Focus on results can make pupils do worse

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Children do better in their exams when their teachers focus on learning, rather than on test results, a detailed research survey published by the Institute of Education has found.

According to the survey, “a focus on learning can enhance performance, whereas a focus on performance alone can depress performance,” and children who develop a “performance orientation” rather than a “learning orientation” tend to show greater helplessness, use less strategic thinking and be more focused on grade feedback. They are also more likely to persevere with strategies that are not working.

Chris Watkins, who conducted the research, examined more than 100 classroom-based research studies. It shows that when children think about what helps them learn, they do better in school.

In recent years, the government has viewed “learning” as the same as “being taught”, argues Watkins. Although “whole class interactive teaching” has been advocated, the research shows an increase in the amount of talking at pupils, rather than talking with pupils by asking open questions.

Children’s attitudes and behaviour improve - along with their results - when teachers and schools are more concerned about helping them learn than pushing them to gain particular exam scores, Watkins found.

Such points have been recognised by Ofsted reports on successful schools, and also mirror the evidence on achievement in other fields such as sports and business.

Never-the-less, evidence suggests that the “goal climate” in classrooms becomes increasingly performance-oriented as children get older, and that this continues to disadvantage the groups of children who have always struggled to achieve in school.

Watkins says schools have two challenges:

  • To recognise that passing tests is not the goal of education, but a by-product of effective learning.
  • To recognise that even when we want pupils to do their best in tests, pressure and performance orientation will not achieve it.

He concludes “If there’s one new thing we need in our school system right now, it’s a well-developed focus on learning. And if the coalition government is serious about its wish to close the gap between high performers and low performers then a focus on learning will make a significant contribution. Learning is for life, not for league tables.”

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