Tag Archives: education

Is this advanced?

Far from being ‘advanced’, the further education system in the United Kingdom has a malign tumour at its core, and that tumour is itself.

Where once a pass at A Level was taken as a mark of distinction in a particular subject, with the tantalising A-grade a guarantor of prowess, it’s now a commonplace ornament on a list of eminent achievements expected of every student. A-Levels are symptomatic of society’s obsession with increasingly meaningless grades, a desire to project a plastic fa├žade of competence rather than granite proof thereof.

The situation has deteriorated such that students are now routinely taught how to navigate mark schemes rather than the content they supposedly represent; swallowing prescribed formulas from the first week of most courses, creativity is strangled in favour of marks and, of course, league table positions.

As battery chickens in a dingy coop, students are stuffed with swathes of information to match the mark scheme by the educational machine, creative wings clipped not just by the examination boards but also by the fervent desire of the teachers to obey their whims. In sciences, students complete thousands of past questions to learn the mark scheme rather than the scientific theories or processes to pass the examinations and procrastinate over their actual education, as by laying an egg every day the hen delays slaughter. In arts subjects, the poultry inmates of the education system are systematically taught certain words and phrases which get marks, extending to the extremes in languages by teachers often writing speaking scripts for students to rote-learn.

With 270-word limits imposed on language essays (including, in at least one board, to discuss an entire film therein), where is the room to experiment linguistically, to developed detailed trains of thought or to analyse cinematic elements or societal tenets? When the widely-pronounced acknowledgement that German, for example, takes 33.3% more words as a direct equivalent of the English version, is taken into consideration, what can comprise these essays but sweeping generalisations, superficial narration and an end product linguistically equivalent to an asphyxiated deer, once regal but now swollen and rotting?

Although they are at last being phased out, the insidious ways in which schools manipulate controlled assessments and EMPAs by massaging the dates of papers and playing fast and loose with board regulations to secure their students the best grades at the expense of fair play and a good education, often suggesting content and answering ‘hypothetical’ questions, are endemic.

No wonder students struggle with the gaps between GCSE and AS, between AS and A2 and between A2 and university. Without a solid skill base having been established, what is there to build on but the ethereal departure of hope such a disappointment engenders? The marginalising of actual ability threatens not only the individual student, but more broadly the economy, with one dentist recently telling us how his employees with an A in English Language GCSE are unable to write a document with any sense of spelling, grammar or structure. What foundation is this for any form of advancement?

The pythonic embrace which has descended on further education belies the epithet ‘advanced’ which presides proudly over the heads of many teenagers, smothering any inclination to develop thought processes with absurd time constraints, word limits and concrete mark schemes.

Advanced Levels do not work for the most academically able. They do not work for the least academically able. For a minority caught exactly in the middle, willing to rote-learn mark schemes and manufacture a few paltry paragraphs, what is there to change? All too often various politicians wax lyrical about ‘the few’ of their opponents, yet with this crucial flaw in our society, never was so much slowed for so many by so few.

I’m a student, trust me

11 years of school has given me plenty of experience with all sorts of teacher in all sorts of subjects. Being predominantly academically minded, a decent and inspiring teacher is really quite crucial to me. I’ve had some pretty outstanding teachers in my time, and I’ve included aspects of their styles in the points below. As a Lower Sixth student, I offer some simple advice for teachers from a student’s point of view as to how to improve.

Although I’m not a teacher as such, I’ve lately had the pleasure of running a few revision sessions for years below me for Classical Greek, and I have limited experience in making the subject matter (literature and grammatical forms in my case) appealing for the students, with literature being covered only in my sessions rather than the lessons due to time constraints.

These steps are in no particular order, and are purely the opinion of a student who understands a little of the demands upon someone so integral to the development of a child.

1. Acknowledge your pupils outside the classroom

Smiling or wishing students a good morning maintains another side of the teaching job – the mentor and go-to person. Teachers who acknowledge students in the corridors are more likely revered by pupils.

