Michael Gove has stated his intention to give universities more control over the content of A-Levels. I wonder if he really means it.
The complaint from some universities is that first year undergraduate students are arriving with insufficient knowledge and independence of thought to cope with a degree course, and that this trend is increasing. So they have to learn more, and think for themselves more, we are told.
Based on twenty-three years of classroom experience, I can confirm that learning does not take place in ten minute cycles, and that for any actual content to be learned the teacher has to talk for a large proportion of the lesson. You may want to argue that operating in ten minute cycles, and not talking to the whole class very much, is a good way to reinforce skills rather than content, and this is after all what Ofsted are looking for. The inspector will stay for ten minutes, and expect to see learning demonstrated during his or her time there. The teacher throws a metaphorical inflated ball with “PEE chain” written on it into the body of the classroom: the students use their metaphorical noses to bat it around the room in exchange for metaphorical fish. A number is recorded on a form, the inspector leaves and the pulse rate of the teacher subsides to about 175. For now. There are jokes about peeing on your essays. Oh how we laughed.
Learning that stays with you comes from feeding off your teacher’s enthusiasm for content. You want the content in your own head, because you can see that your teacher appears to get such a lot out of having that content in theirs. We all have memories of that teacher who loved Star Wars so much that in year eight we spent two weeks in the Star Wars universe, constructing alternative timelines, drawing Darth Vader’s bedroom and writing letters from Han Solo to Captain Kirk. Life skills? Learning to learn? Probably not, but when that teacher then went on to tell you about the conventions of science fiction you had very familiar ground on which to apply these conventions, ground where you could see that your teacher was comfortable. Then you went out into the world and applied the conventions to other stuff. You are much more likely to retain and apply knowledge and skills if you and your teacher operate from mutual safety and comfort. Otherwise you just sit and crap yourself, wondering if you’re going to be forced to answer a question in front of the whole class.
So the irony of Gove wanting universities to be happier with the knowledge and independence of new undergraduates is that to accomplish this he would have to liberate schools from performance related criteria imposed by Ofsted. Teachers need to be able to spend considerable time talking to students about things that are not directly tested in exams.
“Is this going to be in the exam?”
“Well no. But we’re doing it anyway because it’s interesting and it helps you to put your knowledge into context.” It’s a quadruped. It’s graminivorous. But what is its story?
Someone I worked with many years ago made the observation that “sooner or later, you have to stand there and tell them things”. He also said that when he started teaching there were no meetings. So by that token there probably wasn’t any data. Or if there was data it spent its life in suspension files, the chemistry of the ink on the paper changing slightly with each passing year. Whether your classroom experience was good or bad depended entirely on how you felt and how your feelings on a wet Tuesday morning in November interfaced with with what was happening around you. Teaching and learning are emotional experiences primarily. How did you pass exams? By listening to the teacher and then trying to implement what the teacher had said when you were sitting in the exam. What about metaphorical inflatable balls and metaphorical fish? They are unauthorised material in an exam. You have to leave them in a box at the front of the hall. A ten minute cycle only fills your short term memory, even if you repeat it six times in an hour, as your teacher glances nervously at the door. It will have evaporated many hours before your teacher sits down to their first G and T of the week that Tuesday evening, having rewarded themselves with self-esteem for resisting on the Monday. “Who do I rely on to pass this exam then? Who is accountable?” That would be you.