Good teaching > Good exam results?

My last Wednesday evening’s session with the MA group was about extensive listening. I introduced to the teachers different sources of listening materials: listening lessons on the Web, archived radio programmes, audiobooks, podcasts, etc. Halfway into the session, I gave the class a break, and was going to play a song to them after the break as an example of a category of extensive listening materials: authentic songs.

During the break, one of the teachers, Ms Annie Chan, approached me to tell me that she thought songs would make interesting listening material, but when she gave it a try some time ago, instead of feeling excited about it, her students showed little interest and queried her objective since it had nothing to do with the exam.

I was amused by the coincidence (that Annie asked about songs when I was going to talk about songs soon), thanked her for sharing her experience, but at the same time wasn’t exactly surprised by her students’ reaction. In fact, it reminded me of a recent discussion I had with some former students on Facebook. The following is the question I posed on FB:

Teachers are, understandably, concerned about their students’ results in exams, especially public exams (TSA, HKCE, etc.). Some of them may therefore give their students a lot of exam practice. If I still believe that for a subject like English, good teaching will lead to good exam results, so that it is not necessary to give SS a lot of exam practice, am I being too naive?

 

The question attracted a lot of responses from my former students. I copy below the chain of conversation we had:

“Too simple, sometimes naive!” (Oliver)

“What is ‘a lot’? This is the most difficult question. Also, not only good teaching is crucial, well designed exercise is very important too!” (June)

Me: To Oliver: Haha, I remember who said that. But you shouldn’t be old enough to know that.
To June: You’re right, it’s difficult to define ‘a lot’. This is also why teachers find it difficult to say: OK that’s enough.

“I have tried to focus on teaching more than giving exam practice. I ended up getting a letter of ‘complaint’ from a student teaching me how to teach – ie exam practice all the time. I felt frustrated, but I didn’t totally agree. I guess all we need is a balance. Students will gradually realize the benefits if we persist.” (Teresa)

Me: Thanks for sharing, Teresa. Some students have been trained to be so pragmatic. There’re many reasons behind (societal ethos, education system, parents’ modelling, etc.). For me, it’s sad that even some students do not believe in, or expect, good teaching.

“Same here , my S7 class (except the letter of complaint — but sometimes I think getting complaints is better than not getting response AT ALL)
Part of me was ready to respond with “I am your leader, let me lead you now”,
but another part of me said “for what? No matter how much effort you’ve put in your lessons, they will just ignore your and go to those pathetic tutorial centres to get what they want.” (Lee Pui)

Me: Today’s students grew up in a consummeristic society. Some of them will come to treat their teachers simply as agents who help them get what they want (eg, excellent exam results). So they pay little attention to teachers who don’t seem to DIRECTLY get them what they want. Sometimes schools and the education system may unknowingly help to reinforce that mentality. This could be demoralising to teachers. The challenge for great teachers is understanding why their students behave like that on the one hand, and not giving up their professional responsibility on another. It’s not easy; but that’s why good teachers deserve so much of our respect.

“Need a balance of teaching the techniques in dealing with examination (look out for keywords, listen for gists, avoid traps) and the appreciation of the beauty of the language itself. However, the more I give them exam practice, somehow, I can see that they still need a good mastery of the language in order to excel in it. That means, exam practice can be a supplement but not the core of the teaching.
Students may be able to pick up a little bit of this and a little bit of that from what the examination practice (provided that they are very aware of that kind of learning). But still, teaching of other language skills can’t be replaced by that.
Besides, especially for primary kids, they would remember the language structures / vocabulary more if they are “hooked” into those interesting stories. But how can they be “hooked” into a mock TSA paper?can see that they still need a good mastery of the language in order to excel in it. That means, exam practice can be a supplement but not the core of the teaching.

        Students may be able to pick up a little bit of this and a little bit of that from what the exam practice (provided that they are very aware of that kind of learning). But still, teaching of other language skills can’t be replaced by that.

