Nick Winterbotham

We don't need more teaching to the test

Nick Winterbotham, Issue 113/03, p18, 01.03.2013
"It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

Albert Einstein was voicing concern about equipping society to meet the challenges of the future. So should we.

Like fictional headmaster Thomas Gradgrind and education secretary Michael Gove, we tend to get rather hooked on what Charles Dickens’s Hard Times refers to as facts, facts and “nothing but facts”.

This leads to arid governmental initiatives around fact-based curricula and another round of sententious tinkering with exams, allegedly “to force up standards”.

Connecting to schools has got more difficult. There are now more than 15 different styles of school governance. Working with a local education authority no longer confers access to a majority of schools.

Non-local education authority schools are no longer bound by a national curriculum. Worse, there are plans in England and Wales to regulate learning in all primary schools – a serious threat to off-site learning.

Guy Claxton, in his book What’s the Point of School?, tackles learning not from what UK plc requires of its workforce, but from what future generations will need.

He believes schools should resist just preparing students to take tests and should instead develop individual skills such as empathy, literacy, creativity, giving and receiving feedback.

He cites philosopher Eric Hoffer: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Museums frequently deal in the world that no longer exists. Audiences may too easily view the past – its achievements, narratives and atrocities – as fanciful but irrelevant.

UK museums are in danger of “relevance atrophy”; closing, curtailing opening hours and shedding staff who gave them power to engage. The Group for Education in Museums (GEM) reports that 40% of members say there are fewer learning professionals in their organisation than last year.

Have museums reached their Cutty Sark moment – the evolutionary extinction point where clipper ships mastered the elements just in time for wind-power to be superseded?

What will museums find to replace the transformative power of informal learning? After five years of targeted support, will teachers be thrown back on their own unmediated responses?

GEM’s perspective on learning is truly lifelong. Transformative opportunities are even more powerful in relation to family learning. Our greatest volume of learners is in the form of families and non-school groups.

There are many changes at play, including threats to Heritage Lottery Fund investment in learning as education staff and programmes are cut. Also, primary school headteachers are being forced to choose between teaching to the test and balanced curricula – a direct threat to off-site learning.

The flip side is that workless and retired learners are increasingly numerous; social enterprise activities of museums are introducing new audiences; the Happy Museum initiative is leading us towards a well-being agenda; and new technologies and social media offer innovative solutions.

Heritage learning must be embraced for the cohesion, values and transformation it represents. Its power lies in the affective domain, where we learn because we want to.

In the 58 years since Einstein died GEM has been developing the community-wide learning needed in the 21st century.

Our empathetic democrats of the future can be rich in social learning skills, interpretation skills, creative playfulness, problem-solving, cultural diversity and, of course, curiosity.

Nick Winterbotham is the chairman of the Group for Education in Museums


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nick winterbotham
MA Member
Chair, GEM, Group for Education in Museums (GEM)
05.03.2013, 12:04
Thanks Hilary

Some very good points here. Effective history teaching in the last few decades has developed from a healthy focus on the learner and from the opportunities available when rote learning and artificial orthodoxies can be avoided or at least introduced only when they help.

Take chronologies, for example; they serve as useful pegs on which to hang understanding, exploration, research, theoretising and creativity.

However, the best time to offer chronologies of whatever stripe to young learning students is when they ask for them. and preferably not before. In other words, the enquiring mind often enjoys piecing things together, but it doesn’t have to learn the 1000 interlocking shapes of cardboard, before having a crack at a jigsaw. Young people don’t start exploring London by rote learning the whole of the tube map before they travel, unless they are a bit weird of course – in which case the teacher will provide suitable encouragement – the most important weapon in the education arsenal.

The same works for skills acquisition. You don’t learn to ride a bicycle or drive a car by memorising in advance the contents of Cycling Proficiency or The Highway Code. In due course, these may come in handy.. but they will mean almost nothing in advance. What will matter most in advance is:

having the courage to have a go;
taking a risk at learning;
being encouraged to learn from mistakes, to gain the hand-eye co-ordination, to apply the imagination that says “If I get this wrong, someone could die”..

..and as they acquire these life skills, only at that point in the learning process will they need to learn for the test - whether cycling or driving. Any attempt to rote learn the Highway Code years before their 17th birthday could put them off forever. If they fail when tested at age 12, they may conclude that they’ll never manage it, never have the freedom, opportunity and emancipation that the open road and driving skills will offer them.

More specifically, diachronicity (when events are understood in the way they relate over time, rather than by their moment-by-moment significance) is vital both to learning and the fun of ideas; it provides the entertainment and forensics of history, but I don't hear Mr Gove being very receptive either to learning techniques or history theory. Instead Gove’s focus on synchronous history (where one event follows another but without cross-cutting investigation and analysis) will promote:

dates as more significant than ideas;
sovereigns as more important than nations and communities;
memory as more important than intuition and forensic skills;
and worst of all, exam knowledge as more important than wisdom and empathy.

The synchronous question might be “when were safety bicycles introduced” – the diachronous, “how did bicycles lead to an average 2 inch increase in the height of the population”. I know which question interests me more.
Hilary McGowan
MA Member
Museums Consultant, Hilary McGowan Ltd
01.03.2013, 17:21
As always you write a lot of sense Nick and it's good to see GEM leading the way again in museum learning. But you can't learn from history without understanding a little about what happened when and why. The Glorious Revolution is not irrevelant to our daily lives (as a rather frightening letter in today's Times states) as it still affects our national government. I'm concerned that the secondary curriculum is being tampered with and that you'll be a teenager before you can study The Victorians - no more museum wash days?! - but introducing everyone to a sense of chronology is very important. I don't say "well it never hurt me" as I became a historian in spite of my rubbish history teachers, indeed it was my form of rebellion. Can we in museums help teachers to enliven history still? I hope we can and maybe the kids can teach their parents that the Vikings came after the Romans.