For many Year 6 children this half term week is a moment of blessed relief as they truly end (probably) the most stressful time of their primary school lives – just when they are getting excited/ nervous about moving to secondary schools as looking forward to end of year trips, productions, etc. For the uninitiated, the cause of this celebration has been that now their SATs have ended they can look forward to ‘enjoying’ the final half term of primary education. Now, I don’t intend to use this blog to explore the rights (few) or wrongs (numerous and overwhelming) of these tests, plenty of people have done this. However, I have looked at how I worked with my Year 6 Maths class in preparation for the tests and why they have approached the tests in such a relaxed way.
You see, I firmly believe that I have managed to balance the requirement to keep the children focused on the exams, by not focusing on the exams. Seemingly this is a nonsensical sentence, but how has this been achieved? Well, I have implemented the example of some of the best teachers I have ever worked with or witnessed. You see at Easter, I had the pleasure (along with 4 colleagues) of accompanying 32 children on our school’s 4th annual ski trip – returning to Sauze D’Oulx for the third year running. Having time to reflect on the week properly I have realised that the 3 instructors’ model of; high expectations, not making things simple, challenging the children constantly, using vast experience to push the children beyond what they think they can achieve and having fun in the process are mine in a classroom.
I have been horrified to read about how some children have felt so much pressure ahead of these tests – which in the grand scheme of things really are not that important, not in the context of GCSEs and A Levels. However, even from my own experience with children I coach swimming to, children have been not eating, not sleeping and saying they have to pass – even though there is no actual fail grade.
A theme I have written about previously – though not enough recently as I have been derelict in blog writing I realise, is what type of society are we creating for our children? How can it be right for children as young as 10 to feel this way? How is it that the pressure on a school to ‘meet the grade’ is passed onto children at a time when we know so much more about childhood stress than at any point in history?
I have admit a vested interest here, given that my daughter – as a Year 6, has also taken the SATs. But how was it that she did so without such nerves, sleepless nights and lack of eating? (Though I think she may be the first to admit she enjoys her food too much for that to happen!)
I firmly believe that the example of the ski instructors is one that all teachers can follow and how I see it is explained in these simple steps:
1. Show them the big picture they are aiming for
Ski instructors will talk about and even practice on the red/ black runs the group will ski on throughout the week. Teachers should ensure that past papers/ questions are tackled regularly throughout Year 5 and 6, not just in the run up to the tests.
2. You will do it, I know you can
Ski instructors tackle slopes, with their groups in the full expectation that everyone in the group will get to the bottom – pretty much a basic requirement in skiing. In a classroom, often the walls of challenge are mounted with the ‘I want you to try this idea’, but the tone and lack of expectation makes the children doubt themselves, even if it is well within their abilities.
3. Failure is fine – pick yourself up and start again
This is the embodiment of Dweck’s work and links to the first two points in a classroom, as on the journey to SATs (I constantly told my class it’s a marathon not a sprint) there will be many stumbles. This attitude is even more vital on a mountain – you can’t just sit there saying you ‘can’t do it’, you’ll freeze to death!
4. We go fast, keep up or move down groups
Whilst this might seem uncaring, and not in accordance with the first 3 points, it really is not uncaring, but essential as ski instructors need to work at a pace that suits everyone, but more often than not, this is to suit the most able, not the middle or weakest in the group. This, if linked to the first 3 points, means that children know your expectations are high; you have faith in them and that even if they fail, you’re there for them and this is stating how you work and what you expect from them too.
5. Develop the skills and practice and challenge them in different scenarios
I think this is the most fundamental and important. Ski instructors are brilliant at this as children are pushed through their paces at different levels of slope, on different terrain and often off-piste. This means the skills become instinctive and the children can react to the demands they are faced with, rather than panicking that they’ve not seen anything like this before.
A great example on the recent ski trip was getting the children skiing backwards, which was done on blue, red and black slopes, as well as off-piste, all in different snow conditions and not ‘set up’ beforehand either. However, in a classroom too often children suffer page after page (or sheet after sheet) on a topic, but lacking the variety required – nor the mix, as there aren’t non-stop questions on one topic in a row on the actual test!
So, with SATs season 2015 over and as planning for next year begins to form – even planning for SATs 2017, can I suggest the following, which I have used and has worked for me:
• Don’t leave ‘fun’ activities and projects until June/ July, do them all year and ensure that the necessary skills are covered so the children are mathematicians, not just able to answer questions – surely that’s our true purpose?
• Follow the model of the ski instructors, as outlined above.
Ultimately the children will thank you for it, they will be less stressed and teachers will not get to this half term, regretting pushing the children through paper after paper in test preparation, whilst diminishing their love for the subject.
In short, maybe we should help our children hold the mirror of success up for themselves?