        Besides, especially for primary kids, they would remember the language structures/vocabulary more if they are ‘hooked’ onto those interesting stories? But how can they be hooked onto a mock TSA paper? (Anna)

 can see that they still need a good mastery of the language in order to excel in it. That means, exam practice can be a supplement but not the core of the teaching.
Students may be able to pick up a little bit of this and a little bit of that from what the examination practice (provided that they are very aware of that kind of learning). But still, teaching of other language skills can’t be replaced by that.
Besides, especially for primary kids, they would remember the language structures / vocabulary more if they are “hooked” into those interesting stories. But how can they be “hooked” into a mock TSA paper?

“Supposedly yes. But what if the exams are too demanding that if there is no proper drilling, chances are that average students would not be able to succeed?” (Lala)f me say “for what? no matter how much effort you’ve put in your lessons, they will just ignore you and go to those pathetic tutorial centres to get what they want.”f me say “for what? no matter how much effort you’ve put in your lessons, they will just ignore you and go to those pathetic tutorial centres to get what they want.”f me say “for what? no matter how much effort you’ve put in your lessons, they will just ignore you and go to those pathetic tutorial centres to get what they want.”me say “for what? no matter how much effort you’ve put in your lessons, they will just ignore you and go to those pathetic tutorial centres to get what they want.”me say “for what? no matter how much effort you’ve put in your lessons, they will just ignore you and go to those pathetic tutorial centres to get what they want.”f me say “for what? no matter how much effort you’ve put in your lessons, they will just ignore you and go to those pathetic tutorial centres to get what they want.”

Me: I think some drilling is necessary. But care has to be taken that the drilling does not become the only teaching. I don’t even mind teaching the exam techniques, or occasionally using exam papers as teaching materials, provided that there is input (ie, teaching) from the teacher either before or after the exam practice. I once observed a teacher whose only teaching was getting the SS to do practice papers and checking the answers with the SS afterwards (without any explanation). He assumed that that was teaching, and that the students’ English would improve by repeating this routine. This is what worries me.

“There are techniques specific to taking exams, so some practice is necessary i think. btw, my Head Teacher has said in a staff meeting that she wants good exam results, well she’s never gonna find out what i think!” (Name withheld)

“Exam itself is not a bad thing. I am often eager to mark all the exam scripts simply because I want to know the effectiveness of my teaching. But for exam results, teaching is just one of the factors. What scares me most is that sometimes teachers are just over-concerned about the exams result than anything else. My students came to me before the exam showing me the revision exercise given to other classes. I was shocked to find out that the format and the topics ‘model’ the exam questions. (Name withheld)

Me: I agree that exam success as an extrinsic motivation is not a bad thing for students, and for teachers as well. (Haha, on one level, I’m quite idealistic; on another level, I’m quite practical-minded.) The question is how we achieve that success, and whether exam practice after exam practice will help us achieve that success.

chers are just over-concerned about the exams result than anything else. My students came to me before the exam showing me the revision exercise given to other classes. I was shocked to find out that the format and the topics “model” the exam questions.

Now I can disclose the reason behind my asking the question in my ‘status’. For the Jan 8 seminar at CUHK, I had prepared this question to ask the two CE award-winning schools: Have you ever worried that all this innovation in teaching may not lead to good exam results? Is it really possible for us to have both good teaching and good exam results?

 

This is a question that has always intrigued me (though my belief is the affirmative). My underlying thesis is that if that is possible, then principals and school administrators who want good exam results should give teachers all the time they need to concentrate on teaching well (because often endless tedious duties prevent teachers from paying enough attention to their teaching.)

 At the seminar, because we over-ran, we were not able to delve into this question in any depth. This is why I’m asking the question here.

 I’d like to thank all of those who have responded to my question by sharing their thoughts. Though I may not always agree with you, you have helped me to gain a better understanding of teachers’ thinking, their situations, and their worries. This is important to all of those whose job involves working with teachers, such as teacher educators, EDB and HKEAA officers, principals, school administrators, panel chairs, and even parents. I’m very lucky that because of my position, people are willing to share their thoughts with me candidly. Thank you.

