High-speed learning has one upside

30th January 2009 at 00:00

At first glance, the news that you can prepare pupils for a GCSE exam in 60 minutes looks like confirmation of teachers' worst fears about our test-driven education system. Staff at Monkseaton High School used three fast, fact-packed presentations punctuated by bursts of physical activity to teach a GCSE science module and succeeded triumphantly. Three days later, pupils clocked up a 58 per cent average on the multiple-choice paper and some scored A grades. When they took a second module in the same subject after four months of teaching, a few did no better than they had on the first module. Some even did worse.

If further evidence is needed of the limitations of the tests and exams, this striking experiment surely provides it. We already know from research in the 1990s that national curriculum tests are so unreliable that up to 40 per cent of pupils may be awarded the wrong levels. We also know from a series of government-commissioned studies that teaching to the test distorts results: the Monkseaton method offers a chilling example of its effectiveness. Why bother with a broader education, a cynical teacher might inquire, if you can get the results you need to keep Ofsted and the Government happy by organising a brief cramming session.

The trial also raises questions about GCSEs. What exactly are they testing if you can prepare for them so quickly? Yet this is the measure on which the reputation of secondary schools depends.

Lucy Barratt, one pupil who took part, sees it differently. "If this technique is adopted by schools it could change education forever." She is right to be optimistic. The trial underlines the importance of scientific evidence in understanding how children learn and in improving teaching methods. Scientists' growing knowledge about the brain will be an important tool for teachers.

Moreover, if pupils can be taught to pass an exam in an hour, they and their teachers will be liberated from days of dreary fact-cramming and revision. Instead of after-school exam preparation, there will be drama and dancing. Instead of hours struggling through the GCSE English anthology, teachers will be able to share their passion for any author they choose. Pupils could be educated as well as tested. It is an alluring prospect.

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