Schooling and testing - a potted history


by Phil Cullen


It seems that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. The story behind the development of public schooling and the shape of its administration typifies the message behind this verisimilitude. Schooling is supposed to be attached to learning and teaching; and history has shown that the more we try to improve the circumstances of school learning and achievement by intrinsic means, the greater the opposition to it. Indeed, it seems that the more things change through school-level innovation, the greater the desire to go backwards with apoplectic haste.

An example is the fundamental belief in testing as a motivator for improvement. It has told its story for generations. We are yet to learn from its part in the history of schooling. It is not a pleasant story.

When public schooling started to gain attention during the economic disturbances of the Industrial Revolution, a style of schooling was developed in England that later spread to the colonies. Child labour in the mills and mines and fields had led to excessive inhumanity. Younger children were blatantly exploited, and the laissez-faire attitude of the general population played into the hands of business corporations and agricultural pursuits.

Parents, who could raise a few pence, sent their children to Dame Schools run in parlours of:

A matron old, whom we Schoolmistress name;
Who hosts unruly brats with birch to tame. (1742 Poem)

Reading was the main subject taught, with a few simple calculations, since there was little need for much more. The birch was the prime motivator for learning and the punishment for low achievement. When Tom Paine wrote Rights of Man in 1791, he had to leave town; but the subsequent rise of radicalism disposed influential thought towards more humane attitudes. Pressure was put on the Church to provide philanthropic schools. Charity Schools run by the clergy, emphasised religious education and reading. Rote learning was a feature and the birch encouraged memorisation.

Such Church schools, despite their short-comings, provoked community pressure for public schooling. “Encyclopaedists” as the “Intelligentsi” of the time were called, demanded state-run secular schools and, so, even from its earliest times, public schooling became a political football. There was strong opposition to the notion, especially from the wealthy who could afford to send their sons (note) to Eton or Winchester, the only exclusive boarding schools available in the kingdom at the end of the 18th century. Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, 1776) said, “Though the State was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of the people, it would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed”.

Since the government gave grants to schools for their operation, their progress needed monitoring. The standard of teaching was suspect in many places and there was uncertainty as to the general achievement of the pupils, as they were called. (The word implied that teachers taught). Inspectors were appointed in 1840 to supervise the training of pupil-teachers, report on each school’s activities and provide advice. The founder of English elementary education, Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, was before his time with his beliefs in the cultivation of learning habits, training in useful life skills and the “development of intelligence”, as learnacy was called at the time. He saw the school as a centre of social life and culture. He saw inspectors as central to the encouragement of developmental learning.

Within two decades, his dreams were shattered. Inspectors of schools were obliged to test all classes.

Robert Lowe can be blamed for this misuse of quality control. Within a decade of the departure of Kay-Shuttleworth, the occupant of his previous position introduced the infamous “payment by results”, the simplistic notion of testing as an indicator/motivator of learning progress. It was called the Revised Code (1862), a document produced by the Education Department that had statutory force. A law was passed that specified certain standards.

Schools were arranged in age-grades and inspectors tested classes in bulk. The school did not receive a grant for any child who failed. Punishment and fear-of-failure became established as an educational nostrum that has lasted until the present day.

Kay-Shuttleworth and Matthew Arnold were beside themselves with disappointment and angst at such quackery, but were unsuccessful in their reform efforts for many years. They were very lonely. The populace cared little and teachers were demoralised, passive and frightened. The quality of teaching declined seriously as didactic, jug-to-mug, chalk-talk strategies were supported. Outstanding books of the period such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Life and Remains of R.H.Quick illustrate the effects of “payment by results”.


During the period, educational thought was also being energised by people who held alterative views of the nature of learning. Pestalozzi, a Swiss gent (1746-1827) and practising schoolie, agreed with Frenchman Rousseau (1712-78) that a child is a person who has an idiosyncratic nature and uniquely-individual needs and, therefore, should not be taught according to any pre-conceived theory of learning, such as fear of failure. The desire to learn and the ways of learning reside with each individual in a unique way. The German gent, Froebel (1782-1852) put such thoughts into action. Appreciating that children like play and like learning, both working together become one powerful learning device. They can be combined in a schooling situation without any fear of testing or indicators of failure. He developed a notion of a kindergarten, a happy place where the children are the plants which grow better when encouraged by a teacher-gardener. Italian Maria Montessori (1870-1952) applied this notion using special apparatus and encouraging freedom to learn without didactics.

These educational gurus valued the learning capacity of each child and would have been seriously at odds with present-day Robert Lowe-type educrats. Despite their influence, schools maintained themselves as sit-stilleries, generally speaking, for the 19th and at least the first half of the 20th century. The left-over testing rituals of Inspectors of Schools to see if schools were up to scratch maintained the dullness of learning.

Until the late 1950s, schools in all western countries were cloned. The use of paper and pencil dominated each day’s activities, classroom silence was treasured and the only noise heard around the average school was the voices of teachers sermonising from the front of the classroom where all pupils faced a large chalkboard used only by the teachers. Group and maieutic teaching strategies were seldom if ever undertaken. Heavy testing programs by school principals encouraged the maintenance of chalk-talk routines. Schools were dull and heavily routinised places. Few were anxious to continue with such feckless activities and left school as soon as they were old enough.



There was a break in the history of school learning-dullness, but it didn’t last long. The blitz of World War II made a huge difference to schooling in England. Schools couldn’t be organised as tidily or as strictly as they had been. Teachers found that children learned better than they had ever done when they talked with each other, undertook learning projects together, handled material that took the place of scarce paper and pencils; and were not restricted by age-grade classifications.


Over the next two decades, primary classes in various LEAs (Local Education Authorities), especially Hertfordshire, Bristol, Oxfordshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, sparkled with sheer learning and joy of achievement that had never been experienced before. Overseas countries sent observers to check out the phenomenon of honest-to-goodness learning theories being applied through relevant teaching strategies.

It didn’t last ... down-under, things went well for a while until moral-campaigners, management theorists and change-for-change-sake artists left the schooling doors open. They altered the structures of education departments and schooling went “back to drastics”. As a consequence, State and Federal Education Departments are now controlled by non-teachers and measurers. Politicians, especially Julia Gillard, maintain the Joh Bjelke-Petersen maxims of making sure that schools do as they are told.

It’s back to 1862 with Matthew Arnold’s plea for a return of “intelligent life” to the classroom to replace the “deadness, dullness and discouragement” that testing brings. Primary schooling will have to endure another set of quixotic reforms for a while before there is a return to learning for learning’s sake.

Here we go again. The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.
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