The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72
How it Would Work
How it Would Work.
The annual examination, then, I hold, should differ from the present one in these particulars:—
1. It should be an examination of the scholars in the standard last passed, not, as now, for promotion; consequently it would not affect the classification of the pupils at all. It would be what you call, I think, a class examination, and not an individual examination, though I don't much admire the nomenclature, inasmuch as you can't examine the class without examining its individual members. The class, you see, would contain no scholars except such as the head-teacher thought fit to be in it, and the inspector, by his examination, would pronounce on the wisdom or otherwise of the head-teacher's classification. If he took exactly the same view of the matter as the head-teacher, the class would obtain cent, per cent, of marks, and the mean of the percentages obtained by the classes would give that for the whole school. This verdict, it will be seen, would amount to a criticism on the teaching generally, not on the cramming of the last twelvemonth; and I don't believe that any efficient teacher would object to such a test.
That there may be no doubt about my meaning I will repeat it in an example. The head-teacher, we must suppose, has reclassified his school at Christmas, and has been working since the holidays on the new classification. The inspector comes to examine this particular school in March, we will suppose. The class which he finds doing the work of Standard IV. will consist, of I course, of scholars who up till Christmas were doing that of Standard III., along with many probably who are doing the work of Standard IV. for the second time. The whole class, however, will be examined in the work of Standard III. only, and if all pass it will beevident that the teacher has both done his work thoroughly and not promoted any scholar prematurely. But the teacher alone will be concerned with the verdict of the inspector, and not the scholars, whose classification will remain unaltered whatever the verdict. If the inspector's judgment is unfavorable it will be a hint to the teacher not to promote his scholars so rapidly in future; that is all. The criticism will be, as it ought to be, on the way in which the teacher works, on the ideal he sets before himself, or, in plainer English, on the style of work with which he is content. The inspector's duty is to criticise the teacher, not the children; or rather the teaser as shown through the children.
As this is the feature of my scheme that my critics will probably be most slow to appreciate, and as I regard it as fundamental, I must spend a few more words upon it. Why, it will be asked, examine in the standard last passed, and not rather, as now, in the standard next higher? The answer is that only in this way can you draw the teeth of the examination fiend. If it were possible to banish that evil spirit altogether from school life it were very desirable to do so; but, as that seems impossible in the case of public schools, the next best thing is to render it innocuous. When a sheep dog mangles the sheep he is set to guard the usual plan is to break his teeth, and he then becomes the shepherd's useful servant, to direct but not to injure the sheep. That is just what we must do with this institution, the annual examination. It must be made retrospective, not prospective in its action. As the result of the examination will no longer affect the children's status they will cease to think about it; they will no longer make an inspector's pass the object of their ambition, which will be limited to the teacher's approval of the daily task as it is done; the element of hurry and worry will be gone from school life, as far at least as the children are concerned. So again it is only in this way you can effectually and completely remove the temptation to teachers to cram the children against examination day. Under the reformed system of examination cramming will do no good. The child who has been doing nothing but Fifth Standard work for some months perhaps before he is examined in Fourth Standard work will have forgotten everything of the latter except so much as he has properly digested. Whatever he has learnt for life he will remember on examination day, and it is only what he has learnt for life that will be of any good to him; the rest had better never have been learnt, and never will be learnt under a good system. King "Cram" will at last be effectually dethroned. And so manifest is this fact that I can well understand a practical teacher whose whole professional life has been spent under the present system ready to remonstrate and say: "Yes, you have abolished cram so page 8 thoroughly that, as far as the subject of geography is concerned, no examination will be passible under the circumstances." I would venture, however, to qualify the remonstrance of that practical teacher slightly, and mike it read: "No examination in geography as at present conducted and valued will be possible"; but that will be no objection to the reformed system in the eyes of the wise and thoughtful. Geography is the "cram" subject par excellence, and it is one of the best features of this reformed system of examination that it would oblige the inspector to adopt an entirely different standard of excellence in this subject, and consequently work a revolution in the methods of teaching it. For one thing, a very much lower percentage of correct answers in geography would have to be deemed satisfactory; and, in addition, a child must not be asked on examination day "Where is the Apseron Peninsula?" but "How would you go to work to find out the locality of a peninsula hitherto unknown to you?" As the Hon. Mr Gisborne, himself a highly-cultured man, once remarked to me: "A well-educated man is not a man who knows everything, but a man who knows where to find everything."
I think, then, I may regard it as certain that the reform suggested would not only remove the evils under which the child labors at present, but those also under which the teacher labors, and so be a boon to both. Its best claim to acceptance, however, lies in this fact—already once referred to—that it will be a test, not so much of the work done in the last twelvemonth, as of the effect generally of the teacher's methods for many years past. The efficient teacher, in fact, will be able to go on his way without thinking of examination day at all, knowing full well that wise methods and hard work will be sure to tell in the long run under any system of examination that discourages "cram." But now let us notice some other features in our reformed method of examination, consequent upon the first.
