issue 180 - February 1988
Filtering the few
At the centre of education systems there is a confidence trick to
prevent most people from reaching high standards. It is called
The Examination. Terry Furlong explains how it works.
What's the most complex and challenging intellectual feat ever achieved by human beings and who did it?
Learning to speak and we all did it.
And how did we do it? By a kind of sympathetic apprenticeship. Before babies start to talk, adults around talk to them. And they pick up the tunes of the language. As they learn more and more words and communicate ever more complex ideas, they are encouraged by their own success and other people's approval. Their teachers don't set up special learning programmes, or correct mistakes much, or punish failure. Above all they don't test progress in any way. The only criterion is mutual comprehension. And if they don't understand one another, then they keep trying new expressions until they do,
There is very little which can't be learned by the apprenticeship method, and anyone can teach anyone else anything up to their own level of competence. At the highest levels of attainment, like postgraduate research fellowships or master classes in the arts, this is exactly what does happen - just as it always has with farmers, hunters, mothers, shamans and poets. But learning in school seems to be quite another process, and much less successful.
The real problem with formal education is that it isn't meant to make everyone equally successful. It is designed to filter out, and exclude from power, confidence and self-respect, all except a small minority. The problem lies with systems which pretend that they are educating everybody to the limits of their potential, while determinedly doing the opposite. The main instruments of this confidence trick are: controlling what counts as intelligence; controlling systems of measuring it; and creating the expectation that most people will fail. These instruments then provide a pseudoscientific basis for giving most of the educational goodies to the few who can 'benefit' from them.
The first instrument of this trick is the definition of certain mental operations as representing intelligence. Which of the following best represents intelligence?
· Teaching handicapped children to play a recorder
· Making a garden produce food all year round
· Navigating a boat across the ocean without Instruments
· Helping a group to resolve severe conflicts
· Creating a complex design for weaving cloth
· Finding the next number in the series 3,4, 6, 9, 12, 14
Only the last would be included in an intelligence test for industrialized societies over-value certain kinds of mental operations, like logic. Even though these only represent a small part of the mind's capacity, they are easily measured and called 'intelligence'. The measurement itself is done in such a way that the numbers of people doing well can be controlled. How?
First you collect the questions. This is called the test, whose main job is to produce a pattern of answers called a 'normal distribution'. That means a few get top marks, a big bunch get middling marks, and a few come near the bottom. Any set of questions which allowed most people to be at the top and only a few further down would be rejected as useless, because it didn't 'discriminate' (to use the pseudoscientific jargon). This means that the test itself, regardless of its content, acts as a filter. This is exactly what society wants; to allocate educational resources on an apparently fair and scientific basis.
Public examination systems are constructed on this principle and also set up a norm each year on which each pupil is judged. This year, let's say, 100 children are being tested in mathematics. The child who comes halfway - that is, 50th - gets 60 per cent. So we decide that all those who got 60 per cent or more will pass, and the ones who get less will fail. But last year the one who came 50th only got 45 per cent. So last year all those with more than 45 per cent passed and those with less failed. Their actual answers could have been identical. The trouble is that if we use 45 per cent as the pass mark this year the child who came 80th will pass and so will all those above her. And then the examiners will be accused of 'falling standards' and even worse, more people will qualify than the system is supposed to deliver.
The important thing is that only half should pass and the others should fail. This is the principle, though it is rarely so nakedly expressed. It is a principle which can produce all kinds of filters. You can make one like the British Ordinary Level Certificate of Education that passes only 20 per cent of 16 year-olds. Or you can have grades so that seven per cent get A, 12 per cent get B, 28 per cent get C, 22 per cent get D and 17 per cent get E, depending on the numbers you want to filter. Since the construction of these tests is on scientific principles then everyone will accept, as some law of nature, that large numbers of children and adults are failures.
Teachers do need information about how pupils are getting on. They must be able to spot strengths and weaknesses. However this is not to compare pupils with each other but to move on to the next stage in the most effective way. Both teachers and taught need these 'snapshots' to stimulate and challenge. This kind of assessment is called formative. Teachers will have had experiences of both kinds of testing and, like myself, have concluded that the formative sort enables the vast majority in their care to make excellent progress and know that they are doing so. And they will also know that the more often they have to subject their students to the selective, norm-based assessment, the more some of their students will lose confidence and motivation and be reinforced in failure, causing bitterness all round.
For teachers the world over, the problems of assessment are similar. There are political uses of assessment and educational uses. What I cannot comply with is the regular imposition of a political system of evaluation which has already decided who will fail and in what proportions. For it is based on a deficit model of learning and a culturally and politically determined view of intelligence and ability. If I were to be denied my belief in the almost limitless potential of my students, I would give up. There is enough to do without trying to take on the role of quality controller standing by the conveyor belt of education, rejecting two out of three products as sub-standard.
Teacher and advisor for English studies, Terry Furlong is also chairperson of the group planning assessment of British school-leavers.