2. Have as short a turnover time for marking work as possible

Teachers who are slow to take in and mark books on a regular basis (i.e. when they have nothing more important to mark, or no reports to write) don’t inspire confidence in students. Teacher-marked work is much more reliably accurate than student-marked work; for important homework tasks, or mini-tests, try to mark it yourself (unless you specifically want the pupils to understand the mark scheme). Which links to my next point…

3. Don’t be too generous in marking

Over-generous marks help nobody. They incite false confidence which may later be dashed. It is better to be as harsh as possible; in public examinations, the discrepancies between examiners is in reality so great that the difference between a ‘harsh’ marker and a ‘generous’ marker could be a grade. In the classroom, it’s much more useful and beneficial to be on the low end of the spectrum. Whilst younger students will prefer you to give them as many marks as possible, older students will realise that it really doesn’t help.

4. Don’t leave the classroom as soon as you end the lesson

There will usually be someone in the class who wants to ask you a question perhaps beyond the curriculum of that lesson, to query something you’ve said or to request extra assistance. If you leave as soon as you’ve released the class, you are discouraging them (however unintentionally) from doing so, especially if…

5. Be easily available!

…you’re hard to find otherwise. Check and reply to emails from pupils regularly (including in the holidays if possible!), and try to ensure you can be reached during break or lunchtimes.

6. Inspire your pupils

This is easy to say, and relatively difficult to do. Genuine enthusiasm for your subject is the first step. Encouraging extra questions from students related to the topic studied is another; don’t refuse to answer if it isn’t completely and directly related to the content of that lesson (if there are constraints of time, ask the pupil/s in question to wait at the end of the lesson so you can discuss it). Include interesting details about the topic which cannot be found in the textbook; effectively proving you have properly studied the area makes it much more likely that your pupils will be interested in what you say, especially if it contains humour.

7. NEVER read straight from presentations or from sheets

By a certain age, it’s fair to assume everyone can read. If you waste time reading chunks of text from the board or from hand-outs, even the most eager students are hugely unlikely to bother listening. If at all possible, avoid chunks of text where you can. Physically writing out notes on a whiteboard is better than ordering pupils to copy it off a presentation – and leave gaps, to engage their brains.

8. Spend the first half of the lesson wisely

Trawling through the latest homework or the latest test is really dull for everyone, even you. Outline common salient issues straight away, and make them clear. Don’t dwell on it. Speak to individuals if necessary, rather than trudging through their problems at the expense of everyone who doesn’t require that clarification. An excellent history teacher of mine used to spend the first 20-25 minutes of the lesson in a broad discussion of the topic for that lesson – teaching us, including facts he collated from personal research, and interacting by asking lots of different people.

9. Try not to spend an entire lesson reflecting on a mock/test

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so different people will have messed up different questions or parts of the test. Go over questions which caused a lot of people strife if necessary. Never ever go through the test question by question, especially in a science test where there are lots of different questions. Giving the students the mark scheme, so they can identify exactly the points which gain marks, is a much more efficient use of time. Encourage them to ask you about any questions they personally got wrong. Students who lost few marks, or who made only silly mistakes (as opposed to having clear deficiencies in their knowledge) will have wasted almost an entire lesson. Only in the event of a mass catastrophe of a test should you force the entire class to trawl through the paper for an hour.

10. Don’t be too lax, nor excessively strict

Punishing somebody for their first late homework, especially when there is a good reason or the simple fact they’ve forgotten it, is perceived by the student community as unforgiving and cruel, especially for stressed students. Of course deadlines have to be made, and students who inform you of late work in the lesson or don’t bother should be reprimanded, as should serial offending. You probably think that you’re not bothered what the pupils think of you, as long as you produce good results, but in fact I’d argue that the popularity of a teacher is linked to their efficacy and potential. For older students, allowing students to do whatever they want is actually negative (in contrast with younger years who love any excuse not to work), and is a cause for popularity decreases. You need to ensure that students work hard in the lesson in most lessons.

11. Watch your manner

Rudeness is a significant cause for complaints to senior management teams, even if directed at other members of staff or ideals rather than a pupil. It is not acceptable to humiliate pupils in front of the whole class unless it is clearly humourous or they are behaving in a churlish manner; simple disagreements of perspective and analysis, for example, is no cause for public embarrassment for pupils. Swearing and blasphemy will also lose you respect. Inevitably, you will prefer certain students to others, but if you indulge this favouritism, the others will perceive you as unfair and biased – you must especially not let this influence your marking. Being good-humoured rather than moody and/or angry etc. will also have an impact on the effectiveness of your lesson.

