Happiness in Bangor

It’s half term now, or Long Exeat as we call it, and I’m enjoying the week off doing very little apart from reading books.  I’ve been reading the ‘Weird Tales’ of H P Lovecraft, which are pretty weird in a Victorian Gothic ghosts and ghouls-type way.  I’ve obviously not switched off from School completely though, because I came across an article in last week’s TES which makes Lovecraft seem like the epitome of normality.


The article is by Maths teacher Jonny Griffiths, who teaches at a Sixth Form College in Norfolk.  In it he attempts to explain that whereas we are all frustrated by the low motivation and work ethic of some pupils, the opposite can also be the case, and pupils do exist that are ‘driven’ and ‘obsessed’ and sometimes these can be ‘just as draining’.  He gives the example of one of his pupils called ‘Michael’ (this can’t help reminding me of the Franz Ferdinand song, which is unfortunate given its strong homoerotic message).  Anyway, Michael is an able mathematician, who has done well in his A level modules, but is worried that he has lost some marks along the way that may mean he does not secure the A grade he needs to attend Cambridge.   

Here’s where Jonny steps in, and says: 


‘Michael, apart from you, who cares what you get in your A level?’. [controversial line, needs some back up]

His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.
‘I mean, I care, of course,’ I add, swiftly. ‘But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?’ [classic argument fallacy – limit the options, neither of which sound that great to me]
“Michael is too stunned to reply.”

Later of course, the moment that Jonny is right all along dawns on Michael in a cringe-worthy final paragraph.  Michael answers a question in class (wrongly) and is corrected by another member of the class.  He then turns to look at Jonny, a smile breaks out over his face, and then he realises….what?  That he was crap at Maths all along, that he might as well go to Bangor, that he doesn’t really give a shit either way, or maybe Franz Ferdinand were right all along, and that he and Jonny should head down to Disco X right there and then.


The real problem here is that there is a very important and valid point that Jonny is trying to get across, but that it’s been lost in a clumsily-worded article.  The problem is that the current examination system has heaped extra pressure on pupils, pressure that did not exist until about ten years ago when the examinations went modular.


One of the main purposes of examinations (and I do mean examinations, not education) at Sixth Form level is to sort a very large number of pupils into two distinct categories: those that go to university and those that don’t.  Within the former category, the examinations need to assign pupils to universities and courses that are appropriate to their interests, talents and ambitions.  Students at university should be appropriately challenged academically, but it’s wrong for someone to end up on a course that is too demanding for them as to end up on one which is conceptually beneath them.


So what’s the problem?


1.  You can do the exams several times


Some papers can be taken four times through the course of the Sixth Form, and only your best mark counts.  Most universities don’t care how many times you had to take the paper to gain the best mark.  


2.  Some subjects are much easier than others


Studies show that there’s about a two-grade difference between the hardest and easiest subjects.  This means that the same pupil (without specific talents in one subject over another) would get two grades higher for, say Film Studies, than they would for Physics.  Even within the same subject, the percentages of A grades are different depending on what exam board you take.  The differences here are smaller, but not negligible.


3.  You can pay for examiners to come in and tell you the answers 


http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/8941589/Exam-boards-WJEC-chief-examiners-caught-on-film-telling-teachers-what-is-in-next-years-GCSE-history-paper.html

4.  Formulaic examinations


I very rarely hear pupils telling me that they don’t understand topics, or that they don’t possess the knowledge to be able to answer questions.  The oft-most cited reason for losing marks is ‘examination technique’, as in ‘I knew everything about that question, but my exam technique let me down’.  Never mind; all we have to do is work through a filing cabinet-full of past papers, and all the examination technique problems will disappear.  Except they won’t; all that will happen is that you will do the same style of question so many times that you’ve developed a rote manner for answering that particular question.  It doesn’t matter that this particular brand of technique will never be required again, so long as they help you gain that A.  These formulaic examinations also reward a particular type of pupil, the automative ‘t-crosser’.  This type of person is useful if you want a large data-entry to be completed accurately, but they aren’t necessarily the kind of creative thinker that’s going to deal with the population/economic/energy crises.


5.  Grade inflation


1980: 8% of A level grades were A.  2011: 8% of A level grades were A*, with around 30% at grade A.  Grade inflation is happening, and it’s not that teachers are getting better or pupils are getting cleverer.  It’s also not that exams are getting easier, which is often seen to be the public’s belief.  It’s simply that much more teaching is focused on how to pass these exams.  This isn’t really what teachers want, but this is what has happened, and it’s understandable why.  By cramming so many grades awarded at the top end, we are struggling to differentiate between pupils, and this is the reason that Jonny’s pupil Michael feels quite so under pressure.  He knows that to get AAA twenty years ago would put him in a real academic elite; nowadays, this isn’t good enough.  He needs A* grades, maybe two of them.  He’s stuck with ‘gymnastics scoring’, where 9.975 is good, and 9.895 is frankly rubbish.


