No fan of the modular system of assessment, Michael Gove is planning to scrap the current GCSEs and A-Levels, and revert to a final exam. Those who embrace the GCSE for its bite-size approach to learning may be horrified at the return to the long, slow learning process, topped off by one exam on one day, where two years’ learning is assessed.
But think again. Education shouldn’t be a race to cross things off a list, but a constant state of learning. What’s been missing during the GCSE years is the luxury of ‘slow’ or ‘deep’ education. Broad education, that is not bound by narrow stipulations. The opportunity to follow a route of learning because it is interesting, because a child in your class has asked a curious question, or commented on a related point. At Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst we know this. We are not bound by exams, although we assess our children. We don’t teach from a syllabus prescribed by someone who has never met our pupils, but choose the best methods for the individuals in our school. We draw from our immediate environment and the world around us, rather than adhering to a national plan of how that world should shape our pupils’ learning.
Children at Dunhurst build fires and look after chickens. They read books to each other and put on brilliantly entertaining concerts and plays. They take photos in the snow and make ice sculptures with tiny elements of nature frozen inside them like insects in amber. Maths is taught in very small classes to cater for diverse abilities, French is taught through films, trips and grammar games. Sportsmen and women come to visit and inspire, and always leave inspired by our pupils’ enthusiasm, their inquisitiveness and their love of learning. Daily practical experiments in science are discussed in the playground. All this broad education and slow learning gives our children the solid foundation from which to make the most of the innovation and speed of modern life. The children don’t just memorise things, they learn them and know them. They develop the skills to think and assess, to appreciate and appraise.
Involving children in this process is important. How many pupils were invited to help shape the GCSE exams? Taking the time to ask pupils’ opinions about how they like to learn can be enlightening. Lessons in school can be an organic process by which pupils influence teaching methods – because children like to learn. They like to know they are discovering more, widening their knowledge, making links, and they are good at devising ways to do this. Children at Dunhurst learn how to learn, and with the pupils’ ‘Learning Detectives Committee’ and the teachers’ Teaching and Learning Group there’s an open dialogue about learning between teachers and pupils.
Hopefully, with the removal of modular assessment at GCSE and A-Level, schools will be able to give back to pupils what we have at Dunhurst; the idea of learning for interest, for the love of learning. Learning because it will enhance your life and stimulate your mind, not because it will tick a box. African Drumming? Chess? Mandarin? Sports Leadership? Give them a go! With a slow learning approach, pupils have time to try things out, make mistakes, and try them out again, and this results in real and deep learning, instead of just testing their memories. And when it comes to that all-important final exam, the real learning will shine through.
Michael Gove might just have discovered our secret to a fulfilling and successful life-long education.
By Olivia Burnett-Armstrong, Head of Modern Foreign Languages, Dunhurst