A blog post by Professor James Nehring, (University of Massachusetts Lowell Visiting Research Professor, Queens University Belfast Fulbright Scholar, Northern Ireland, 2013-2014)
There is a disturbing mismatch between the skills that schools are required to teach on the one hand and the skills society needs on the other. Because of high- stakes standardized exams decreed by government in many nations, schools are pressured to teach a narrow set of shallow skills. At the same time, economists, industrial organizations, and common sense say that people need to master deeper and broader skills to succeed with work and life. But it’s the test that counts. Which means that schools are stuck in the middle.
I was privileged recently to spend several months visiting secondary schools in Northern Ireland that appear to be doing both things well: they prepare students well for exams AND they teach all those broader and deeper skills. I came to Belfast as the lucky recipient of a Fulbright Award with the purpose of understanding how these schools do it. I visited only schools that served high poverty communities, had a strong record of success with exams, and showed evidence of teaching deeper and broader skills. As an American academic from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, I did not presume to believe I would give the people of Northern Ireland advice on how to run your schools. My goal was to serve as a refracting mirror for what I observed, and share what I found.
Here’s what I found:
1. School subjects that rely heavily on traditional GCSE and A-Level exams tend to be taught in a shallow and narrow manner—this is what you need to know for the test, memorize this formula, know these dates, this scientific process. On the other hand, school subjects that rely heavily on oral presentations, performances, and portfolios of student work tend to develop much deeper and broader skills– collaborative problem solving, initiative and planning, evaluation and judgment—while still teaching facts and formulas and other basic content.
2. Teachers and principals consistently report that traditional exams and the pressure they place on schools and students form a barrier to excellent teaching and learning. These are educators in schools serving high poverty communities with a history of excellent exam results. They’re not afraid of the tests. They just know there are better ways.
3. Schools that teach the broader and deeper skills have strong core values, a strong sense of what they stand for. They are not defined by state requirements. They proudly define themselves, but they know they need to pay strategic attention to the assessment requirements of the state. This was found in the Catholic sector, Controlled sector and Integrated sector.
4. The core values exhibited by the integrated school in this study were particularly effective in building not just a shared sense of purpose but also cross- community relations and complex skills needed for mediation, dialogue, and historical reconciliation. This integrated school, by virtue of its deliberate effort to address cross-community issues, appeared in the best position to advance deep skills and social good at the same time.
5. Juried assessment of portfolios, projects, performances, and presentations, subject to external audits, are a preferable and trustworthy alternative to traditional pencil and paper exams. They are already in practice in many subjects in many schools.
Parents, students, teachers, principals, school governors, professors and politicians can all play a role in re-thinking assessment and school organization in the service of excellence, equity, and integration. I hope that these findings are useful in achieving all three goals.