‘America’s dumbest idea: creating a multiple-choice test generation’ read the headline in The Guardian.
The author argues that a curriculum that focuses on right and wrong answers raises children who see the world in binary. These children are unable to become critical thinkers and the author goes on to conclude that ‘memorizing facts does not equal intelligence’.
But I would disagree. Facts are the foundation of intelligence.
Without access to facts, there can be no deeper thinking.
A good curriculum should be a fine balance between
– the learning of key facts
– the exploration of this knowledge
– critical thinking using this knowledge
– Learn that this shape is a triangle.
– Explore the properties of a triangle.
– Consider ‘Why is the triangle shape often found in bridge supports?’
It all starts with the facts.
In fact, without the facts, the other stages of learning are meaningless.
As primary teachers, we are responsible for introducing children to a large number of basic facts. The facts that we teach are the foundation of knowledge on which older children will go on to build more advanced learning.
So we need to get the teaching of facts right.
And how to we do that?
In my opinion, the teaching and embedding facts goes hand in hand with multiple-choice quizzes.
Well, if I was in your class and you were teaching me that this shape was a hexagon …
…what would that lesson look like?
Would you show me the shape and tell me, “That’s a hexagon” and then expect me to know it?
Would you tell me over and over again, asking me to repeat it so that the word embeds itself in my brain?
As teachers, we tend to think of teaching as a two-part process:
(1) We say, “This is a hexagon”
And if we do that enough times and in enough different ways…
(2) The child looks at the shape and says, “That’s a hexagon”
But what about those children who just can’t make the leap from part 1 to part 2?
What about the children who, no matter how much practise they have and no matter how many games they play, just can’t learn the facts?
Think back to your Initial Teacher Training for a moment.
Do you remember how much emphasis was put on learning about different teaching pedagogies?
And then the minute we step into the classroom, it’s all about getting through the long term plans, National Curriculum objectives and ticking boxes?
Well, let’s take a step back for a second.
Let’s think about different pedagogies and look at what Montessori teaches about learning facts.
Montessori teaching advocates a three-step teaching process.
When I’ve used this three-step process instead of the traditional two-step, the learning ability of the children in my class has increased massively.
The difference is particularly noticeable for lower ability children and children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
So what’s the extra step?
(1) We say, “This is a hexagon”
(2) Practise association
(3) The child looks at the shape and says, “That’s a hexagon”
And you should spend way more time practising association than any other step.
So what does ‘practising association’ mean?
Well, it can be done in two ways:
– We show the children pictures of three or four shapes and say, “Which one is the hexagon?”
– We show the children a hexagon and ask, “Is it a triangle, a hexagon or an octagon?”
Each time, we are asking the children to associate rather than recall their knowledge.
Imagine you’ve gone to a party with several people who you don’t know. Your host introduces you to several new people.
Later, you’re trying to recount a conversation with one of these people for your partner but you can’t recall the name of the person you were talking to.
If you looked through a list of the guests who were at the party, you’d probably say, “Oh, yes, that’s it! It was Caroline.”
Seeing the name would jog your memory.
See how it works?
It’s the same for children and shapes. Or any other fact for that matter.
So what does this look like in school?
I think it means that multiple-choice quizzes are key.
And I don’t mean formal, everyone sits in silence, quizzes that you mark later. I mean that we really should be using multiple-choice quizzes as all stages of learning:
– at the beginning of a topic to assess prior learning
– when we revisit a topic to asses how much knowledge has stuck from last time
– for mini-plenaries with groups of children during the lesson
– for whole-class plenaries
They are also a great way of differentiating assessments.
For children who are making expected progress and who you expect to have mastered the subject you have been teaching you can use a purely recall assessment at the end of term.
For lower ability children or children with SEND, use multiple-choice end of unit assessments.
You can differentiate further by combining recall of simple facts along with multiple-choice questions for more complex facts.
The possibilities are endless.
And children are assessed based on where they are in their learning, not where they should be.
Your lower ability children will not be staring at an assessment, only able to complete one question.
And you haven’t dumbed the test down to ask them to recall things that you know they can recall. You’re including elements of their new learning too.
Just because they can’t yet recall a fact, doesn’t mean they don’t know it at all.
And by including multiple-choice elements, children will practising associating facts they can’t yet recall.
But what are the downsides of using multiple-choice?
Well, one of the main arguments against using too many multiple-choice quizzes, is that children will start to make associations with the wrong answers as much as the right ones.
And it’s true.
If you consistently ask a child whether the shape is a triangle, a hexagon or an octagon, they may well start to associate the shape with the word octagon.
However, there are two things simple you can do to overcome this.
- Use a variety of wrong choices.
- Don’t MAKE children choose an answer.
Make it OK to say, “I don’t know”. If children are struggling to make an association, they may well make the wrong one.
And choose your wrong answers carefully.
Imagine you are beginning to learn about quadrilaterals and at the end of your first lesson you ask this:
The answer is obvious because the children know a circle and a triangle.
This is a good way to make children feel like they are making progress but it doesn’t make them think.
What about this one?
Because they all are. A rhombus and a square are types of parallelogram and more advanced students will find this confusing. Lower ability students, will be confused by the fact that the shapes are too similar and won’t be able to distinguish them reliably during the first lesson. This question will lead to confusion for most of the children.
The children can discount square quickly as they are very familiar with it.
Then they have to think carefully about the difference between a parallelogram and a trapezium.
They will probably remember you talking about a parallelogram having parallel lines in its name and a trapezium looking like a trapeze.
The process of finding the correct shape has led them to revise the names of both of the shapes but because the shapes are so different, they can correctly identify the parallelogram.
In 2005, Henry Roediger and Elizabeth Marsh published some research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition that looked specifically at whether using multiple-choice quizzes as learning aids helped students recall facts in a recall test later on.
And they found two things:
- Yes, the students who had used the multiple-choice quizzes were more likely to recall a wrong answer from the quizzes in the recall test.
- However, they also answered more questions correctly in the recall test than the students who hadn’t used the multiple-choice quizzes.
So there are pros and there are cons and you need to consider both.
For me, it’s a no brainer.
I’ve used multiple-choice quizzes regularly with several classes and yes, for some children it makes no difference to their learning.
But for some it is life changing.
And, for me, that’s all it takes.