The reasons offered included arguments invoking scientific evidence, and cited my work as examples of such evidence. That invites the question "Does Willingham think that the scientific evidence supports testing, as Gove suggested?"
This question really has two parts. Did Gove get the science right? And did he apply it in a way that is likely to work as he expects?
The answer to the first question is straightforward: yes, he got the science right. The answer to the second question is that I agree that testing is necessary, but have a different take on the scientific backing for this claim than Gove offered.
First, the science. Gove made three scientific claims. First, that people enjoy mental activity that is successful--it's fun to solve challenging problems. Much of the first chapter of Why Don't Students Like School is devoted to this idea, but it's a commonplace observation; that's why people enjoy problem-solving hobbies like crossword puzzles or reading mystery novels.
Second, Gove claimed that background knowledge is critical for higher thought, a topic I've written about in several places (e.g., here).
The only quibble I have with Gove on this topic is when he says "Memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding." I'd have preferred "knowledge," to "memorisation" because the latter makes it sound as though one must sit down and willfully commit information to memory. This is a poor way to learn new information--it's much more desirable that the to-be-learned material is embedded in some interesting activity, so that the student will be likely to remember it as a matter of course.
It's plain that Gove agrees with me on this point, because he emphasized that exam preparation should not mean a dull drilling of facts, but rather should happen through "entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths." I think the word "memorisation" may be what led the Guardian to use a headline suggesting Gove was advocating rote learning.
Third, Gove argued that people (teachers and others) are biased in their evaluations of students, based on the student's race, ethnicity, gender, or other features that have nothing to do with the students actual performance. A number of studies from the last forty years show that this danger is real.
So on the science, I think Gove is on firm ground. What of the policy he's advocating?
I lack expertise in policy matters, and I've argued on this blog that the world of education might be less chaotic if each of us stuck a little closer to the home territory of what we know. Worse yet, I know little about the British education system nor about Gove's larger policy plans. With those caveats in place, I'll tread on Gove's territory and offer these thoughts on policy.
It's true that successful thought brings pleasure. The sort of effort I (and others) meant was the solving of a cognitive problem. Gove offers the example of a singer finishing an aria or a craftsman finishing an artefact. These works of creative productivity likely would bring the sort of pleasure I discussed. It's less certain that the passing of examination would be "successful thought" in this sense.
Why? Because exams seldom call for the creative deployment of knowledge. Instead, they call for the straightforward recall of knowledge. That's because it's very difficult to write exams that call for creative responses, yet are psychometrically reliable and valid.
There is a second manner in which achievement can bring pleasure; I haven't written about it, but I think it's the one Gove may have in mind. It's the pleasure of overcoming a formidable obstacle that you were not sure you could surmount.
I agree that passing a difficult test could be a profound experience. Some children really don't see themselves as students. They have self-confidence, but it comes from knowing that they are effective in other activities. Passing a challenging exam might prompt child who never really thought of himself as "a student" to recognize that he's every bit as able as other children, and that might redirect the remainder of his school experience, even his life.
But there are some obvious difficulties in reaching this goal. How do we motivate the student to work hard enough to actually pass the difficult test? The challenge of the exam is unlikely to do it--the child is much more likely to conclude that he can't possibly pass, so there is no point in trying.
The clear solution is to engage creative teachers who have the skill to work with students who begin school poorly prepared and who may come from homes where education is not a priority. But motivation was the problem we began with, the one we hoped to address. It seems to me that the motivational boost we get from kids passing a tough exam might be a good outcome of successfully motivating kids. It's not clear to me that it will motivate them.
My second concern in Gove's vision of testing is how teachers will believe they should best prepare kids for a difficult exam that demands a lot of factual recall.
Gove is exactly right when he argues that teachers ought not to construe this as a call for rote learning of lists of facts, but rather should ensure that rich factual content is embedded in rich learning activities.
My concern is that some British teachers--in particular, the ones whose performance Gove hopes to boost--won't listen to him.
I say that because of the experience in the US with the No Child Left Behind Act. In the face of mandatory testing for students, some teachers kept doing what they had been doing, which is exactly what Gove suggests; rich content interwoven with a demand for critical thinking, delivered in a way that motivates kids. These teachers were unfazed by the test, certain that their students would pass.
Other teachers changed lesson plans to emphasize factual knowledge, and focused activities on test prep. I've never met a teacher who was happy about this change. Teachers emphasize facts at the expense of all else and engage in disheartening test prep because they think it's necessary.
Teachers believed it was necessary because (1) they were uncertain that their old lesson plans would leave kids with the factual knowledge base to pass the test; or (2) they thought that their students entered the class so far behind that extreme measures were necessary to get them to the point of passing; or (3) they thought that the test was narrow or poorly designed and would not capture the learning that their old set of lesson plans brought to kids; or (4) some combination of these factors. So pointing out that exam prep and memorization of facts is bad practice will probably not be enough.
Despite these difficulties, I think some plan of testing is necessary. Gove puts it this way: "Exams help those who need support to better know what support they need." A cognitive psychologist would say "learning is not possible without feedback." That learning might be an individual student mastering a subject, OR a teacher evaluating whether his students learned more from a new set of lesson plans he devised compared to last year, OR whether students at a school are learning more with block scheduling compared to their old schedule. In each case, you want to be confident that the feedback is valid, reliable, and unbiased. And if social psychology has taught us anything in the last fifty years, it's that people will believe their informal judgments are valid, reliable, and unbiased, whether they are or not.
There's more to the speech and I encourage you to read all of it. Here I've commented only on some of the centerpiece scientific claims in it. Again, I emphasize that I don't know British education and I don't know Gove's plans in their entirety, so what I've written here may be inaccurate because it lacks broader context.
I can confidently say this: hard as it is, good science is easier than good policy.