The middle years of compulsory school in Sweden has recently experienced major changes. Reforms to theassessment system in Swedish schools were implemented in 2012, a reform that required that pupils received grades for the first time at Y6 (age 12-13). Also, national tests were introduced in Biology, Physics and Chemistry. The national tests, marked locally using a marking scheme, are intended to support teachers in the assessment of students’ knowledge and to be supportive of consistent grading between schools. Teachers teaching the Science subjects in Y6 are thus faced with a situation of increased centralized control.
The overarching aim in this study is to investigate whether, and if so in what way, the introduction of an increased centralized control in the form of grades and national testing influences the teachers’ local teaching and assessment practices in Science education.
Many parts of the world have over time had more of standardized testing than Sweden has. For example countries within Great Britain have performed tests at least at three key stages within the educational system from 1991, although this has changed in recent years as a consequence of devolution and debates about the pros and cons of such testing (Collins, Reiss & Stobart, 2010). Sweden has historically used this kind of assessment in a restricted way.
The assumption that standardized tests affect teachers’ instruction and student learning is both confirmed and rejected (Cimbricz 2002, Andersen 2011) in international research. A common reaction to state standards and tests is that the content of teaching is adapted to what is tested (Au 2009). Additionally, Au writes that norms are created from high-stake testing reflecting what teaching that is considered to be “good” or “bad”. Standardized tests thus provide a discursive control that defines the acceptable ways of acting as teachers and also creates norms about what counts as valid content and valid methods in teaching. The theoretical approach in this paper is underpinned by Dewey’s pragmatist notion of habits (Dewey 1922/1983). The concept of habits is used to describe how teachers, with their different background and experiences, work with the enacting of reforms in their everyday teaching practice. The notion of habits focuses on understanding how teachers’ actions can appear to be both immutable and revisable and how the context of reform also can contribute to development. A teacher is acting as an individual in selecting what is central within the practice, but the teacher is also at the same time a part of a community, acting in relation to collective habits within this community. Consequently, individuals develop personal habits of acting/teaching on the basis of being educated in, being in and working in contextual situations created by earlier generations of teachers and disciplinary traditions. Habits are thus acquired, but alterable depending on the circumstances. The concept is used to describe individuals’ predispositions for response to situations and problems that arise within a specific context (Nelsen 2015). In the context of reform, different teachers will have different predispositions to respond and with the notion of habits is a resource to capture the process and the tensions that may emerge.
In this study we ask the question: In what ways are teachers’ teaching and assessment habits challenged by the reforms?
Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources UsedIn order to investigate how teachers’ teaching and assessment habits were challenged by reforms, individual interviews were conducted with 15 science teachers. Data collection was made three consecutive years in connection to the conduction of the national tests, since changes in well-established practices will not happen instantly. The sampling of teachers was made to ensure a broad variation in teaching experience, educational background and school settings. All teachers teach Y6, whereof 6 are educated as intermediate school teachers, and 9 are secondary teachers. To be able to investigate and clarify if the teachers change their approach to teaching and assessment as reaction to the reforms, three rounds of interviews were made. The interview questions in the first round covered what the teachers considered to be characteristic in science teaching, what they select as teaching content and ways of assessing, in addition to their thoughts on the reforms. The second interview focused on the questions in the national test concerning the content and the assessment of students’ answers when marking the tests. This interview also included follow-up questions concerning changes in teaching and grading because of the tests. In the third interview we asked questions to clarify and deepen if, and if so, how the teachers had changed their teaching and assessment practice since the reform was introduced. Two of the authors conducted all the interviews. The interviews lasted between 35-60 minutes. The teachers received the questions in advance so that they could prepare for the interviews. All the interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim by a professional transcriber. The analyzing process started out with reading thoroughly all of the interviews from the first interview round. In this first reading, we had a broad focus on what affordances and challenges in connection to their habits of teaching teachers recognize in enacting the reforms. From this reading we came up with three different approaches in dealing with the complexity of the reform, they were used when analyzing the remaining interviews. The approaches are representing three different ways that show how habits are a part of practice when dealing with the reforms. Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or FindingsWe find different approaches to the reforms. The teachers are in different ways struggling to balance local teaching autonomy with external assessment-driven reform. The results show that teachers’ habits relate to the reforms in three different ways. Five of the teachers express that their habits of teaching are in line with the reforms, which means they do not need to change their teaching and assessment practice to any or to any great extent. The reforms even strengthen their habits. Eight of the teachers need to stretch their habits because of these reforms. This means for example that questions in the national tests work as a tool for finding new ways of asking questions and perform laboratory exercises. For two of the teachers, their habits are not in line with the reforms. The most striking part is the approach to assess the students. These teachers feel that they need to assess the students more frequently and to document the students work to have as a basis for assessment. These ways of working collide with the teachers’ views on how they want to teach to make science education interesting, fun and meaningful. When following these teachers during three rounds of interviews, we find that it seems likely that this new regime involves making changes in some way for all teachers. All teachers among the interviewees are experienced teachers. Considering this, it is striking that almost all the teachers, independent of teaching habits, accept the reforms as a positive element in their professional work, even though they have objections, for example causing stress for both teachers and students. That teachers have different approaches to teaching and assessment is a vital aspect in the implementation of reforms. The knowledge about teaching habits is there for important for policy makers to consider. ReferencesAnderson, K. J. B. (2011). Science Education and Test-Based Accountability: Reviewing Their Relationship and Exploring Implications for Future Policy. Science Education 96:104-129. Au, W (2009). Unequal by design. High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. New York and London: Routledge. Cimbricz, S. (2002). State-Mandated Testing and Teachers’ Beliefs and Practice. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10, 2. Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/281 Collins, Sue, Reiss, Michael & Stobart, Gordon (2010). What happens when high-stake testing stops? Teachers’ perceptions of the impact of compulsory national testing in science of 11-year-olds in England and its abolition in Wales. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice. Vol. 17, No. 3, 273-286. Dewey, J. (1922/1983). Human Nature and Conduct. Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 14. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Nelsen, P. J. (2015). Intelligent Dispositions: Dewey, Habits and Inquiry in Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 66(1), 86-97.