Pre-Tests: A ‘fixed mindset’ approach to education’?

Head of Clayesmore Jo Thomson

Clayesmore’s Head, Jo Thomson, writes on why she believes that Pre-Testing creates a ‘fixed mindset’ approach in schools.

Ask any teacher why they first went into the profession and they will most likely say that it was to make a difference; to be involved in the development and transformation of the lives of young people. What could be more important or stimulating than that?

As educators, we are all passionate about our students making progress academically and about them leaving school with the skills and knowledge to set them off on a fulfilling journey through life. The work of Dr Carol Dweck and her bestselling book, ‘Mindset’ has been widely embraced as an approach to education that recognises that learning is not linear and that every student has the capacity to keep on developing academically (and in all other areas, too), throughout their lives, if they adopt the right approach. Dweck’s research has revealed that a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’ allows individuals to continually improve performance, often beyond all expectations, as long as they take the view that failure is merely feedback and if they can develop the resilience to persist, even  in the face of obstacles and challenges.

So I find the whole concept of pre-testing students at the age of 9 or 10 mildly baffling. Educators who claim to passionately believe in the process of ongoing personal and intellectual development seem prepared to accept these test results as accurate predictors of exam outcomes at the age of 16 or 18. Dweck’s research urges us not to label our students as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at something but to encourage the view that they simply are not as good as they’d like to be…yet. And we can all list countless numbers of successful adults who tell us how awful they were at school, often in areas in which they now excel or from which they have subsequently made their fortune.

How many of us think that academically we were fully developed at the ripe old age of 10? Would we have wanted someone to put the lid on our aspirations, ambitions or potential at such a tender age? And are schools really saying that if your child does not pass their test at that young age they can do nothing to help them achieve top grades further down the line? It seems to me a huge indictment on their belief in the power of education or the ability of their teachers.

Our life experiences provide us with interests and knowledge that can spark new passions and these interests can be discovered long after the age of 10. Indeed, Dweck’s research suggests that if children are told they are good or talented at something, they can sometimes stop taking risks with their learning for fear of later being ‘found out’  that they are not quite the hot shot after all. Cheating in exams to avoid the possibility of a lower grade suddenly becomes tempting. This fear of failure can therefore stifle further intellectual growth and development: the exact opposite of what educators should be striving to achieve.

The whole system seems flawed and wrought with contradictions. So why do senior schools persist in this selection method, bringing the barrier down earlier and earlier, and oughtn’t parents to step back and ask themselves whether any of it is actually in their child’s best interests? Who is actually gaining from these tests being taken at such a young age?

Headteachers are constantly under pressure to produce exam results that will guarantee their school’s league table positions….even though most Heads will tell you that those league table places are not worth the paper they are written on and do not begin to tell the story of what is really going on inside the classrooms of their schools. Parents whip each other into a frenzy about getting their child into a ‘good’ school (usually based on those flawed league tables) and a ridiculous amount of money is spent on tutoring to help their children get through not just one, but often six or seven different pre-tests. We read stories of teachers in ‘top’ schools cheating to secure exam grades. We read almost daily reports about the teenage mental health crisis…

I regularly sit in conferences and listen to Heads lamenting the loss of childhood in favour of cramming for exams, and feeling saddened at the rise of self-harm, suicidal ideation and eating disorders amongst their pupils. They talk about wellbeing and holistic approaches to education, yet they persist in perpetuating a system that simply adds pressure to our children and places an unnecessary burden on their parents. I have yet to hear a convincing argument about why these tests are in our children’s best interests. This cycle of pressure and pointless testing needs to be broken for it is leaving in its wake a succession of children and adults with a damaged and distorted view of what education is all about.

A school that really puts children first, one that truly believes that the education they can deliver will bring about real academic transformation and one that fully understands developmental psychology, does not need a pre-test to determine a child’s future academic potential. Instead, it relies on inspirational teachers who truly understand how children learn and it has complete faith in our children’s innate human desire to keep on learning new things…at any age. We might call that a ‘growth mindset’ approach to education and it’s high time it was universally adopted in our schools.

We are Clayesmore School, a day and boarding school in Blandford Forum, Dorset. Children love being here, making friends and pursuing their passions – and we love helping them become the best that they can be. Come and see us at our next open day, we’d love to show you around our school.