Testing times?


Too late, I'm already disturbed!

Too late,
I’m already disturbed!

A friend in India emailed me this morning to bring to my attention a development that is being hailed as a major breakthrough in the education of children with learning disabilities. An article in the Times of India, written by Yagnesh Mehta under the headline Quick test to identify learning disability among children, implies an impending innovation, which it is suggested will enhance the educational opportunities of a significant number of children. Why is it then that having read the article a couple of times I feel more apprehension than elation?

The article informs readers that:

“Rudresh Vyas, head of psychology department at MTB Arts College, has received a grant of Rs 13 lakh from the University Grants Commission (UGC) to develop the screening test. He will work on the project for the next three years and after successful tests of the model it will be introduced for use by teachers.”

At a surface level I suppose we should all be grateful if the development of a new procedure enables teachers to provide the support for children that may enable them to be more effective learners. But I find myself somewhat disturbed by the implications that are suggested in this article. Maybe this is simply a matter of poor expression within the news report that is doing Dr Vyas a great disservice; I certainly hope that this is the case, because if my interpretation of this article is right, then it raises a number of serious questions.

In the first place, I am concerned for the implication that this “screening test” has not yet been developed, and indeed it is suggested that it is three years away from a state of preparedness, but already it is being seen as a useful tool to be used by teachers. “Successful tests of the model” are apparently assured. This does seem to imply that the results of the test’s developments and the outcomes of any field trials are already anticipated. This, in my experience, is not the usual way in which valid research is conducted. The development of any legitimate instrument would normally go through extensive piloting and field work and only then, if the results proved positive, would such a test be seen as worthy of introduction. If this normal procedure is not seen as necessary, why has Rs 13  lakh (£13,600) been provided for development?

This is clearly a concern, but I have a far greater apprehension about the report and its potential impact upon students. Dr Vyas is reported as saying that:

“With this test a child will be screened within 15 minutes. Currently, there are tests available which require three to four hours. This test will be easy since it will be computerized and shows results in seconds. The test will be available in three languages — Gujarati, Hindi and English”.

I find it hard to imagine that a fifteen minute screening test can possibly have the efficacy that is suggested in this article. However, I am even more concerned that within the period of fifteen minutes it will soon be possible to apply a label to children that will have immense impact upon the rest of their educational lives and possibly beyond.

I have no doubt that the motivations behind the development of this test are honourable. However, a procedure that is likely to result in the labelling of a child as having a learning difficulty, whilst possibly leading to the provision of additional support, is equally destined to single this learner out as potentially problematic and to result in a lowering of expectations. Do we really need more tests that simply tell us about the potential difficulties that children might have with learning? Might we not be better investing Rs 13 lakh on the professional development of teachers in order to assist them in adopting more inclusive approaches to teaching and managing their classrooms.

I wish Dr Vyas well as he works on the development of yet another screening test aimed at identifying learning difficulties in children. I do hope that if it comes to fruition, teachers who are tempted to use this test will recognise that their own professional understanding of children has a part to play in identifying their needs. I also hope that they may choose to examine their own teaching practices alongside the needs of individual children, in order to provide opportunities for them to demonstrate what they can do, rather than simply listing those aspects of learning with which they may have difficulties.

Found in Translation

Without the assistance of  Tao Yuhong (Dolores), my earning difficulties are exposed in China!

Without the assistance of Tao Yuhong (Dolores), my learning difficulties are exposed in China!

Inevitably when working in Asia I have language difficulties. Typical of most British people, my knowledge of European languages is limited, but when it comes to the languages of Asia I am completely at a loss. In India, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia I have usually found a number of people around me who speak a good level of English. In China, and particularly on this visit to Xinjiang Province this is most definitely not the case. In such situations I am obviously dependent upon an interpreter or two to get me through meetings, my teaching or conference presentations and to assist me in social situations where I am otherwise like the proverbial fish out of water.

Fortunately on this visit I have been assigned an interpreter with superb English and the kind of understanding of local custom and etiquette that keeps me out of trouble. Tao Yuhong (Dolores) has not only assisted me in teaching, but has been a constant presence at meals and in other social situations where I would otherwise falter. (Did you know that if you sit at the head of a fish at the dining table you must propose a toast to whoever sits at the tail? – no neither did I!). The professionalism of good interpreters always amazes me, not only do they need to know the language well enough to speak with authority, but they are also required to navigate the technical nuances of the subject of the person for whom they translate. Sitting with Tao Yuhong prior to sessions and going through presentation materials ensures that terms such as inclusion, assessment for learning and differentiation are understood. This enables an audience to be reassured and assists them to find the meanings and concepts through the translation. It also inspires confidence in the presenter.

I think it is quite good to place oneself in a relative position of helplessness such as is occurring with me at present. Finding myself in a situation where I cannot manage the spoken language and have no hope of reading the Chinese or Uighur script that surrounds me I have some idea of how many children who have learning difficulties must feel. As a normally (reasonably) self-sufficient and competent adult I have reverted to being as dependent as a child and look to others to support me in the most basic of situations.

Of course, a significant difference between myself and most children with learning difficulties is that I am in a very different cultural context and as a rare visitor to this part of the world nobody is suggesting that I be taught the language and gain a degree of personal autonomy. Also unlike children who have learning difficulties, in a few days time I will be back in familiar surroundings and will almost miraculously have recovered my learning competence.

Perhaps it would be good for all teachers to experience this situation from time to time if it made them think of the challenges faced by their pupils. Such an experience makes us re-evaluate terms such as independence and competence as well as encouraging us to think about how we go about understanding the world we find ourselves in.  For now I would just like to say thank you to Tao Yuhong (Dolores) for being my teacher and carer for a few days here in Urumqi. Your skills as an educator were greatly appreciated. I hope that I have not been too troublesome a child!