6.  Unfair grading


Every now and again, I mention to non-teaching friends of mine that it’s possible to get 320/400 marks at A level to gain an A*, and to get 379/400 and gain an A.  They think it’s ridiculous and so do I, but it’s the truth.  Bearing in mind that top universities use A* grades in their offers, they’re not even certain of separating out the top pupils by marks any more.   


7.  Extra filtering


Pupils can now be filtered out of top courses on their GCSE grades, and it’s very unlikely that anyone will get an offer from Oxbridge without at least 6A* grades on their CV.  But why does a Maths GCSE matter for a brilliant linguist and why should an aspiring medic be discriminated against for being only quite good at French?  Pupils at different Schools take different numbers of GCSE subjects, and some subjects are harder than others.  Due to the grade inflation point above, universities need extra ways of filtering out pupils.  Looking at GCSE scores makes little more sense than looking at hair colour.


So what’s the solution?


Place more emphasis on problem solving in examinations; take away an over-reliance on past papers; add an abilities test to the end of Sixth Form examinations; scrap GCSEs; allow universities to set their own entrance papers; do away with coursework; don’t allow re-takes; cap the number of A grades that are awarded each year; break the links between chief examiners and School visits; have fewer Sixth Form subjects – not every course needs to have an exam at the end of it to be educational.


And finally, don’t let Jonny Griffiths write an article in the TES again.








The Element

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Element’ by Ken Robinson, in which he argues that a successful future (either individual or collective) is dependent on us finding our passion in life. I think that most people would argue that discovering one’s passion, and subsequent immersion in said passion is a good thing, and that many people have yet to discover that which is their raison d’etre.

The book is tricky to pin down, however, and for the most part uses examples of famous and talented people that did not discover their passion until they left School, or (in the worst cases) were actively discouraged from following their chosen path by those who guided them through School. I’m always sceptical of anectodal highly-specific and personalised evidence used to lend weight to a theory, especially when no counter-argument is put forward.

Robinson’s general point is that we should all be given ample opportunity to find one’s own ‘Element’, and this is more likely to occur if we were to lose the hierarchy of subjects in Schools, and to place more emphasis on the Arts, and creativity in general. We also need to ensure a high quality of teachers (or mentors (I like this word)) in our Schools, to make it more likely that pupils will be inspired to find their ‘Element’.

It’s hard to argue against either of these points, and when he writes about the need to blur the boundaries between subject disciplines, he’s particularly persuasive; I’ve always been passionate about cross-curricular teaching. I find his jokey style irritating, like the person at a party who’s unable to enter any serious conversation in case people find him boring, and I find his analogy of the standardised ‘fast-food’ curriculum that we have now versus the ‘michelin-starred’ curriculum that we should embrace to be flawed, but it’s well worth a read for anyone interested in the difference between Schooling and education. Just try not to cringe when he describes Paul McCartney as a rock God.

One thing it did do was make me think. I often feel that I’m far too flexible about education, and that my views on how it should be best achieved (at least at School) vary with the seasons. I think that this is actually no bad thing, given our inability to predict what will happen in even the near future. Things move at such a pace (technology, population expansion, global climate change) that it would be foolish to present an education model fit for even the next 5-10 years.

But here’s some ideas:

1. Do away with the current system of Sixth Form examinations (A-levels etc). Universities set their own entrance exams, which ensure that the gap between School Sixth Form and university learning is bridged. This encourages liaison betweeen Schools and universities, and ensures that Schools look forward to higher education and the job market rather than backward to past papers.

2. Exams should be relevant to the subject(s) that the pupil wishes to study, but should be less about rote learnign of facts and more about complex problem solving within that subject. Trundling through mounds of past paper questions is not education; it’s teaching people how to pass an exam.

3. Do away with ‘subjects’ at School, and instead teach ‘classes’, similar to the US college system. This encourages the pupils to think about education not as clasified and categorised into specific subject areas. How many times have I head pupils say ‘but isn’t that Physics?’ when discussing the structure of the atom. Being educated isn’t about learning what’s on the syllabus for 3 subjects in the Sixth Form. I teach chemistry, but why shouldn’t I teach classes about scientific literature, the history and philosophy of science?

4. Prioritise the education that occurs outside School. We focus so much on the education that our pupils get within the School’s 4 walls, and ignore what happens outside. It’s so easy to communicate with anyone at any time, and yet we don’t make best use of this in an educational sense. Education means much more than taught classes, and people can become more educated every time they read a book, or a newspaper, or watch a film, or listen to music, or debate a political point. If the pupils are inspired in the classroom, they’ll be adept at educating themselves outside the classroom.

There you go – heavy stuff for a Tuesday morning, or does that make me sound too much like Ken?