Fit for purpose

In that I haven’t been; fit for purpose, that is. First I had surgery (results, inconclusive, difference to health, indeterminable owing to vast quantities of drugs I am plying myself with), then I caught flu and spent two weeks staring bewildered at the thermometer which seemed to have got itself stuck in the hyperactive range, and then I developed eczema all over my hands, and meanwhile I went back to work and everyone else promptly went on holiday, leaving six of us to carry on preparing for the ceremonial re-opening of the New! Improved! Now with added Omega 3! version of the library in a fog of dust, paint-fumes and collapsing shelves, which left me with an unnatural quantity of bruises and a general desire to slap the next person who told me they couldn’t help out as the dust upset their breathing.

But what was that thing I quite enjoyed doing, back in the dim and distant past when my belly-button was quite a different shape? Oh, yes, blogging.

So, chez Reed, we are adjusting ourselves on the tenterhooks for the sake of Youngest Sister’s A-levels, apparently in postal transit somewhere about the South East of England. While Youngest Sister is spending her days in completely ignoring the subject, oh wise young mortal that she is, her mother and I are gleefully working ourselves up into a foam of anticipatory worry.

Which makes this as good a time as any to discuss A-levels. As for the annual Journalist’s Jamboree of blame, opprobrium, aspersions, whining and self-congratulation that engulfs the comment pages, I can remember it repeating itself word-for-word when I did my A-levels, *ahem*tumpty years ago. I put it down to jealousy. These students, look at them, they get to be 18, have iPods, have sex, they can afford to drink like the proverbial Lord one is as drunk as, and still, still they do better year on year. Bastards.

No, the problem with A-levels, truly, is most certainly not that they are getting easier. Rather, I think it likely that teachers are getting cannier and students are being more carefully groomed to be able to do said A-levels. The year is spent learning what sort of information to retain, and how best to regurgitate it – exam-passing is a skill, and the kids are picking that up superlatively. Talented little oiks.

I am far more distressed by the stories about students with ninety-seven As and an A* turning up at the portals of OxbriLondrews to do Literary Literature and Philosophical Musings Thereon and finding themselves utterly floored by the Gerund. Or Science Genii of the future having to spend their first year being painstakingly taught to spell ‘Socioeconomic constraints on biological determinism’. (Incidentally, is this truly true? Do universities now offer remedial classes in Writing Like a Person of Normal Intelligence and Maths Without Fingers? [In which case, can we enroll Reed in the maths one? - Ed]). While it seems to me perfectly obvious that the Teenager of Today is perfectly capable of learning a great deal of stuff and, vitally, being able to regurgitate under conditions of controlled torment, it is not nearly so obvious that they are being taught anything they really need to know. I know of English students who simply don’t know who Samuel Richardson is [Lucky, lucky swine], Biology students whose grasp of Darwinian Evolution is somewhat more shot than my own, and in any case have never heard of Alfred Russell Wallace, Politics students who leap back with shock on being told that Fascism and Communism are not after all one and the same thing, despite historical results, and therefore calling me a communist because I won’t let them take a reference book home makes me laugh hysterically for quite some minutes, because, dear reader, I was.

Back in the year *vigorous coughing*, when I attended my very first lecture, admittedly in a narcotic haze of aspirin and liver toxins, because after all I do believe in doing things properly and that includes spending Fresher’s Week plastered, I did have a vague notion of how to spell every author on the curriculum, and a vaguer notion of what exactly their books were about, as such, except in the case of James Joyce, but then, that was the point, and indeed anyone claiming to understand Ulysses in the first year was made to clean the Arts Block toilets. And this was because my English A-level was mostly dedicated to two Shakespeare plays, two Victorian novels and an untidy heap of poetry, the teaching of which entailed things like ‘context’ and ‘background’ and ‘what everyone else was up to at the time’; a somewhat old-fashioned proceeding, admittedly, but one that was fit for purpose, in that while I did indeed spend most of my first year at University feeling stupid and overwhelmed, I knew what I was feeling stupid and overwhelmed about and how to improve the shining hour [i.e. live in the library, and now your life is irredeemably blighted]. The Student of Today does not even know what they do not know. For the A-level they took was not intended to give them a shallow and somewhat patchy grounding in the subject while hammering the set texts in with the Hammer of Desperation and the chisel of Midnight Espresso. Their A-levels were about passing A-levels. For that is what everyone, students, parents, teachers, governors, ministers, all wanted. For students to pass their exams. And now they do.

And now they must work out how to understand what they’ve learnt, all by themselves.

[Apologies for any fall in standards in this blog - the Fragile Flower is still draped over the ottoman, so to speak, and can't take much kicking. Which is boring of her]

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7 Responses to Fit for purpose

  1. Teuchter says:

    Absolutely no perceptible fall in standards here, my dear.

    I’m in agreement with your view that these bright children can indeed pass exams very effectively but many trot off to tertiary education in a state of not actually knowing very much. Still – I hope that’s what univ’s for, apart from keeping the British booze industry ticking over nicely of course.

    What saddens me greatly is that a huge tranche of school leavers are unable to communicate what they do know via the written word.
    My daughter teaches in an FE college and some of the work students hand in is incomprehensible. They may know what they’re trying to say but have never been given/developed the skill of writing.

