Saturday 26 August 2017

To Coach to the Exam or not (hint: NOT!)

In the UK, students have just been receiving their GCSE grades over the past week or so. Judging from the comments on Facebook, the results have been mixed. Some really high highs, and some reporting ... bravely reporting, imo -- those that are not so great.

In England, taking GCSEs is a secondary-school milestone

I think we home-educators have advantages on the one hand when it comes to exams, and disadvantages on the other. On the one hand, we can choose only the ones we want to do, and we can take some a year or two early so to spread the load. On the other hand, we have to pay for them separately, find a centre that will take us as private candidates, and of course, there's a lot of re-inventing of the wheel whereas school teachers will generally have more experience in preparing students for the exams.

It may or may not mean home-educated students get better or worse exams than their schooled counterparts - many articles and postings online will trumpet success or broadcast poorer results for everyone who took the latest round of GCSE or IGCSEs.

So for those who are preparing for next year and perhaps worried about these results, I just want to say that I think there is only one way you can really screw this up, and that's by ...


I'm not saying you shouldn’t coach your child to take the exam, but I’m really unsupportive of teaching ONLY to the test. That is, for a year or two years, to drill and drill.

What am I basing this opinion on? I suppose it's related to the three hats I wear: that as a former teacher who taught up to A-level and even US university; as a home-educator of four children; and as a current examiner for CIE/OCR.

It seems to me there are three reasons that keeping those exams under the microscope is less than ideal.

The obvious reason is that, once the test is over, what have you got to show for it except that your child jumped through some hoops that are now irrelevant? Where do you go from there?

The other reason is that the hoops you jump may or may not be a real-work experience and translatable beyond that narrow exercise.

Another really important reason is that you run the risk of killing your child’s love for the subject, for exploration, and maybe even for learning anything at all.

Did you ever have a teacher say to you something like, “I know this is what we taught you about, say, Physics last year, but I want you to forget all that because that wasn’t really true - it was just a simplified version to make it easier to understand, but now we’re going to do the REAL stuff.”

You what???!!!!

Man, I hated that! You might has well have said, “Everything you’ve done up till now is a waste of time.”

This is why I make my own children, and all my online students, learn the REAL thing from the beginning. This is particularly true in English, my subject, but equally true in other subjects when it comes to exploring the subject and not drilling to the exam paper.

We don’t read abridged books. We don’t use Cliffs Notes or other summaries. We don't drown under twenty-five past papers and just work and re-work them for a year or two. If it’s writing, we learn the real-world skill of revising essays. We learn how newspapers differ from speeches. We learn how to explain ourselves and our thoughts so that the books come alive and we remember them.

Reading the real thing helps it all sink in.

Sometimes, the topic or approach is over their heads, but sometimes, it’s exactly that stretching approach that brings them to a higher level - a level they would not have reached if we didn’t try in the first place.

Am I saying you should never do a past paper or coach to an exam? Of course not. The exam that I mark is, in my opinion, notoriously counter-intuitive, so you do need to go over some past papers and learn its idiosyncracies, but to do ONLY that for a year or more, I don't think a student will be best served by not gaining any higher literacy skills during that time.

So if you have a big exam coming up in the future, I urge you to study subjects in a solid and true way as the majority of your learning. You can then practice the hoops either little and often (key word: “little”), or in a more focused, short-term way such as in the month before the exam.

This way, you don’t lose sight of the reason you’re probably educating your children at home in the first place: to create life-long learners who can think outside the box.

Loving to read hard books is rarely normal!

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Suggestions, ideas, tweaks, or maybe you're just a happy Dreaming Spires student who wants to leave some encouraging words! Thanks for posting! Kat