Monday, 9 May 2011

There is a national testing

programme for Australian schools. Children are tested at the end of year 3, 5 and 7 in areas such as mathematics and language.
The testing programme has been the cause of much controversy, as has the My School site which displays the results of individual schools (but not individual pupils). The tests are undoubtedly expensive to conduct and I am yet to be convinced of their value, especially as teachers are now under pressure to get their students to perform well in the tests rather than perform well.
The tests are also new enough that items get changed and added. The latest proposal is to add the requirement for a piece of "persuasive" writing for year 3 students. Effectively this appears to mean that eight and nine year olds will be given forty minutes to come up with an argument about a specific topic and write it down. It is also the cause of some controversy.
Some are arguing that this is something that even adults would find difficult to do. I am inclined to agree. A few are saying they welcome the challenge of getting children to do this. I wonder whether they can.
I may be wrong but I think there is something that needs to come before anyone can write persuasively. I think you need to be able to read with comprehension and analyse the material you have read. You need to be able to understand not just what is being said but how it is being said.
The eight and nine year olds I know and have known are still developing their reading comprehension skills. The best readers do read with comprehension but they are, in my experience, still a long way from understanding everything they read and even further from understanding how something is written. Writing something of a persuasive nature is even more difficult.
I would rather see children of this age being given more opportunities to learn to read with comprehension and more opportunities to write imaginatively. Perhaps I am wrong but I believe that those skills will eventually allow them to develop persuasive writing skills.
What is more likely to happen now is that children will learn to parrot arguments presented to them by adults. Their "persuasive" skills will not be anything of the sort. Instead of encouraging children to critically analyse material and think for themselves they will be taught to regurgitate the arguments of others for the sake of passing a test.
Each year in law school I was involved in something called "the Jessop Moot" - a major debating competition. Students were given a problem in international law to research and then debate. I was never one of those who had to get up and speak but I participated in other ways. I also listened to the final debates. The team that won each year would be the team which had come up with something different and more persuasive than the other teams. The teams were composed of final year students and it still took them weeks of preparation. Even at that level there were still problems in critically analysing the material and thinking for themselves - and many of those participating would be the first to admit it.
Asking young children to do this without a strong grasp of the most basic skills may have entirely the opposite effect to the one intended. It may just allow them to be more rather than less easily influenced by others.
I may be wrong. I hope I am.


Christine said...

I think that 8 and 9 year olds CAN write very persuasively if given the correct guidelines. Writing is not all about releasing the imagination. It's also about getting your point across, clearly and concisely. Maybe adults who find this difficult spent too much time doing 'free' expressive writing... where anything was acceptable, including poor spelling. (Don't stop the flow of imagination to check the dictionary!)

Anonymous said...

I doubt they are being given the correct guidelines - if any guidelines at all (except about what they should be saying).