense of perspective. It is possible to care about things that matter without them taking over our lives.

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