2. Secondly, then, the examination will be by sample, and not on all the work of every class—a very important point.
When the object of the examination is no longer to classify the pupils, but simply to test the quality of the work the school can turn out, it will be quite unnecessary to go through the long and cumbrous investigation which at present obtains, straining the powers of the children to the utmost, and treating the work they produce under these unfavorable conditions as the best they are capable of. All that will cease. Each class will be examined in a small number of subjects only, say two, or at most three, probably different subjects in each class, the selection of which will be made by the inspector on the spot. The average of the results will be a fair test of the attainments of the scholars, and consequently of the character of the teaching—as good a test for all practical purposes as that which is imposed at present. Indeed, in some respects it will be better, for in consequence of the great reduction in the amount of work required of the children on examination day under the new plan they will be able to do themselves and their school justice. Instead of the hurry and scramble which necessarily marks that day now, plenty of time will be available for every exercise. The examination papers will show the scholars at their best, and so be a much fairer criterion of their skill and the training bestowed upon them by their teachers. A scarcely less important consequence will be that the inspector himself will be relieved of a large part of the miserable drudgery of which he is at present the victim. Under the system now existing the inspector's time is almost wholly occupied in wading through boundless floods of children's examination papers. Under the oppression of this monotonous and relentless task his mind loses all elasticity, and he becomes little more than the slave of the existing system, his one dread the introduction of any novelty by which his already overstrained brain may be still further taxed. Of what use is such a man as a counsellor and adviser of the teacher, quick to see and fertile in resource as he ought to be? If he does not become a mere machine it will be simply due to his own native strength of character.
3. It is hardly necessary that I should point out, as a third difference, that the examination now proposed will be one for passes in subjects, and not for standard passes. This, of course, would be the only possible arrangement under the reformed system, but, being a point in its favor, ought still to be mentioned. An estimate based on passes in subjects is not only a more accurate one than the other, but is the method recommended for adoption by the Conference at Wellington. The assessment will of course be a numerical one; but under the new conditions there will, I think, pact Dr Anderson, be little to object to it on that account. Certainly it will no longer be necessary to maintain that glaring scandal of our system the departmental order, warning everybody concerned not to attach much significance to the departmental examinations.
4. Another feature of our examination will be that all subjects taught will be placed on the same level, or at least treated with the same respect on examination day, the unholy walls between pass subjects, class subjects, and additional subjects being broken down. The examination will be based on the principle that whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well. The present arrangement may be called an immoral one, a premium being offered in it for the comparative neglect of certain subjects in the syllabus. In future the teaching in natural science, for example, will have to be done as thoroughly as the teaching in arithmetic, since the results obtained in it will as largely affect the final estimate of the school teaching. In this way the simplification of the syllabus, at present so perverse in its complexity, will be fully assured. Something else, however, will be simplified in addition to the page 9 school syllabus, and that will be the examination report. For years past the layman, as is well known, has been sorely puzzled to ascertain, even after the inspector's examination, whether his school was efficient or not. He found himself furnished, in the inspector's report, with four different numerical results, obtained from calculations based on four different principles, and naturally inquired what he was to do with them all, generally coming to the conclusion that the department was ashamed of its own system, and had, in consequence, done its utmost to make any correct judgment of the condition of the school impossible. All this would henceforth be swept away, and a single percentage interpreted in an inspector's short comment would enable anyone interested to know whether the children were receiving a good training or not. Neither examination—report, nor school syllabus would any longer involve the services of a Philadelphia lawyer.
5. The cynical critic will probably have already detected what seems to him a weak point in the reform proposed. He will see that no provision has yet been suggested to test the element of time in school work. How often he will say are you willing that scholars should be examined in the same class? Is the teacher who presents his scholars year by year in a new class to be placed no higher iu your estimate than his fellow who keeps them two or even three years at the same work? Or do you assume that all teachers will act with equal conscientiousness in this matter? How far does your principle of trusting your teachers carry you?
Judging by his remarks, I am inclined to think that the cynical critic just referred to doesn't know very much of a teacher's surroundings. I fear that should my reform be adopted, the mistake, if any, that teachers will make, for the first year or two at all events, will be the premature promotion of their pupils. So many social influences play upon a teacher, to induce him to promote his children rapidly, that under the new arrangement he will require to cultivate the virtue of firmness to an unlimited extent to enable him to resist this inducement and detain the children in each class sufficiently long to enable them to become thoroughly grounded in their work. That is the danger. There is very little fear that any child will be delayed in his career to hide the indolence of his teacher. I think the difficulty suggested is almost an imaginary one, or will be so when proper precautions are taken in the appointment of teachers. Supposing, however, that experience should show that it would be unjust to the abler and more skilful teachers not to take this element of time into account, it will be easy enough to find a remedy. At present the inspector is furnished with a note of age of every pupil examined. Let him in future be supplied instead, or in addition, with a note of the months spent by each pupil in the standard he is examined in, and from this let the average time spent by the scholars in the class be calculated. The general experience of schools throughout the colony Will soon show what the average time ought to be for each class, and a calculation can then easily be made raising or reducing proportionately the percentage of passes already obtained. In this way not only as good but a more accurate estimate of the skill of the teacher may be made than is reached by the present method, where every scholar passing counts equally whatever be the number of years he has spent in the standard. I am bound to say, however, I think teachers should be encouraged in every way to keep their scholars sufficiently long in each class. Thoroughness in work rather than rapidity in progress should be the object aimed at. Hence, the inspector's examination ought to be a strict one, and under the new conditions it would be much easier to make it strict than at present. On the other hand, the reduction made for excess of time should be a very small one.