What Do We Learn?

5 08 2009

Firstly, let me apologise for hugely infrequent blogging of late. The last month has been a touch hectic, and hence blogging has fallen to the bottom of my list of priorites. Mind you, at least I’m still here, something I’m not sure can be said of the folks over on the BULS blog.

Anywho, I just wished to write something about the Independent‘s reporting of the SAT’s figures which have come out. I’m guessing (but not knowing) that most other newspapers will have picked up on this too, with some making more of a point out of it than others. Folks, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but SAT’s figures have fallen for the first time in 15 years. Which means that we need to begin panicking because 46,000 11-year-olds cannot read and 39% of students “failed to master the ‘three R’s”.

Except, I remain confused. I thought, given yearly rises in GCSE and A Level results, that exams are getting easier. Aren’t they? Every year another record is broken, and I expect that the results, due out in the next couple of weeks, will again have record levels of something. Students aren’t getting cleverer, the system is making it look that way, or so those who argue about the vaildity of exams claim.

Now, I’m aware that there is a huge difference between SAT’s at 11, and GCSE’s at 16. However, if we are to accept that 11 year olds are getting worse at reading, writing and arithmetic (whoever coined the phrase the ‘three R’s’ obviously had as many problems as the kids do when it comes to spelling), how can we explain the yearly increase in GCSE result averages?

Simply put, the whole thing should be taken with a huge dose of salt. The media jumps on figures (as one wise man once put it, “people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of all people know that”), and either the school kids are over-achieving because of the inadequacies of the system, or they are failing because of the inadequacies of themselves. There seems to be no middle ground, as Richard Gardner writes in his comment on the story in the same paper.

For my part, I’m not to sure about the exams getting ‘easier’. I think back a few years and remember how hard I worked for three consecutive years. That, I’m sure, was not easy (unless there’s some new-fangled dictionary that the kids are learning from these days). What I do think is that the students are learning to play the system better. By which I mean they are learning how to write an answer, rather than how to get the right answer. They are learning exam technique rather than the information to get the right answer. By getting the technique right, the rest becomes irrelevant. In history for example, you don’t have to write a good essay, just construct one (introduction – outline your argument, prioritise your points, explain why one is more or less important, conclude), if you follow the structure, you could, by and large, write rubbish and still do well enough to pass. In maths, you do not have to get the right answer, but demonstrate a way you would use to get the answer, after all, so we were told, you get marks for your ‘working’.

This sort of thing gets taught as much as the correct information, and this is a fault of the system. Whilst it is true that technique is important, it should be that the correct information is of more importance. In maths you should be taught the correct formulae, in history, the correct dates, people etc. This should be the core of teaching, not technique (I remember having a few English classes dedicated to ‘exam technique’ in the months prior to my exams). There is too much emphasis placed on technique, and this is a fault I think exists throughout the system.

There are, of course, other issues with the SAT’s tests and their role in education. I do not wish to talk about these now, simply because there are too many issues to cover here. I will leave it with a quote from Garner’s piece, “it is almost refreshing to know that there is a test where results can down, as well as up.

Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can’t, Teach.

16 06 2008

Every so often a story catches my eye. So it was the case here. Whilst browsing the various BBC headlines for the first time in about a week, I came across this story. I was taken by it, it is such a simple concept, yet one which remains largely unexplored.

The group of A Level students have taken it upon themselves to petition the PM to create a GCSE option in politics, a subject not available until A Level. I have written before on how young people should be before they get involved in any form of politics. I failed to reach a suitable judgement. There are many problems to the idea of creating a new option at GCSE, especially one relating to politics.

I didn’t study politics at A Level, with hindsight perhaps I should have (although if I had done all the A Levels I wanted to, I would have wound up with about 8). I know many people in my school (granted it was not a representative sample of the population as a whole) who would have loved doing politics instead of the compulsory language, or in place of either Art or DT.

Would a GCSE in politics encourage more people to take an interest in politics? I know I would like to think so, but there is a nagging feeling I have about it. Could it not have the adverse effect? Could it not put people off from a young age? There is the potential, but if the option is just that, optional, surely you would only have people who actually want to study it? At least more than German. I think the option could be a interesting one to have, if only to get more young people interested in political issues. Encouraging them to engage with various issues relating to politics perhaps is a good idea.

The trouble is, how many people would do it? If politics is not something which interests you, making it just another subject, on a par with German or French, or any other compulsory subject that young people dislike might be a bad thing. By the time they reach A Levels, any interest has been sown, and, as more mature individuals, are able to choose their options much more freely, and easily.

So I have my reservations about this idea, but I do admire the students for running with it, and wish them all the best. If you do want to sign the petition, it is available here.

Just one more quick thing. Whilst looking through the Downing Street website I was surprised by sheer number of petitions, which obviously mean something to someone, but, in reality will not get that far.

The Merits of a Good Education…

9 06 2008

Summer is traditionally exam time for many thousands of students across the country. For many years they have had it drilled into them that exams are important markers in your life. Without good exam results you cannot get anywhere, and only the best results get somewhere. It is with this ethos in mind that I will watch the final of the BBC’s series The Apprentice on Wednesday.

In case you do not watch it, there are four candidates left to fill one role, namely that of the title (although I remain unclear as to exactly what the role is or indeed entails). All four candidates have, over the course of ten or so weeks proved themselves to be very able at different aspects of business, and all would be a significant gain for most multi-national corporations, in my opinion at least. Of these four candidates, two went to university (one did ‘Managerial Administrative Studies’ and the other did ‘Equine Studies’), the other two dropped out of education after their GCSE’s. As far as education goes, these appear to be (with the one exception) reasonably distant from the creme-de-la-creme of the British educational system. It is these four people who are vying for a position working with Sir Alan Sugar. It is not the guy who was the most qualified (he was fired in week one).

Obviously in the world of business, experience will get you far. Other attributes count for something rather than the letters on a page handed out in August. A rounded individual counts for something more than a person who has 5 A Levels but no other interests.

That is not to say education does not count, far from it. However, as students up and down the land are in the middle of stressing about their exams, it perhaps should be reminded to them that, despite their thoughts, exams are not the be-all and end-all that many adults like to pretend they are.