Good evening and welcome from Emu Towers, where we are just completing week five of a five week exercise in patience and stress management.
Yes, it’s that time of year again, where we knuckle down to exams, and this year we’ve managed a three card trick with #1 having to get approval for year 2 at Uni, #2 worrying himself into a stupor over second year of A levels, and #3 dragging himself through the Gove-inspired wanderlust that is the GCSE programme.
And it’s with #3 that most of my time has been spent, testing both our patience pretty much to the limits. Several months ago, the cheery ‘goodmorningFelix’ was replaced with ‘getoffthatbloodyscreenanddosomerevisionFelix’, and, as of this Friday, thankfully, we’ll be able to get back to a more cordial relationship.
But, as a result, I find my knowledge of GCSE type subjects at something of an all time high. Which has made me scratch my head a little bit at the way we teach, and test, our kids in this country.
Part of this head scratching is because I’ve ended up relearning stuff that I haven’t needed to know since…well, since I was 16. And, although that seems quite a long time ago in Felix-years, it isn’t really, it’s just that there’s quite a lot changed about how we go about learning stuff
I’ve bored you before in this blog on the delights of growing up in the sticks in the 1970s, and I’ve never really thought until now about how the process of learning was so different. Our family had a particular challenge here which is worth a slight diversion; my Dad had, in an effort to improve himself, and those around him, subscribed to an encyclopaedia, built in weekly parts, and filed away in a bookcase, absolutely ideal for all those homework and revision tasks.
This might seem a bit odd now, but this was at a time when sets of encyclopaedias would cost hundreds of pounds and often came with their own hire purchase schemes. So to build up from A for Aardvark, on an affordable weekly basis, probably seemed like an excellent idea. Unfortunately, around L for Lima, my Dad either lost interest or failed to keep up his payments. Or possibly the build-your-own-encyclopaedia company went bust. Anyway, as a result, we had a full set of binders in our house, but they were only really useful if you were looking up something in the range A-L. Consequently, our homework could be a bit hit and miss – Ancient Greece was no problem at all, but the Roman Empire was something of a mystery.
(btw I do still harbour a light fantasy that one day I’ll be asked to join a quiz team where my limited general knowledge is matched, weirdly, with two people with fabulous recall on subjects M-S and T-Z. We could go on to conquer the quiz world and then to all manner of general knowledge related scrapes and japes, the whole thing will get made into a screenplay, we make our fortune, but it all ends up really badly because we find we have literally nothing in common to talk about…)
But anyway, all of the above meant that the stuff we learnt, had to be taught, and pretty much memorised, at school, in order to go into exams. And that’s the bit that I can’t understand not changing, because, should one of my kids want to know about Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, or oxbow lakes, or who played on Jack White’s last album…well, they look it up on Google. And, about 99% of the time, because this whole internet information thing is nicely self governing, they get it right. So they don’t really need to know facts that much anymore, they just need to know how to find them.
And, given that they’ll be doing an even more advanced look up through even more brilliantly interlinked technology in the future, shouldn’t we be teaching them how to interpret data and manage it? Instead, we still seem to be fixated on remembering the stuff that, in Felix’s case, he might not need again until he’s tutoring/barely tolerating my sixteen year old grandson. That, incidentally, is one of the most disturbing thoughts I’ve had for some time, for a number of reasons, but you get my gist.
I do understand that part of exams are around how bright our kids at learning stuff. So not everything has to have a direct practicality. But we all know that being bright has a bit more to it than memory tricks and techniques that you could easily drag off the net. And it would be really good if we could tie in the subjects to stuff that was really immediately useful. If you look at the syllabus for GCSE maths, for example, (and pay attention at the back, Gove), the fundamental problem to me is that it hasn’t moved on in twenty years. So, we’re still looking at techniques around calculus and trigonometry in favour of understanding how money works, or how to understand, interpret and present meaningful data, which, IMHO, are going to be much more useful as tools for the future.
Anyway, no more GCSE horrors until (an increasingly nervous)#4 steps up to the plate in 2018. So, if you need to know the hypotenuse length of your bizarrely shaped patio plan, or how long your bath will fill up if water flows in at 2 litres/min and out at 20% of that due to a bizarre leak normally only found in maths exams, ask now! It’s only a short matter of time before I forget again.