12. Incorporate different things into the lesson

One of my German teachers is also very musical, and so, for example, the declensions of some irregular verbs are matched to melodies and then sung. In one of my previous maths classes, there was a high proportion of athletes, and so we practised transformations of graph parabolas by a sort of ballet-style co-ordination of arm movement and height change. Younger years appreciate the inclusion of drama, whilst older students engage their cognitive processes with the content of the lesson during debates. If all lessons contain exercises from the textbook, dry and uninspiring note-taking and limited class discussion, the students are less likely to recall the subject matter at a later date; by being original in certain lessons (easy enough in science through fun experiments/demonstrations) it helps them to retain the memory.

13. Prep.!

As afore-mentioned, this history teacher I once had used to read extensively around the topics he taught (he’d then offer to lend members of his classes the books, which I personally found very beneficial), and include details of the books or studies in our lessons. One of my Latin teachers continually reads papers and references ancient sources to elicit interesting details for his lessons. My most recent mathematics teacher used to compile examination questions and give them us as a pack, which was of the utmost use for honing particular skills and practising as we progressed through the course. If you can deliver a wider range of more interesting content than the textbook, you will inspire your pupils. End of. Teachers who rely too heavily on the course textbook give the impression of insecurity in the subject area and a lack of interest which disappoints eager pupils and makes weaker pupils uncertain. Those who don’t research questions posed by pupils or, especially with subjects containing literature, possess gaps in their knowledge regarding the background or references in a given text will be regarded suspiciously by certain pupils, whilst others will begin to wonder how much you care about teaching or the subject. If you appear not to know crucial aspects of something on the specification, there will be cause (albeit perhaps kept secret from you) for serious concern amongst pupils who come to rely heavily on teacher input.

Indoctrination

Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler’s Fuehrerbefehl of attenuating the influence of the Jews in Germany reached down into the educational system, the poisonous anti-Semitism dripping through and contaminating even elementary education. In primary school, one learnt the ‘distinguishing features’ of a Jew (big noses, protruding foreheads and close-set eyes, according to the contemporary racial stereotype), was incited to deride those marked with the yellow Star of David and to despise them upon sight. Upon progression into secondary school, in addition to this virulent racism, pupils completed mathematics equations calculating the bombing of Warsaw or relocation of undesirables, were taught eugenics and how the Aryan race had to be preserved.

Soviet bloc. Communism was (or is) glorified as the mechanism for the conservation of mankind, whereas democracy and constitutional monarchy were dismissed as unfair, unstable and unviable. Whilst embryonic or fledged Communists and archaic Russian heroes such as Alexander Nevsky, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin were lauded as heroes and societal exemplars, Peter the Great (who modernised and westernised Russia, developed the navy, furthered trade links and established St Petersburg), Catherine the Great (whose cultural interests brought the enlightenment to Russia) and Leo Tolstoy (author of “War and Peace” and political liberal) were forgotten. Figures such as Oleg Gordievsky, former KGB agent who defected to the west in the 1980s, and Alexander Litvinenko, who also defected from the FSB (successor to the KGB) and was later poisoned for his revelations concerning his former employer, are actively despised.

Modern Britain. Although extremist parties do not hold power, the education of our younger generations is being compromised through the influence of indoctrination. Although ostensibly open and tolerant (the latter is, quite rightly, mocked by German ‘ambassador of comedy’ Henning Wehn for being in fact exclusive since the attitude does not extend to welcoming or encouraging), at times holes in society emerge which expose the issues, such as egging of politicians, school bullying of those with financially poor backgrounds and death threats sent on social media websites to public figures.

There is, however, a more easily rectifiable hole in education. It concerns one subject, but perhaps the most important subject for the understanding of human life and machinations. History. Looking back at past examples, such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China, the initial stage of indoctrination of children via the education system has always been conducted through the adaptation of history. In Nazi Germany, for example, Hitler’s background was altered for teaching to erase his alcoholic father, failure to get into art school on grounds of proficiency and other details inconsistent with the account given in “Mein Kampf”*. In Soviet Russia, the late tsar and his family were criminalised and the western powers (Britain, USA and France mainly) labelled as warmongers, declining powers and sources of social evil. In Communist China too, children – especially during the Cultural Revolution – were instructed in the failings of American society and the ‘shocking’ liberalism thereof.

