Last week, BBC2 ran a two-part documentary called The Classroom Experiment, in which education expert Professor Dylan Wiliam was given carte blanche to turn the teaching methods for a single secondary school class upside down for a few weeks, to see if his radical ideas could help bridge the 'achievement gap' between the most and least able pupils. I must say that in the early stages I couldn't work out whether I was cheering him on or willing him to fall flat on his face. Although the objective was laudable (indeed it ought to be the Holy Grail of any education system) his methods seemed almost chillingly inflexible, with no regard for the different needs of individual pupils. As someone who found PE incredibly stressful, for instance, I think I can safely say that a compulsory extra session every single morning at 8.30am would not (to put it mildly) have been a net benefit. And there would surely be many shy students for whom being repeatedly put on the spot, asked to come to the front of the class, and then formulate some kind of instant answer to a question they might not even understand, would have been pure torture. The new regime just seemed to be compounding the fundamental problem that exists with most schools - that they're not so much places of learning as they are bootcamps for people who haven't actually committed a crime.
On the other hand, the overwhelming case for at least thinking something needed to be done to shake things up soon became apparent enough. A particularly bright student called Emily featured prominently in the film. Before the experiment started, she was accustomed to being one of the few class members to put their hands up to answer questions - which she would invariably, with ego-stroking effects, get right. She at one point draws a distinction between the bright students such as herself, and the "shy" ones. Tellingly, this distinction is later echoed by some of the teachers, and even once - presumably unthinkingly - by Professor Wiliam himself. Since when has the word 'shy' been interchangeable with 'stupid'? That, in a nutshell, seems to me to be the main problem with modern systems of continuous assessment which award specific grades for 'classroom participation' - to a frighteningly great extent, it simply amounts to bonus points for being naturally chatty.
Another telling incident occurred when a maths teacher first implemented Wiliam's idea of coloured 'traffic light' cups in class, giving pupils a shortcut for communicating to the teacher how well they are understanding the lesson. Displaying the green cup means everything is fine, the yellow cup means that the teacher should slow down, and red means "please stop". Soon the teacher was confronted with a sea of red. Her reaction? To express her intense annoyance with the pupils for so quickly forgetting what she had taught them. This really struck a nerve with me - I'm sure most people who ever had struggles at school can recall instances of teachers who, instead of spending five minutes helping you understand a question, would much rather spend five minutes listing a hundred and one reasons why it's all your own fault that you don't know the answer. But, to the maths teacher's enormous credit, after Wiliam pointed out to her that the pupils clearly had never really grasped the underlying principles of what she was teaching, she took the criticism on board and very quickly found a more effective way of explaining herself.
The final verdict was that the experiment had significantly improved performance in maths and English, although not in science - findings that were sufficient for the entire school to decide to switch to the new methods. I wouldn't be at all surprised if average grades improve as a result - but I still fear that any system that is inflexibly geared towards the needs of a class or school as a collective entity, rather than tailored to the needs of each individual, is bound to leave an unlucky few feeling totally alienated. Perhaps they'll just be a different few to the ones who were left behind in the past.