Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success, says Michael Gove

Education secretary praises traditional exams as he explains the philosophy behind his shakeup of GCSEs and A-levels

Michael Gove
Michael Gove

Learning facts by rote should be a central part of the school experience, the education secretary, Michael Gove, will argue on Wednesday in a speech which praises traditional exams to the extent of arguing they helped spur the US civil rights struggle.

In the address, titled In Praise of Tests, Gove describes the ideological underpinning to his planned shakeup of GCSEs and A-levels, a philosophy which will further delight educational traditionalists but is likely to prompt criticisms that he is seeking a return to the teaching styles of the 1940s and 50s.

Competitive, difficult exams for which pupils must prepare by memorising large amounts of facts and concepts will promote motivation, solidify knowledge and guarantee standards, Gove is to tell the Independent Academies Association, a trade body for academy schools.

“Exams matter because motivation matters,” Gove will say, according to extracts of the speech provided by his department.

“Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges. And our self-belief grows as we clear challenges we once thought beyond us.

“If we know tests are rigorous, and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning.”

Gove professes himself a great fan of Daniel Willingham, a US cognitive psychologist who has sought to use scientific research to show pupils learn best through the use of memory and routine, arguments outlined in a book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, also popular with free schools guru Toby Young.

Gove argues that “memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding”. He says: “Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the working memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we really have a secure hold on knowledge.

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“Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.

“And the best way to build memory, as Willingham explains, is by the investment of thought and effort – such as the thought and effort we require for exam preparation and testing.”

Such exams must be “proper tests”, marked externally and with results ranked in league tables, rather than teacher assessment, Gove he argues.

While saying he is “a huge fan” of teacher assessment Gove argues that external tests are more fair, saying evidence shows some ethnic minority children can be under-marked by their own teachers.

He goes on: “With external testing there is no opportunity for such bias – the soft bigotry of low expectations – and tests show ethnic minority students performing better.

“So external tests are not only a way of levelling the playing field for children of all backgrounds they are a solvent of prejudice.”

In a passage which could raise some eyebrows, Gove draws a parallel with the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. He says: “In America the use of scholastic aptitude tests opened up access to colleges which had in the past arbitrarily blocked minority students.

“The academic test was a tool of the civil rights struggle. Colleges which had used quotas to limit, say, the number of Jewish students or placed undue reliance on lineage and connections in allocating places had to accept students on the basis of test scores and real ability. Andin this country, over the last few years, tests have also helped overcome prejudice and advance equality.”

Gove has already made plain his preference for rigorous, one-off exam assessments for pupils, rather than modular courses.

In September he startled his Liberal Democrat coalition partners with plans for GCSEs to be replaced by a more traditional qualification graded on a single, end-of-couse exam.

The proposed English baccalaureate successor to A-levels would also do away with modular systems. The plans have drawn fierce opposition from, among others, teaching unions, who say the concept risks writing off the chances of many pupils.

In his speech Gove argues that the reverse is true and that exams “help those who need support to do better to know what support they need”.

Among other benefits, the speech says, is increased pupil satisfaction: “We know that happiness comes from earned success. There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep, or sustained, as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which is the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence.”

The corollary of this, he stresses, is that a proportion of pupils must fail: “For all these reasons exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all. Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it.”

Memorising facts was an important part of education, particularly in primary schools with things such as times tables, said Jacek Brant, head of the department of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment at The Institute of Education.

He said: “But the problem with rote learning in a secondary school setting is that you need to understand context. if there’s no meaning, no understanding of any benefit, then pupils’ learning will be poor.

“If there’s a pattern, and they can see the purpose of the learning, the learning will be stronger and better. Rote learning, say, names of cities and rivers for its own sake is not very good.

“But having them on a map with a historical context or something like that the students will see why they’re important and learn them better.”