Tuesday, 28 August 2012
Mickey Mouse Classrooms: Just What is Our Children Learning?
It's been about six years since I left school now, and every year since the same report comes in: on average, GCSE and A-Level pass grades are up. Last year, 97.8% (?!) of pupils achieved a pass grade in their A-Levels and 27% of those were the highest grades. And good for them, too - but excuse me for not buying the notion that the increase in pass grades is entirely down to the fact that students are now harder working than they were, say, 20 years ago.
People have referenced the Flynn Effect, whereby IQ increases with each successive generation, but I'm *ahem* skeptical, since the Flynn Effect doesn't say that people born in 1989 are, taken as whole, more intelligent and hard working than people born in 1988, it's a 3 point increase in IQ scores per decade and, to me, seems unrelated to the issue of GCSE and A-Level grade inflation. Moreover, the idea that our kids are transforming into hyper-intelligent ubermensch seems dubious since, internationally speaking, we're not so great and that broken clock the Daily Mail happens to be right for the first time today - exams are easier than they were ten years ago. Just look at The Guardian's comparison between GCSEs and the old O-Level exams and try and say with a straight face that they're of equivalent difficutly. Of course, manipulating grade boundaries for an ideological point is perverse, but that shouldn't immediately tar anybody with a concerned look on their face about the state of education in Britain with the brush that they're somehow a right-wing bogeyman eager to tarnish the achievements of hard-working young people. Left-wing people should be concerned about the state of education, too.
My experience at school, educationally speaking, was an over-liberal infusion of the education process with the teaching of 'study skills', which to most people is known as being taught how to pass the exam. Now, there is empirical data out there which shows that this sort of teaching is effective at getting kids to score higher grades and presumably this is what teachers are referring to when they're saying that what's actually improved is the quality of the teaching, but study skills are an extremely poor substitute for critical thinking and source analysis. From my experience, anyway, the school as an institution is so paralysed with fear that not enough pupils will achieve the highest grades that they've found teaching study skills to be an effective means of reaching their targets. For lazy students like I was, meanwhile, study skills were an excellent means of getting a higher grade with minimal work. My English Literature GCSE exam was on Lord of the Flies and I got an A despite not having read the book, simply because I'd been at the lessons where we were told what to say on the exam - I remember the teacher giving us a very long explanation of what the word 'microcosm' meant because it made you look smart and might make the difference between an A or A*. Everyone in the class went in and wrote near-identical essays and came out with a good grade - if you performed poorly, you hadn't memorised the material properly. The school looks good, the teachers look like they've improved their output and pupils get better grades. Everyone wins.
This isn't to say that study skills don't play an important role, but they are a poor substitute for a rounded education. Schools nowadays resemble exam workhouses where the purpose of the exam is purely the destination, not the journey. As long as the end result is okay, nobody really cares what you actually learned. Anthony Seldon makes this same point and suggests that schools should do more to 'build character' - that's a bit overly patrician for my tastes, but the point stands that schools need to do something more than offer a means for students to learn how to game the system effectively. This might sound conceited, but I was once told by one of my tutors in the law department that I was a 'rare' student, because I had intellectual curiosity. I don't think it was meant to be a particular compliment towards me, more a lamentation of the average standard of University students. I asked what she meant by 'rare', and she told me that her experience with British students in the law department was that they generally are quite poor at engaging critically with the work assigned to them and treat the student-professor relationship as a commercial transaction. "Can't you just tell me how to pass the exam?" is a frequent request. The blame, of course, doesn't lie with these students - their experience of education thus far has been essentially that as long as they learn the script, they'll do well. Universities haven't quite acquired this mindset yet (they're getting there) and value originality, critical thought and independent learning a great deal more than your average school. My experience at school was that originality was urgently discouraged as a dangerous diversion from the tried-and-tested formula of the memorised essay.
Teaching to the test is not the problem per se, but only if it's used as a means to an end; a creative and intriguing way of demonstrating the content of the subject itself. If, for instance, a question comes up on Nazi foreign policy, I can well imagine that you could teach a model answer to the question and demonstrate the fundamental principles underlying such an answer. Why structure the essay in a certain way? Why are certain facts important, but others less so, for instance? The solution is less to teach people how to answer a question than it is to teach them why a question needs asking in the first place. Yet let he be the one who has not finished an exam having no idea of the content of what he has just written be the one to cast the first stone. Our biggest problem in our schools is not how well our pupils are doing, but what it is we are teaching them.