To test or not to test

I have just read a highly disappointing blog post about encouraging children to learn mathematics in Edutopia.

As an Edutopia fan I have read so much that I have agreed with that it seems rather strange for me to have written the sentence above. But this article promoted validating children’s knowledge and skills by the use of tests. I disagree.

A test proves that a child can take a test. It proves that he or she has mastered a skill of computing some answer to supposedly show what they can do. In the blog post any child who does not reach supposed  proficiency has to be re-tested! This is  to cement their confidence that they can do the maths and that they have the stepping stone for the next development in learning the subject.

How is the child to see all of this? He or she now has parents who are “math friendly” and ask them to work out the time to their next favourite programme on T.V. or how many ounces of flour they will need to bake the cakes for the birthday party at the weekend.

This is all  to promote a positive feel for mathematics in the child. The problem is that it may have the opposite effect. The mathematics is still essentially thrust onto the child as a body of knowledge that they must learn. They will either take to it like the proverbial “fish to water” or they will create a negative view of the subject in their heads…. this is important, I practise it all day at home, I go into class and it is given a huge profile….. I still don’t know how to do fractions!!  I wish I could run away!

No, mathematics is everywhere as the author says and the joy and excitement of the subject can happen by exploring wild and wacky ideas that the children can dream up for themselves (how long would it take an ant to get from one side of the classroom to another? How much food will be thrown away (wasted) at dinnertime today? How far is the nearest star from the Earth? What would that be in cm? How would we write it? If we did write it out fully how long would the number stretch for?

This would help  make children comfortable  with mathematics. The idea of a test at the end of a learning period puts a pressure on the learning that can close it all down in the minds of many children. So what, you may ask, is the alternative?

The alternative is continuous assessment. Can the child apply mathematics in a practical or problem solving situation? (In the U.K. we call it “Using and Applying Mathematics” or Ma1 of the National Curriculum). Can the child explain his or her use of mathematics to the teacher, another child, a parent or a visiting consultant?

At the risk of sounding like a cracked record (and there’s a statement that dates me!) we are educating children for an age where they will need to apply their mathematical skills… they do not need a piece of paper to say they can master the skills to pass a test! When the inevitable problems arise in our world there will be a need to come up with creative solutions to difficult problems. Project Based Learning creates scenarios that allow children to examine the application of mathematics in real life. They find this exciting, they do not feel that they are learning a skill that will be tested as right or wrong.

One of  my favourite exercises when I was teaching was the “old chestnut” of getting children to design a platform that would support the greatest amount of weight using just one piece of A4 paper. It involved discussion, argument, an application of the knowledge of forces and how they work and a growing awareness of the power of the triangle as the “strongest” shape (which was later reinforced using plastic strips and butterfly clips).

I could have said that this would become a question in a test…”what is the strongest shape and why?”  or I could do, what I did and let the children experience and understand the mathematics, the engineering, the science by application and practical enquiry. There may be a time in the future when they will need to use this knowledge to solve a significant problem in their lives!

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