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Not dumbing down but something more subtle - The Ex-Communicator

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October 15th, 2010


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10:10 am - Not dumbing down but something more subtle
I think the criticism of the British exam system by Mick Waters is largely accurate. But I think it's obscured by the use of the inaccurate term 'dumbing down'. I don't think exams have dumbed down, but they have been systematised.

So, for example, pick a subject, let's say a modern language. The old fashioned exams were not so systematic. You answered questions as well as you could using the language, and the examiner marked you impressionistically on your overall grasp of the language. In the modern system there are stock phrases and sentence forms you are marked on, and students are encouraged to learn these as boilerplate (that's how my kids were taught, and they did well in the exams). This type of exam is cheaper to mark, and easier to teach to. It is also financially lucrative for the examiners, who can create text books which concentrate not on mastering the subject but satisfying the marking system.

This is why increasing proportions of pupils get high grades. It's not dumbing down as such: it's improved technique, combined with a system which increasingly rewards technique. This is common where there is any system of grading or evaluation - if you set people hoops, they will get good at jumping through hoops. And as I say, the exam boards have a triple financial motive: the new type of exam is cheaper to administer, it's more attractive to the purchaser (schools, because they can get more grade As), and it provides a second source of income to the examiners (who are generally freelance) in creating exam guides and text books which schools must buy to learn the marking triggers.

What it doesn't do, in my opinion, is improve the quality of learning. I personally think this is quite a big problem, but when journalists call it dumbing down it makes people defensive.

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Comments:


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From:altariel
Date:October 15th, 2010 10:59 am (UTC)
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Totally agree and in fact said as much on a lecture about rationalisation on Monday.
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 11:05 am (UTC)
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Another effect, which I think is again a function of people responding to evaluation systems, is that certain clever operators are rewarded for gaming the equivalency system. That is, the mapping of qualifications against each other is imperfect, as all systems are, so a head can produce a sudden artificial jump in school performance by swapping to a slightly easier but officially equivalent qualification. I personally think it's rather unscrupulous, but it does work.
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From:pingback_bot
Date:October 15th, 2010 11:01 am (UTC)

Delicious LiveJournal Links for 10-15-2010

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User andrewducker referenced to your post from Delicious LiveJournal Links for 10-15-2010 saying: [...] The problem with schools - not dumbing down but something more subtle [...]
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From:momentsmusicaux
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:12 pm (UTC)
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I agree entirely.

And it's not just schools, it's universities too. My father was a lecturer, and I remember him remarking over a decade ago, 'We're not teaching students any more, we're teaching exams.'
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:29 pm (UTC)
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I was just thinking it probably started as an attempt to remove subjectivity, and the impact of irrelevant factors like class or gender. But I think a new approach is needed which minimises the scope for prejudice but allows a more holistic evaluation of progress in a subject.
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From:andrewducker
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC)
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Yup. If you want to report on stuff in a standardised manner then you need it to be nice and logical and almost mechanised. Which then makes it easier to teach people how to pass.
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From:kalypso_v
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:31 pm (UTC)
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But I think it's always been there; I remember thirty-odd years ago one of my teachers remarking "We can teach you Physics, and we can teach you how to pass Physics O-level, and most of you only need to know how to pass Physics O-level." Ditto the tutor who didn't get very far trying to teach me Logic, but did a very thorough job of training me to answer exam questions on Logic. It was noticeable that all my marks in finals were in inverse proportion to what I knew about the subject; I did much better when I concentrated on form rather than content.
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
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I honestly think it has got a lot worse, or at least a lot more methodical and specific. I certainly wasn't taught to the exam in the way my kids have been.
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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:October 15th, 2010 01:23 pm (UTC)
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My maths master taught me in 1966 how to put down the working for problems, calculus etc, and told me, in the GCE, to do so but on no account to try to actually get the answer (he knew I didn't have a clue and would get it wrong). You got a certain % for putting down the working and he reckoned you could just about pass with it (I did, with an O-grade, which was more than I expected). I also, in the chemistry exam, had a mental block about which 2 substances were used to make X in a particular experiment. I recalled the method and everything else, so put it down, and I passed. Which is daft, because I couldn't actually have started said experiment in practice.
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From:andrewducker
Date:October 15th, 2010 01:27 pm (UTC)
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I don't think it's daft. In real life you could just look up the two substances. You had 90% of the information you needed, which should mean you pass.
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
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I think it's gone way beyond that kind of technique now. For example, I mentioned modern languages, but let's say in science you might get a question 'What are the advantages and disadvantages of the use of pesticides' (I'm making this up but that kind of thing) and if you use certain words in your answer you get marks ('impact on biodiversity') whereas you won't get marks for answers that aren't in the marking scheme ('reduced need for agricultural labour causes a flow of population to urban areas').
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From:zornhau
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:26 pm (UTC)

Hmmmm....

