Exam pressure

In theory last night's #OzMathsChat was about Inquiry Based Learning, but we got sidetracked pretty quickly. Oh well, I'm sure we'll come back to it sometime :)

Someone mentioned the difficulty in using inquiry in Year 12 classes because of the pressure to get through everything before the exams. The conversation moved to the way our senior secondary certificates are structured, and the possible negative effects that has on mathematics teaching in the classroom. I was fairly quiet last night because others had basically the same ideas as me, but I'd like to take some time to reflect on it a bit more.

It's undeniable that I teach my Year 12s differently to my Year 9s. With lower years, I feel I have the time to play around with ideas, to set kids to discover mathematical concepts themselves and to 'waste' lessons on arguing whether a square should be allowed to be called a rectangle (yeah, this did actually happen recently).

But the constant pressure to "cover everything before the exam" makes it all too easy to fall into the old pattern of lecture-then-questions-then-exam-practice. And that's not just me, the kids come into class expecting lessons to be like that. Having discussions is like pulling teeth. Whenever I try to include more investigation type activities, the looks on the kids faces basically say "Come on Mr. Carter, just tell us the answer so we can get back to the textbook exercises." Not that they want to do the exercises, but anything that doesn't look like exam questions feels like a waste of time.

Which is a problem. Because doing exam questions doesn't feel like doing mathematics to me.

Then there's the way the calculator impacts the class. The calculator requirement is so explicit in Victoria it's even in the subject name: Mathematical Methods (CAS). TI really do have a great deal going. I'd love the freedom to use whatever tools I want, such as Desmos, Geogebra or just coloured paper for that matter. But no, the exam requires the calculator so we need to practice using the calculator.

I really do admire the US teachers who have to deal with high-stakes testing at every grade. The very existance of the exam changes the approach teachers and students take to maths, whether they like it or not. Last night, primary teachers also mentioned similar pressure to ensure kids are "ready for high school", something I'd never really thought of before (that could be because I'm in a P-12 school).

Then there's NAPLAN. I think it's probably best if I don't say anything about that.

So, enough ranting. What do we do? There needs to be a culture change, so that learning is the primary driver in the senior secondary classroom, not assessment. We can't deny the importance of that assessment - the kids do depend on it for university entry after all.

But good teaching and learning is good teaching and learning - the existance of the exam doesn't change that. The culture change needs to begin with us, the teachers who believe in it. The exams are not going away any time soon. But surely if we produce students who actually understand mathematical thinking and discovery, they can do just as well, if not better, than the kids who only know how to reproduce rules and examples.

Yes, the exams push hard. But we can push back. And in my classroom, that begins with me.


Shaun used to be maths, IT and ocassional physics teacher at a small P-12 school (primary and secondary) in rural Victoria, Australia. He is currently in the process of starting his career again in the United States.

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