    It’s probably due to a combination of factors – at the top of which list I’d put Not Reading Enough.
    Add to that an education system which has been tinkered about with too many times over the last forty years and this current ideology that no-one should be allowed to fail at anything, ever – and we have a generation of people who missed out big time.

    Sorry – I think I was venturing into rant territory a wee bit there :oops:

    Hope your sister’s results are good.

  2. Aphra Behn says:

    I think you’ve put your finger on the nub of it; they do not know what they do not know.

    On the other hand, I wonder what they do know that we don’t know they know. A book I read recently called “The kids are alright” (sic) took a look at the behaviours of the gaming generation – computer games don’t “improve hand / eye coordination” but they do make you patient, determined, willing to put the hours in with minimal instruction and supervision, and willing to experiment.

    Also, my education as taught in school was narrowly focussed and contextless, being based entirely on the curriculum. It was a private school too, so there was NO excuse for not starting with 55BC when we were 10, and ending up with 19thC history for O Levels and the 20th C for As. Oh no. We jumped around from era to era as each History teacher in turn left to spawn.

    Like Teuchter, what worries me is the widespread illiteracy I find online in places like Freecycle. It worries me that good spelling is seen as an unnecessary add-on rather than as a way to make sure that your message gets through. And with more and more communication being text-based, people whose parents never had to write more than a note for the milkman are now, well, posting on Freecycle. I wonder if it is in fact Darwinian? As meeting one’s mate online becomes the norm, will those who simply cannot communicate at all using the written word just get selected out of the gene pool?

    *pauses to extract tongue from cheek*

    Poor literacy will be accepted until it is recognised as being disabling, and unfortunately my peers, who like me were taught in the touchy-feely un-regimented self-expressing 60s are now head teachers and running the educashun kwangoes. And on top of that there is anticant’s comment that he once heard a mandarin there say “we don’t want clever people in this country because clever people cause trouble”.

    Perhaps if we positioned the ability to spell as the ultimate act of subversive rebellion…..?

    Aphra.

  3. Sol says:

    The British designed exams we use aren’t bad. And they’re done by UCLES who I believe also do GCSEs and Alevels. They tend to test skills and knowledge that are important. In order to do well at them, generally, you actually have to learn the subject, or rather, the skills, and I’ve sen the impetus of the exam take a patchily good student and turn them into a solid all rounder.

    But the exams are also quite sophisticated and require you to know a lot about the exam, the types of question it has and tips for approaching them, how it’s put together, what each section is testing, how its scored and so on. I agree with Reed when she says that increases in grades are often because teachers and students have got better at this now the exam format for GCSEs and A levels have really settled down.

    The problem is that I suspect that exam tips are taking over from the subject matter almost entirely. We’ve got a secondary school French teacher on the course at the moment and we were discussing reading skills and how to design and run tasks to help students develop them (and how not to).

    She suddenly say up and said that she’d been teaching students how to find the right answers to exam questions, and that was pretty much it .’The first quesiton begins with the word ‘where’. The answer is going to be the first answer in the text so you are looking for a place name. Place name have capitals. This word here is in the first paragraph and has a capital, so it’s probably that.’

    Most of her students, se said in an increasingly horrified voice, probably wouldn’t be confidently able to tell you what the texts they’ve been reading are actually about by the end (although that’s got to be an exam design fault too, so perhaps the exams are not as well designed as I assumed). And she’s actually rather good, now.

    But mostly, I’m afraid, I do blame the sixties. The era which decided to throw out anything approaching an attempt to teach any kind of rule in almost every subject in favour of writing a freeform poem about it.

    Of course they problem with spelling and such is that English is taught by Literature graduates. Most of the ones on our course don’t have much of a clue themselves about the practical application or mechanics of language. I find it particularly worrying that they don’t seem to understand text structure well enough to write straight comprehension questions. Obviously there are honorable exceptions to this, but still.

  4. Sol says:

    And I am sorry about the typos…

  5. So, I gather by this whole exchange that over in the UK you are experiencing the effect of “teaching to the test”, a phenomenon that over here has been a problem for several years. It is getting even worse now that we have Our Prez the Shurb’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative as the law of the land. The result is the children learn everything they need to know to do really well on the standardized progress test, but learn little else.

    Then we have the phenomenon of text messaging, which trains people to wrt lk ths, iykwim.

    I would write more but my massage client is here and I must go work.

  6. Helen says:

    I’m so glad you’re alive! I’ve been worried about you!

    I’m embarrassed to confess that I got through my undergraduate degree in English Literature without knowing what a gerund was (or a noun come to that). But I soon learnt. My postgraduate was in Applied Linguistics!!

    I hope you’re OK. Please take care. I am typing this to a background of wailing and “Mummy? MUMMEEEEEEEEEE?” and “Brrrm! Brrrm!” so I can’t add intelligent comments like everyone else….!

  7. Lilian says:

    Glad you’re back – I too was a bit worried. I don’t have anything intelligent to say, and I have no excuse for this! I feel rather sorry for today’s youth. I’m very glad I don’t have to go through the stress of exams anymore.

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