16/02/2017 11:15 GMT | Updated 17/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Little People, Big Data

This week has brought reports from Schools Week and The Telegraph that the English Department of Education is one of few education ministries within the OECD nations to indicate willingness to enter all the five year olds in its state schools into summative tablet-based tests of 'literacy, language and verbal skills; numeracy and mathematics; self-regulation and ability to pay attention; and empathy and trust', which have not only been constructed to diagnose individual 'performance' but also to collect huge sets of data to compare whole populations of children between different nations.

The basic process of such testing, first mooted by the DFE last year in preparation for national baseline testing, is that a five year old is presented with a set of pre-worded questions on a tablet by an adult who records how many are 'correctly' and 'incorrectly' answered. The score is then used to give the child a place on a 'percentile', and as a 'baseline' against which to measure future progress. It is also used as a benchmark against which to measure progress in order to ensure the 'accountability' of future teachers. Due to the problem of finding a suitably valid or reliable assessment method for such very young children, however, the national 'Baseline' tests were dropped before implementation due to the risk of generating the 'garbage in, garbage out' statistical problem. Whether they will return in a new guise has yet to be seen.

David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University proposes that at worst, analyses derived from any big data set can be 'complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense'. And if ever a data-set had the potential to turn into 'complete bollocks' it is one collected through one-off tablet based testing of human beings in the first seven years of life. Most problematically, the prospect of a high stakes assessment exercise makes adults far more inclined to use most of the time available to spoon feed children information to raise test performance, particularly in a situation in which 'accountability' is involved.

At the three to six year old stage, as I previously outlined on this blog, children most effectively build cognition through a process of trial and error whilst engaged in practical play-based and discovery learning; there should be no concept of summative 'failure'. At this life stage, developmentally informed practice requires a well-resourced, safe environment in which children are free to experiment, building the confidence to become curious, self motivated, innovative and tenacious learners. What they conversely learn when condemned to a transmit-and-test regime is that every question has only one answer; the one that the person who knows more than you do provides, so that you can be awarded a tick on the inevitable test.

By communicating this message we do not only imperil children's individual development; we also mount an assault upon future democracy, risking the production of what George Monbiot calls a 'zombie' population, collectively lacking a full capacity for independently motivated investigation and analysis. As scientist Brian Cox proposes: 'the whole point of science is that you have to be prepared - and delighted - to change your mind in the face of new evidence. That is the message that should be taught in schools'.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that Education Minister Nick Gibb views the situation over which he presides: 'teachers attempt to inculcate creativity and problem-solving as if these skills transcend domains of knowledge... this view is deeply misguided'. His misunderstanding of the human developmental process leads him to put the knowledge-bank cart before the developmental horse: if children do not learn to be creative, competent problem solvers in the nursery, they find it difficult to grasp concepts contained in existing 'domains of knowledge' in the later stages of education, because they have never had sufficient grounding in the investigative processes that have built such knowledge; the curiosity ignited by the mud kitchen in the three year old develops into the fire of innovation that burns within the adult scientist.

The DFE has also yet to answer questions about the ways in which data collected by such inappropriate tests are to be stored; what uses will be made of them and how long they will be retained. For example, might schools use such data to set and stream children in the early primary school period? Might apparent 'empathy deficits' be construed as potentiality for later criminality, and if so, what would be done with this information? Who would be granted access to the data and when, and what issues may arise relating to its security? There are many hard questions posed by the prospect of the datafication of childhood, and parents must now be prepared to articulate them.