“Paul, I learned from my U days that sound knowledge of a subject did not necesarily translate to good exam results. What matter, I think, are good exam techniques and expert application of the subject matter in question.” (Jay)

Me: I can understand your point, Jay. In fact, some professors teach one thing but assess another. Today’s English language assessments, however, are heavily skills-oriented. They seldom test knowledge per se. Take reading comprehension. Today, a test of reading comprehension will assess students’ ability to apply their reading skills in tackling texts they haven’t read before. So, what is important is that these skills are well taught and learnt in the course of study. Of course exam techniques are important, too.

“Paul, I remember Principal Leung’s saying on the Jan 8 seminar.
She said that although her school’s TSA results were not that excellent (well, that surprised me, given the students’ English ability (maybe she was too humble on that), it doesn’t bother her as long as her students keep an interest in English learning and that the secondary schools her students entered did give positive comments on that! So that would be more important than just the good public exam results.” (Anna)

Me: Language learning should be fun; language learning is also a marathon process. If someone asks me for my view of HK people’s English proficiency, I would say ‘not bad’ but given the fact that when people finish secondary school, they will have studied English for more than 11 years, that is nothing to be proud of. This is why I’m concerned about excessive exam practice, and an exclusive pre-occupation with exam success, because if the motivation for learning English is purely pragmatic, it’s hard to keep up an interest in English learning for a long time. How can you keep up an interest in English if all you do is to try mock exam paper after mock exam paper? I’m not against aiming for good TSA results; the question is how we achieve that.

“Paul, I’d like to share your optimism. U should come and visit one of my IVE classes. Their English is atrocious! What I think is the fundamental problem is the Ss think in Cantonese and then translate their thoughts into English. I guess for a beginner ESOL learner, this is unavoidable & bcos of this I can appreciate their difficulties and I’m as understanding and patient with them as much as possible.” (Jay)

“Sadly yes, students look for quick-fix solutions when it comes to language learning. In my school, students once complained to me that they would like to have more EXAM PRACTICE. They simply wanted me to give them an exercise and checked the answers with them and they thought that they would be learning English. In the lesson, I asked my Ss to explain the answers to me but you know what they said, “I just chose D but I dunno why”.

On second thought I couldn’t really blame them. Hong Kong is exam-oriented and results-oriented. Like you said, English learning is purely pragmatic.

Ss (as well as parents) fail to realise that English learning is a life-long process. And one needs to be engaged in learning if one wants to master the language. (Ivy)

Me: I had a chat with a teacher from a Band One school this afternoon, and she told me how much some of her most successful students, examination-wise, actually hate English. When she explains the answers to practice papers to students, they do…n’t want to hear. They only care about their marks.

It’s easy to imagine whether such students will continue to improve their English once the exam pressure is behind them.

The teacher also told me how she would still look for opportunities to sprinkle her teaching with short listening activities that expose SS to authentic Englsih, in order to keep up their interest in English (so students understand that English is not just a school subject; it’s a tool for communicating and connecting with the rest of the world).

As I said, it’s not easy, but good teachers don’t give up easily either.

And this teacher describes her situation:

 “We are all in the gutters but some of us are looking at the stars!”

 ***

Well, there is almost enough ‘data’ here for a small-scale qualitative study of teachers’ views of the relationship between teaching and testing. And the only thing I wish to add now is that I want teachers to enjoy teaching. Part of the joy will come from being able to exercise one’s professional knowledge, that is, to design lessons that are interesting and effective. I want teachers to be able to do that, and I know that’s not easy under the circumstances: society’s obsession with short-term immediate ‘results’, students having been conditioned to believe in exam success and exam practice only, and then, teachers’ incredibly heavy workload. But instead of giving in quickly and resorting to exam practice and answer checking as the only ‘teaching’ activity in the classroom, we can still look out for opportunities (even if they are rare) to do some meaningful teaching. We don’t want to relegate ourselves to exam drilling robots, don’t we?

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