Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Homeshcool Files : Tests

The hamac, ideal location for reading, chess and chilling out!

Testing has been in the media quite a lot in the UK recently with parents choosing to keep their children out of school, on 'strike' over the SATs. Parent's are complaining that their children's performance in such tests is more important to their teacher's and schools than their happiness and well-being and joy in learning. Although we live in France and are home educators it's a debate I've taken a keen interest in and that does have a relevance to what we do, why we do it and what I'd like to tell people about the choices we make. 
Firstly, I'd like to say that the amount of testing, homework and what I felt was too serious school work for small children was one of the first things that put me off schooling my eldest daughter. I would often look out the window at the kids walking home from the school down our street and feel saddened by the site of their little hunched over backs weighed down by such heavy backpacks. Somehow it seemed as if their wings were clipped. Choosing to home educate was a way to give our children freedom and keep them out of a system that to my mind places too much emphasis on the quantitative and not enough on the quality. I wanted a childhood for my kids full of adventures and imaginings and no testing. 
Maya running wild at the Beach

But even as homeschoolers we are not free of the threat of tests. In France as a family having chosen l'instruction en famille , we must declare our situation every year and the local Education Authority then carries out an inspection. Their duty is to verify that instruction is being given to our children and that it is adapted to their needs. There are no benchmarks that we have to meet except that we should have roughly covered the socle commun or national curriculum by the time they are 16. They are not supposed to compare our children's progress to children of similar age within schools. They do not need to test our children, but they'd like to. As school inspectors they are used to testing children and it is hard for them at first to understand how they can evaluate whether what we are doing with our children is effective without testing their level.

We refuse to allow any testing. In fact we have a golden rule that when the inspectors talk to the children they must only ask open ended questions. This may seem extreme but for us testing makes no sense within the educational philosophy we've adopted. We believe each person's learning path is unique and uniquely personal and therefore asking them to tell someone else what they knew, to provide restitution, is inherently intrusive. Home educated children we know simply cannot understand why an adult would ask them a question they clearly know the answer to? They are derouted by it and find it hard to answer because they think it's a trick. 

So why do schools have tests and why do the inspectors like them? They provide facts and figures which can then be used to provide data about how well or badly an institution (a school, lea or government) is doing. For me, particularly at primary school age they have little or nothing to do with the children. Even at a later stage, I find that at best tests are evidence of what an individual knows on a particular day in a particular place. Having sat many I can not so proudly say, I've forgotten an awful lot of it!
Noah admiring a bird he just decorated
But without testing, I know a lot of people wonder how we can be sure our children our learning and progressing? With no quizzes or even direct questions (as much as possible sometimes you can't help yourself), how can we be sure they're learning anything at all? The honest answer is that we don't know all the specifics of what they're learning. If you asked me right now what any one of the kids has retained from the numerous learning experiences we've had in the last week I probably couldn't give you that many concrete examples. However, what I can say without a doubt is that they are always, always progressing and that is true even when they have their most dormant, stationary periods of all. 
In fact often, those periods when they appear to be learning nothing and what's worse seem not very interested in learning anything at all are often followed by the most significant leaps in understanding of all. It seems the brain needs downtime to process what it's taking in - haven't we all experienced this as adults

What allows us to see their progression is what I like to call the slow reveal; over a long period of time we gradually see emerging all the things that interested them, that responded to questions they had and that they've retained and used to further their understanding of the world around them. These things emerge in conversation at the dinner table, when we encounter a subject again and something's clicked or when they ask another question to further their knowledge. It's a process that requires a lot of trust, trust in their ability to learn, to stay curious and ask questions and to find their own way to the knowledge they need. It can be a bit frightening but I am constantly amazed by my kids and how intelligent they are and this is enough to keep me on track.      

With our inspectors we have been lucky to meet open minded individuals. We explained our approach and our reasons for it and they accepted it. We took the time together to talk about our children, their interests and what they've been learning. We tried to meet them at least a little on their own ground by giving a qualitative account of our children's progress as we see it. Of course they are particularly interested in reading, writing and arithmetic but they were open to a discussion about how other activities help and encourage through necessity if nothing else, the acquisition of these essentials. They give suggestions about methods they know of they think might interest our kids or make suggestions about other activities they might find interesting. Although I can't say I like these inspections they force us to reflect seriously about what we're doing and give rise to some interesting conversation.

Our approach is a far cry from SATs and the like. People in favour of testing constantly insist they're necessary to target kids that need help but for me they only show you what wasn't working on a specific day at a specific time. Wouldn't a qualitative discussion between parents and teacher, between the people invested in the child's education be able to identify difficulties and devise strategies to help them more efficiently? If you spend time with a child, get to know them and how they learn, then you can learn how to help them, what to put in their path so they can learn what they need to. 

What I suppose I think about all the parent's feeling their kids are over tested is this : you are absolutely right. There are other alternatives but they all start first and foremost with having confidence in our children to educate themselves in what they need to know and confidence in ourselves as parents or teachers or facilitators to help them on their path. This is what we need to campaign for for all children whether home educated or school educated.

** I'd like to note that our eldest willingly puts herself into exam situations in her out of home activities - passing her belts at karate and her galops with pony. She spends a lot of time preparing for these tests and is keen to revise. For me the important thing here is that she is choosing to sit these exams because she wants to and feels she is ready to. We've made it clear to her that they are optional.

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