It’s a dreaded acronym that generates anxiety for senior leaders, teachers, children and parents alike. I could discuss how I dislike them (which is true but I do think they’re probably essential) and ramble on about how it’s too much too soon (which isn’t true; I think they’re pitched right for most) but I choose not to. Instead, this is a post about how we as teachers can make sure we don’t put pressure on our pupils – even though we might feel under pressure ourselves. I offer here a (hopefully) simple, partial solution.
Of course, maybe the statement that ‘we ought to not put pressure on our pupils’ goes without saying. Or maybe it’s far more complex than that. As teachers, we might not wantto put pressure on our pupils but, because of a hundred different factors, we are under pressure ourselves. Because of this, it will naturally come out in our teaching. Even for those teachers who have leaders who don’t put pressure on them for ‘results’, by nature of our profession, we want to do right by our pupils and our school. When they get good results, everyone wins…right?
This hotch potch of emotion that is implicit in the complexities mentioned above is the result of a variety of competing factors and issues: from a national educational system that places an emphasis on testing, right through to particular ideological beliefs about education itself. Regardless, as year 6 teachers in England, we don’t have time to be philosophical. We’ve got to get our ten and eleven year olds through the biggest exams of their lives with as few tears as possible and keep everyone happy. But how?
I offer no hard and fast solutions here. Only a reflection on a change in mindset that’s helped me think this through. Even then, what I have to say is nuanced and possibly useless so some who already do this. For me though, and maybe for a few others who read this, I think it’s worth putting down what I have to say:
We ought to provide learning that is high challenge and low threat for our year 6 pupils. I think this will relieve the pressure they (and we) might feel. This will help them approach problems and difficulties in their learning with confidence again and again and again. To provide high challenge is to ’teach to the top’ and give our pupils the opportunities of academic success on tests but it is not always ensured. A test is dependent on the day itself – it is a performance. High challenge teaching focuses on learning that will last them forever.
But how? And why this? Why now? And what does ‘high challenge low threat even mean?
Too Much Pressure
First to what high pressure is and looks like….
To begin, I recently saw a post on a Facebook group i’m part of about this very issue:
“I’m a y6 teacher and a mum of a y6 girl. Have just had my daughter in tears with her homework. This week she was set maths and English practise. And then a timed arithmetic test, a reasoning test, a spelling test and a grammar test. Already in tears as she wants to do well but is feeling the pressure. I don’t pressure her and give loads of encouragement but this is not normal, surely. The homework is the same up to SATS and in the Easter and half term they get double. Not sure what to say to the teacher though. Sorry for the grumble but for the first time I’m seeing it from the other side.”
This is not unusual in some other nations. Lucy Crehan, in her excellent book Cleverlands, visits several of the top performing education systems in the world. One of these is Singapore. In their equivalent to year 6, children sit tests that, quite frankly, predict the life they will have (called PSLE’s). These tests decide which school they will go to. Every school is selective. The pressure on children in the year they sit their tests is absolutely excruciating and stems well beyond school. Parents will pay extortionate amounts for extra tutoring, send their children to the best schools possible and give their children extra homework after the homework from schools AND their tutoring has been completed. Not to mention that parents might also take ‘PSLE’ leave from work to support their pupils before these exams. For eleven-year-old Singaporeans, their future rests on a knife-edge as they seek to perform well on their equivalent to SATs.
The focus is on performing and performing well; performing better than your peers and better than your parents. If you do not perform, you are seen as a failure and end up going to ‘second rate’ schools (which actually, when reading Cleverlands, seem to be great schools well suited for pupils who might not want a highly academic education). Implicit within this sort of system is the assumption that eleven year old Singaporeans are nothing more than a test score. Their value is their performance. This is very sad indeed.
This brief example illustrates to me something essentially wrong about education: when we hold up tests scores higher than we ought to, we focus on the wrong things and it warps our view of what our whole purpose should be.
Thinking about the big picture in Year 6: The test is ‘secondary’
Stephen Covey, in his book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, makes an interesting point about the journey to success. He notes that when we aim at secondary things, such as exam success, power over others and monetary remuneration, we often miss the significance of the deeper changes that take place on a journey to that point and often don’t reach our secondary goals in the first place. These secondary things are really a by-product of the primary changes that should go on within us; namely: improved character, deeper learning, reading for pleasure and meaningful relationships. If we are to focus on the techniques and the ‘steps to success’ too heavily, we might miss the deeper, primary change that goes on. This point leads him to explicitly address education:
“ To focus on technique (secondary things) is like cramming your way through school. You sometimes get by, perhaps even get good grades, but if you don’t pay the price day in day out, you will never achieve true mastery or develop an educated mind.” (p.22)
How can this help Year 6 teachers? I think it helps us see that SATs tests should be secondaryconcerns. Ensuring that our pupils leave primary school with a high quality academic toolkit, good interpersonal skills, a love of sport and physical activity, an inquisitive mind, an appreciation for music, a love of art and a polite and courteous manner amongst so many other things is far greater.
Like I said in the last section, when we focus on tests too much, it warps our view of our educational purposes as teachers. If we don’t help our learners to ‘pay the price’ day in day out, helping them to grow in a myriad of ways, they might never achieve true mastery over themselves or their later education.
High Challenge and Low Threat Learning
This idea has been applied a lot to educational leadership but I think it provides a helpful way to think about pitching our learning right too. We all know and have experienced what High Challenge and High Threat might feel like for our children and it becomes a very anxiety filled classroom. No one wants this. The diagram below is self-explanatory and this is where I will end this post. It has been mostly applied to educational leadership. However, I think it I still helpful when considering classroom dynamics.
We can see from my brief example from the education of young people in Singapore that the High Challenge (exams that get harder every year) and High Threat (might not go to the school you want to and therefore not have the life you want) will create anxiety. Yet, in Year 6, if as teachers we provide high challenge lessons with low threat, in Mary Myatt’s opinion, pupils will improve.
There are a myriad of examples of what high challenge and low threat teaching looks like. I recently published a post about retrieval practice: this is definitely one way of achieving this in the classroom.
In summary, I’ve been really helped knowing that my pupils are not test scores. They are young people who need an excellent education. When they develop their whole selves they are moving towards a more flourishing life and mastery within their education. This is the primary concern. The test is secondary.
Myatt, M. (2016) High Challenge Low Threat: How the Best Leaders Find the Balance. John Catt Publishing: Woodbridge.
Covey, S. (2004) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Crehan, L. (2016) Cleverlands. Unbound: London