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Sage. I'm going to friend you so I can keep track of your posts. Don't feel obliged to friend back.
Z
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:40 pm (UTC)

Re: Hmmmm....

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I think as livejournal becomes a little quieter there are more links between different users, which is great
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:39 pm (UTC)
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I was thinking about this in relation to the intelligence type tests which you can train yourself in, for example with those little hand-held machines they have nowadays. With no preparation there might be a correlation between raw ability and your test result. But if you train yourself to get a better test result, that doesn't mean you have elevated your raw ability.
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From:andrewducker
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:31 pm (UTC)
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I linked to you today, by the way, if you're wondering why you're having a sudden influx.
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC)
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this time I got an automated email about it, with a little pic of a robot, which hasn't happened before - I will unscreen FYI
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From:andrewducker
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
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Aaah, the pingback-bot. Very useful it is too!
From:londonkds
Date:October 15th, 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
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I am perpetually shocked by how unprepared undergraduate students I meet at work are for any task that involves collating information from different places rather than looking for a single source that contains "the answer" (typical question: where can I find the marketing strategy of British Airways?) and I blame an entire 11-18 education system of rote learning to pass exams.
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
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I am monitoring FoI at the moment at work and there are a few like this.
From:londonkds
Date:October 15th, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
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We get the odd email or phone call that is basically "please do my essay for me" but I'm mostly talking about people who visit the library.
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From:hfnuala
Date:October 15th, 2010 01:26 pm (UTC)
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I feel like this sort of systemic system playing is spreading from schools - I saw a lot of it at my last employer - concentrating on evaluation mechanisms rather than doing a good job and trusting this would allow you to jump through the hoops. In that particular case, a lot of it was people without an interest in IT doing IT management jobs because it pays well, so they would concentrate on the systems they could understand rather than the technology. Drove me insane.
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)
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I think there are particular generational problems with IT management - speaking as an older person - people get to management through a decades-long process, but a lot of people my age don't really get technology.
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From:hfnuala
Date:October 15th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
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These were people my age (38) and some of them had supposed IT degrees (which is more than I have - mine is in genetics) so I don't have that much sympathy.

I'm fine with senior managers needing information put in business terms - that is part of what I do well, so I'd like the need for it to continue (said she cynically) - but people who have worked in IT departments all their lives but glaze over if the conversation gets even a small bit technical are a huge drag on large company IT departments.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:October 15th, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)
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I'm not convinced. Take mathematics. I don't see how that has become less impressionistic over time - there was nothing terribly impressionistic about the cosine rule or integration by parts when I was sitting my exams - and yet university entrants have much lower levels of skill than they used to. This isn't just "back in my day we had to solve quadratic equations uphill both ways": university physics departments are now putting on extra maths courses just to get new entrants up to the level that they used to be able to assume on the basis of exam results. And that's despite increasing the required mathematics qualification to get into the course in the first place. They're not doing this for a laugh: they're doing it because a good secondary maths qualification is no longer a reliable indicator that someone knows how to differentiate a polynomial.
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC)
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One of the reasons I don't think it's simple dumbing down is that my kids, and my nieces and nephews, seem smart and well educated to me.

I'm on uncertain ground about maths, though. I've never had to understand the syllabus in any job I've had to do. My brother is very good at maths, and his daughter seems to have inherited his aptitude, and she seems to know as much as he did at her age. But she might have given me a misleading impression.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:October 15th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)
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I'm sure there are still bright kids learning maths well. But the horror and dismay of physics lecturers teaching first year undergraduate courses is explicit and frequently expressed: things they used to be able to teach quite confidently are now a big problem for the students en masse, because the knowledge of essential mathematical concepts and techniques is no longer there. I don't think any of them relish teaching (what used to be) high school calculus and trigonometry, but the secondary schooling system leaves them little alternative.
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From:communicator
Date:October 15th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, it might be that under the same pressures which have pushed other subjects to systematisation, but not able to give way in that direction, maths has simply crumpled.

Not that it's an excuse but could it be that other areas of maths are getting more attention at an earlier age than they used to - for instance statistics? I didn't study statistics at all at school, and I think they do now.
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From:communicator
Date:December 15th, 2010 01:18 pm (UTC)
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I don't have any solutions either, except I think perhaps a change of attitudes starting at the top.

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