I agree with the bulk of what John says here. I would however like to add that I have become increasingly aware of the yawning gap between the principled noises on assessment and school history generally that come from academic circles (for example John) and the practical reality and external pressures day to day in schools.
In a wide ability secondary school it is essential to "reduce" the historical concepts and skills used in assessment sometimes to "can do" statements just so pupils (and parents, and sometimes colleagues!) can begin to understand them at their level.
Also in any secondary school teachers are now held accountable to the eighth degree for their exam results and assessments. Salaries and career progression can depend on them. Teaching to the test/exam has become the norm. We certainly see this very clearly when new Year 7's come into school after having been drilled in factual recall so the primaries successfully meet their government imposed targets. It is also interesting to note that there has been some criticism from academia of quiz based interactive web pages as though this was all that we do in terms of teaching and learning rather than being seen as part of a broader context and approach.
I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted by your comment that I come “from academic circles”. My experience in education has been in the classroom and not in a university lecture hall. However, while training to be a teacher I was always encouraged to take an academic approach to the subject of education. I have also attempted to think deeply about things I have been ordered by the government to do in the classroom. Of course, as we have a responsibility to get our students the highest grade possible, we have to look adapt our teaching methods to the requirements of the exam system. At the same time we should use whatever influence we have to constantly question the idea that what we are doing is actually leading to the development of intelligent and active citizens.
When you refer to the “criticism from academia of quiz based interactive web pages” I assume you are talking about Terry Haydn’s article, “Working towards genuine interactivity with history and ICT” in History, ICT and Learning in the Secondary School (edited by Terry Haydn and Christine Counsell). I think that the passage in the book is worth quoting at some length. In the UK, the development of 'interactive' online quizzes has been a feature of many history website activities, using 'quizmaster' technology to enable pupils to mark it themselves, work out which questions they answered correctly, and have further attempts to 'get it right' before moving on. Together with Shockwave graphics (see for instance the BBC's 'History of Medicine' materials at bbc.co.uk/education/ medicine/swcontent.html or the 'Schools History Site' at schoolshistory.org.uk). These offer a very attractive mode of testing for recall, compared to pencil-and-paper testing, but they work only for straightforward retention and comprehension questions.
If we think in terms of recent ideas about 'hierarchies' of learning skills (see, for example, Krathwohl et al. 1964; Taylor 2000), we can see that the sort of interactivity involved in such exercises addresses only the lower 'rungs' of the learning hierarchy.
At the lowest level are what are termed 'reactive-passive' activities such as listening, copying, reading, repeating and observing; recall, recapitulation and comprehension. It is at this level that much current ICT interactivity operates. Beyond this are 'reactive-processual' activities such as extracting, recording and translating data, 'proactive-processual' activities which involve interpretation and application, and the 'high-order' skills (proactive-analytical and proactive-synthetic) of analysing, hypothesising, inferencing and synthesising.
How big a problem this is, in terms of ICT's ability to provide interactive learning experiences in history, depends on two things: first, ideas about what constitutes effective learning; and, second, ideas about what school history is trying to achieve.
Terry adds there “is nothing wrong with online ‘interactive’ quizzes: they have their place when checking to see whether pupils have retained and understood the information which we want them to have, but we must explore other ways in which ICT can provide helpful learning experiences for pupils.”
I share Terry Hadyn’s concern with the emphasis being placed on quiz based assessments on educational websites. As he correctly points out, these quizzes are only dealing with low-level skills and ignore the high-level skills.
As someone who has used these quizzes in the classroom I am aware that they are very popular with students. They are also popular with teachers as they both assess and mark their student’s work. Understandably, teachers like using strategies that make students happy. However, like the recent debate that took place on Jack the Ripper coursework, teachers have to ask hard questions about this new tendency to try and please the student. Being a teacher in the classroom is not like running a focus group. If it was, teaching would be fairly easy. You find out what they like and then you give it to them. Students know what they like, but they do not know what the need. It is the responsibility of the teacher to work out what information and skills they want their students to have and then to develop the strategies to make this possible. Of course, where possible, teachers should develop strategies and teach topics that the students find enjoyable. However, the desire to provide enjoyable lessons should never dominate the teacher’s thinking.
The production of online quizzes mirrors what happened when computers first entered the classroom in the early 1980s. At first there were several programs published that asked factual recall questions. This reflected the philosophy of the time: “we measure what we can measure”. The main attraction of these programs was that the students enjoyed doing them and teachers did not have to mark them. However, the teachers of the “New History” were highly critical of these programs for the same reasons that Terry questions the quizzes on websites today.
The challenge of teachers involved in the early computer programs for history was to create teaching resources that helped develop those higher level skills. For example, in the program Attack on the Somme, we provided the students with a great deal of evidence to look at about the conditions on the Western Front in the summer of 1916. They then had to make a series of decisions about how to attack the German front line. There was no way of course to stop the student guessing what they should do. However, the program had been developed in a way to encourage the students to think critically about the information they had received and for this to guide their decisions. Students then received feedback based on their decisions. This was in fact an assessment of their performance and of the learning that had taken place.
The challenge today for teachers producing online assessments is to find ways of developing and testing these higher level skills. There is no reason why multiple choice type questions could not be part of that strategy. For example, Russel Tarr uses them in this way in his Trenches simulation.
In his article Terry refers to the work of Jim Schick, someone who has carried out research into the way ICT has been used by history teachers in the USA. Schick argues that teachers should “think of interactivity more in terms of what goes on in the mind of the learner, rather than what happens on the screen, and in terms of learners’ general ideas about the past, rather than their specific recall of particular facts”
Terry then makes this vitally important point: “The real potential of ICT lies not in the “bells and whistles” of multimedia, to provide “sugar-coating” for learning, but in its ability to access resources which would otherwise be inaccessible, and to manipulate and process those resources much more efficiently. Even these assets are only of real worth if we can think of historically valid activities for pupils to do with these resources and processes.”
There is no doubt that the government will be looking to discover ways of using the web to assess student performance. After all, it can provide a cheap way of providing this activity. The government will obviously save money if it does not have to pay teachers to do the marking.
I believe we should encourage the use of the web as a means of providing resources to help student carry out assessments. However, if we are going to assess these higher level skills, these will have to be marked by a highly trained human being. Otherwise we will be back to the 1970s and will be “measuring what we can measure”.