Today, all over the nation, there are children being indoctrinated by the left. As Michael Gove’s statement, and subsequent piece in “The Telegraph” by Jago Pearson, have shown, just because the UK is not in the hands of extremist lunatics we must not think that indoctrination is not prevalent. Today, all over the nation, there are children being taught that the First World War should not be revered because military leadership led the military, that it is in the interests of democracy not to illegalise the criminal Ku Klux Klan, that all monarchist systems are unfair and should be eradicated. Today, all over the nation, children who do not possess left-wing views are being admonished, ridiculed and marked down.

History must be neutral. Judgement is not a thing to be pre-inserted and taught, so that all lessons are delivered with a spin, and balanced arguments are usually superficial (for example arguments opposed to the left-wing view are minimised and overriden in the end). I am not saying that a Conservative spin should be placed on these lessons; I am saying this, that we should all be extremely careful so as to imbue our children with the importance of the skills true history imparts: analysis, balance and the eradication of bias.

Next year, for the first time in 11 years, I won’t have another history lesson. Despite being the history prefect, I have become so exhausted of arguing for what is right – against the left-wing bias – and for being dismissed on no grounds except that I do not comply with the left-wing interpretation (and not solely in a school environment: my school possesses an excellent history department), I am giving up history. My study shall continue on a personal basis, unaffected by the spin placed upon it by successive governments.

It is ridiculously easy for a government to place their spin on the curriculum of history. And it can be easy to neutralise that spin. The views of hitherto governments have usually affected the impartiality and reliability of the study of a subject which must needs have such, but in modern times I truly believe the situation has never been more dire than now. In all my 11 years of history, never have I encountered such indoctrination as that of the AS level.

This can be changed. And it must be.

***DISCLAIMER***

I have been misinterpreted as being critical of my particular teachers. This is not my opinion; I have had some excellent teachers. My problem is with the curriculum itself and hence hitherto governments.

*In case anybody is interested, I highly recommend reading “Mein Kampf” in parallel with the first volume Sir Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler.

The food of revision

Last summer, along with thousands of teenagers and adults across the UK, I took my GCSE examinations. With 12 subjects and 20 examinations, it’s fair to assume that revision would have started pretty much at the beginning of the school year.

But, like any pre-determined scheme, external factors influence it, and when I contracted a series of influenzas and glandular fever throughout the year, I thought my chances of cramming in enough revision in addition to catching up work were pretty slim, especially considering in one subject I hadn’t done around 55% of the course by March prior to the June examinations.

Concerning; worrying; stressful – perhaps, but the knowledge that I had limited time when it came down to serious revision actually helped me in the end.

Being musical, the extra stress caused in those weeks led me to go and tinker on the pianoforte, or listen to certain pieces of music over and over whilst I tried to learn some Classical Greek literature, or biological processes of bodily transportation. It was during this action, originally and ostensibly for stress-busting, that I discovered the ultimate revision tool: music.

Our brains memorise musical patterns more quickly and more naturally than they do chunks of information or visual detail. If you give a teenager a popular song to listen to, chances are they’ll be able to sing back the lyrics back after a few hearings, whereas a passage from Romeo and Juliet of comparable length would probably require tens of hearings.

This is to do, as I believe, with the marriage of words and melody. Particularly when one likes a certain harmony in a song, or a particular bass line, one’ll pay attention to the structure of that song and try to emulate it in our brains; indeed, songs with especially striking lyrical or melodic features often replay in our brains as perfect as the originals, despite our attempts to reproduce them aloud.

This easy memorability is, so I’ve found, the perfect style of revision, the optimum style of remembering information, regardless of most learning styles. Try fitting Latin vocabulary , composed into sentences, to Take That; kinematic equations and their derivations to Sir Tom Jones or German verbs to songs from the musicals. Take advantage of YouTube; of Horrible Histories, or the calorimetry song.

The lineage of English monarchs seems long and, much to the chagrin of elementary history students, hard to memorise. To prove my point, take this Horrible Histories song and see how long it takes you to learn at least most of the order.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc/clips/p00h9nqb

[Song courtesy of BBC]