Remaking the grade
by NJ McGarrigle
French President François Hollande wants to abolish homework for all primary- and secondary-school students in the name of equality. Hollande believes that homework gives children whose parents are able to help them – i.e. wealthier and better educated – an advantage over families from less well-off areas. It is a noble idea steeped in socialist ideology, and has its pros and cons.
Significant educational reform is welcome anytime but I would prefer to see it in a different area: not in the home, but in the exam hall.
The system of judging every secondary student’s abilities and future on a number of exams after five years of teaching is outdated, flawed and unjust. Instead, the essential elements of academia should be complemented with skills and learning that are based on important vocational skills and values so that students who may not be scholastic are not cast aside at the end of the education cycle.
There’s a fabled tale from my old school of a student who was sitting his final year European History exam. The story goes that, instead of just not turning up for a three-hour test he had patently done no work for, he instead used the opportunity to write a poison-pen profile of his teacher, detailing all his flaws as an educator and settling scores from two years of butting heads together in the classroom. By all accounts he signed off his paper with the damning denouement as to why Mr X’s car was such a “banger”. What satisfaction was gained from this and who was in the right and the wrong, is hard to ascertain, but something within the strained dynamic of their relationship made the student go out of his way to gain a hardly more desirous ‘F’ grade, instead of the mandatory ‘U’ grade for a non-appearance (I’m sure the abbreviations F and U would have been a big part of his motivation too). But the act, more than likely, was akin to releasing a pressure valve from the foreboding air surrounding final examinations.
The story took on a legend of its own and looking back, there’s a doomed romanticism to it. Yet it also highlighted serious flaws in the academic system: a student can feel cut off and backed into a corner with nowhere left to turn – from a bad teacher-pupil relationship on this occasion – and then must face the final examinations firing-squad. And now, as the dust settles on the exam slips for another year and the great grading wheel cranks into action again, one wonders if there is a better way.
For those pupils who achieved their goals last summer and moved on to further education, hearty congratulations; for those starting out on the drive for points and star-adorned letters, good wishes. But as students depart, the keepers of the flame of enlightenment – teachers and administrators – are surely left frustrated and questioning the education system after the white heat of results season subsides. Do they feel they have sent their pupils out into the world as better people, responsible for their actions and able to think for themselves? Or do they merely breathe out again after the pressure of meeting targets has been lifted for another year?
I ask this with only the curiosity of someone who left the education system nearly two decades ago (and achieved what was probably expected of me, for what it’s worth, although grades that would be considered average by today’s standard). For it is only with age and the passing of time that one can look back at exams and wonder why we took it all so seriously. It all seemed so definite at such an early stage of life. As the writer David Lodge observes, “Four times under our educational rules, the human pack is shuffled and cut – at 11-plus, at 16-plus, at 18-plus and 20-plus – and happy is he who comes top of the deck on each occasion, but especially the last. This is called finals, the very name of which implies that nothing of importance can take place after.”
Exams will steer you in some direction, certainly, but they’re only one of the many signposts on life’s journey.
One of the significant flaws from schools placing so much emphasis on the examination/grades system is that it focuses entirely on the individual and as a consequence, sees students looking inwards and, becoming inherently selfish and self-centred. For one, this environment cannot encourage adolescent maturity. More importantly it excludes a significant portion of pupils who may not be academically inclined, but who possess other talents and virtues; in which case the education system does nothing more but disclose to the wise, and disguise from the foolish their lack of understanding.
One method of assessment cannot be sufficient in shaping every pupil’s future, considering the complexity and diversity of young people.
So why not develop a system that is imbued more with ideas of the person? That strives to put forward values of responsible citizenship and social justice in students – why not have teaching that forces students to look beyond their own needs and ambitions and towards more humanitarian and benevolent ideals?
We should encourage elements of the curriculum that allow pupils to be judged in other ways, in terms of the self, in terms of shaping decent, upstanding young people who have values that are not only marked with a grade or a points tally; a curriculum that instils skills that apply to the real world and can be used for altruistic purposes. One dedicated secondary school teacher explained to me recently that the current system serves only the pupils who can obey rules and regurgitate knowledge that they will soon forget. So where is the idea of the individual; of the person who contributes to society and innovates; of learning based in curiosity and risk; where are the teachings of integrity, moral courage and tolerance?
A number of measures could be introduced to provide tangible skills for students from the age of 16; to open their minds to values that are worth striving for and which could be assessed on a task-based honours system over a two-year period, while complementing core numeracy, literacy and science learning.
These could include:
* Giving each class an annual budget – overseen by the teacher – which they manage throughout the year to be spent on rewards for collective achievements. This would give students a basic, early understanding of managing finances in real terms and by allowing each pupil a vote on what to spend the money on, would develop ideas of equality and democracy. We work for reward as adults, so there is nothing wrong with introducing the idea in the classroom.
* Schools could build a communal allotment on their grounds to be maintained by students under the supervision of teachers that would provide a common goal in which everyone can play a part, thereby reinforcing the idea of the collective good. It would allow pupils learn practical skills and stimulate understanding of environmental and global issues, as well as the fundamental economics of food and resources. Fruit and vegetables could be used for the school canteen, while flowers, for example, would be sold locally, with profits invested into a student fund.
* For thirty minutes every week, consider allowing three students a ten-minute slot each in the classroom to talk about a topic of their choosing, with the teacher acting as chairperson, which would give everyone a voice, thereby improving communication skills, engaging their peers and creating a common bond or at least a better understanding of one another. We want our say as adults, so allow pupils the right too.
* Develop links with local community leaders with students helping provide services to people in their towns, such as aiding the elderly, cleaning up public spaces or volunteering with charities. Giving two hours a week during school time would allow students to finish an hour early on a Friday as an incentive for taking part and the experience would hopefully develop empathy and respect for their community.
* A weekly class should be established on ‘Thinking’ (the prefix ‘creative’ is unnecessary here) to give pupils a break from learning things by rote, and instead allow them take a subject and tear it up in any way they see fit: let them wring out the sponge of knowledge and bounce it around for fun instead. Moderated by the teacher, students pose a question relating to the world around them – with one suggestion drawn out each week – which is then addressed by the rest of the class in an open and uninhibited discussion. As Descartes wrote, in order to improve the mind, we ought less learn than to contemplate.
These are only a few, basic suggestions that, if integrated into the classroom, could encourage ideas of social equality, or at the very least foster a more egalitarian spirit in students and thereby engage and reward more of them. Our education system should aspire to provide a liberal, public-spirited and humane counterbalance for teenagers to the inherently flawed system of final examinations. Examinations should not be the final disembarkation point in a pupil’s learning.