May 13, 2013 Leave a comment
The NAPLAN testing regime begins again this week, and as happens at this time every year, the media goes into overdrive with analyses of the pros and cons of standardised testing. Some of these reports are well-researched and intelligent critiques of the pitfalls of putting kids as young as seven under the pressure of exam conditions, of the narrowing of the curriculum as educators are coerced into ‘teaching to the test’, of tying funding to test results. And some reports are nothing more than politically motivated scaremongering designed to instil fear in the populace. But I’m not going to engage in this debate.
I want to focus on just one aspect of standardised testing that I believe is incredibly destructive. Writing. Kids need to learn to write and teachers need to teach them how to do it. There is no argument there. An inspiring teacher is an invaluable resource for a child learning to write. But writing is so much more than developing the technical aspects of grammar and sentence structure.
A child learning to write is like a bird learning to fly. Small steps first. Then as they grow in confidence, they become bolder, knowing that there is support behind them. Safe, supportive environments encourage children to take risks with their writing. Sometimes the risks fail. But it’s not a big deal because with guidance and opportunity, those risks eventually pay-off. And the results are writers who blossom and thrive and develop a life-long love of writing, or at least reading.
But standardised testing is jeopardising this process. Children are becoming nervous. They don’t want to take risks because they don’t want to let their parents and teachers down. They comply with the formats thrust upon them by teachers who are pressured by education bureaucracies and government policy. They write recounts and reports and expositions and maybe a bit of narrative. They remember to use capital letters and full stops and try hard to use nouns and verbs in the right places. And they feel bad about themselves if they don’t score well.
A generation ago, children learned how to write using the ‘whole language approach’. We know now that that approach was not particularly successful. Hindsight taught us that explicit teaching of the technical aspects of writing is necessary. But the pendulum has swung too far and now we are inhibiting the development of creativity in our children by being way too prescriptive in our approach to literacy development. Once again, we’ve missed the mark to the detriment of our kids. And writing in general.
Teachers are well placed to assess student writing. They always have been. And in a classroom environment where the teacher has access to student writing in formal and informal contexts, both on paper and in electronic formats, any teacher worth their salt will recognise the need to instil passion and a desire in children to write. If kids understand the value of writing, if they want to write, they are far more receptive to learning the technical aspects that enable them to strengthen their writing. But if kids are scared of making a mistake, or of disappointing, this too will show up in their attitudes to reading and writing.
Writing is power. But it’s also a joyful, colourful, enriching way to engage with and participate in the world around us. How long before governments get it right?