Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

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elsiep
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by elsiep » Mon Nov 19, 2012 8:47 pm

Heather F wrote:I don't claim to know your views, I just made the comment because Old Andrew has a series of blogs addressing issues you have raised on this thread and putting forward views that disagree with yours. Try the one on the Education Secretary for starters.
It would be so helpful if you could provide links, Heather. I'm happy to read what you suggest but not if I have to track it down and then wonder if it's what you were referring to.
I have no desire to go through all the things I know about the school system and its problems because I am a secondary teacher that I would not otherwise know... You say I haven't yet told you anything about public exams you didn't already know... Really? So you know already all about the issues with the skills based markschemes at A Level I described. Really?
You haven't previously mentioned the 'skills based markschemes at A Level' - what you'd mentioned was the 'twenty-first century skills agenda', which I am aware of.
In fact you felt able to dismiss the speech out of hand before you even read it.
I was responding to what was reported in the Guardian article to which Jim posted a link. I couldn't find the text of the speech at that point.
You then analysed the speech without even making reference to the ways he was addressing some big issues in education.
I think introducing the EBacc and upping the proportion of students in higher education might be considered 'big issues' by some people.
Either you didn't realise they were issues or weren't interested in those sections of the speech because you don't know how significant the issues are.
I flagged up a few issues that caught my attention and where I felt Gove's view was flawed. I'm happy to do an exhaustive analysis if you want me to :shock:
If you know anything about public exams you would know that he addresses issues that dominate my working life.
I do know some things about public exams. One of them is why separate subjects were introduced in the first place.
No one knows yet much about what will actually come out of the rhetoric but that is not the point.
I think that is very much the point. The education system in the UK has been characterised, throughout its history, by a lack of evidence to support what it does. Gove's speech showed a significant lack of 'here's the evidence, here's what we're going to do, here's what we predict will happen and here's when and how we shall evaluate it'.
You wrote a comment dismissive of Gove, implying his ignorance of the issues. I suggested he was not ignorant and in fact keen to address issues which you yourself had raised as problems.
I don't think Gove is ignorant of the issues facing the education system. I think he doesn't understand education. Or how systems work, for that matter. Or at least he makes assumptions about education, such as what it's like when it's 'properly understood'. If he understood it properly he could describe exactly what it's supposed to look like and why. If he understood systems, he probably wouldn't have a compulsory national curriculum or league tables.
I make no claim about whether the policies he implements will work- I am just pleased that at least he has identified what some of the problems are.
His job is to put in place policies that work. Any idiot can identify what the problems are. Wait and see what he identifies as problems once his policies are up and running. I'd bet money it will be parents, teachers and the unions.
The article is "Could do Better. Using International comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England". Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment.
Thank you, I found it.


elsie

Heather F
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by Heather F » Mon Nov 19, 2012 10:20 pm

I discuss the impact of skills based mark schemes when preparing my A level students in my post at 8.16 on Sunday.
I have not got to grips with my iPad...

elsiep
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by elsiep » Tue Nov 20, 2012 5:50 am

Heather, what you said in that post was;
In history, my subject, children are endlessly invited to make judgements on big historical questions after reading an extract of a few lines. He specifically references Willingham to point out that this is not sound. The last exam reforms in 2007 consciously pushed this 'skills' agenda and I am trying to prepare A Level students for exams marked using assumptions about how children understand material, that are unsound, and it is a nightmare. Gove' s proposed reforms will really help me by making A2 exams once again accessible for the full A - E ability range, which they now frequently aren't, leading to teachers having to drill students to jump through hoops to appear to 'understand' when in fact set phrases are counted as 'showing understanding'.The trick is to work out what the examiner' s set phrases will be. These are complex issues, problems, varying from subject to subject, but that is why I am surprised by your response.
I'm well aware of the phenomenon you're describing. I know two A level students who've recently had to jump through these hoops, my partner is a university lecturer who has to address the problems students have as a result, and I've educated both my children at home, so have kept a (somewhat bemused) eye on the content of the curriculum at GCSE and A level.

There have always been differences of opinion about what GCSE/O level and A level students are examined on and how, but the problems you describe result, as far as I can see, from two factors. One is a philosophical perspective that sees certain thinking skills as critical to responsible citizenship and that students can demonstrate their awareness of such skills by, as you say producing set phrases. There are alternative philosophical perspectives, of course. The other key factor is that students' exam results are being used as performance indicators for schools, as if the only independent variable is quality of teaching, when most people are aware that there are multiple factors that contribute to how well students do in exams and that exam performance doesn't necessarily reflect their actual ability.

My problem with Gove's model is that although personally I feel much happier with the idea of a broad-based liberal education than what's currently on offer, I don't think what he's proposing will lead to fewer problems. As you said in your post, it probably won't help weaker students - and if Gove wants university attendance to be up around the 60% mark, he will have to address the matter of weaker students. There's also the issue of what happens if an otherwise very able student struggles with one of either maths or English - a not uncommon problem - and so doesn't get sufficiently high marks in one paper to qualify for the EBacc. A third issue is the basis for Gove's idea of an education 'properly understood'. Margaret Brown a professor of mathematics at King's, in her chapter in "Bad Education", suggests that because successive education ministers have seen themselves as 'successful' and have more often than not had a 'traditional' public school education that emphasised academic skills, they tend to make the assumption that if only all children could benefit from an education like theirs, many more children would be 'successful'. I think she has a point. It's also a view taken by Chris Woodhead and Andrew Adonis.

One of the points Tim Oates makes in "Could do Better" is that the content of the national curriculum needs to be amenable to testing. In other words, the content of the national curriculum is predicated on examinations, instead of examinations being seen as a way of sampling a student's knowledge and understanding of a particular domain. This is a highly questionable model of education and one which was resisted for decades by exam boards. Ironically, most university exam boards were aware that what was important was a student's knowledge and understanding, and that an exam result could at best only approximate to that. In addition, students were seen as agents, who were responsible for finding things out for themselves, and not utterly dependent on the teaching they received.

I've seen no evidence suggesting that Gove's model is going to improve things without creating any unexpected or unwanted outcomes. The only evidence cited appears to centre on international performance tables. And as Oates points out, you need to be careful with these because a particular practice might work only because of social, cultural and economic factors that are different to those in the UK. It's true that Oates refers to a great deal of research and he makes the important point that several factors in an education system have to be in alignment for it to function well, but his citations appear to be within the framework of international comparisons, rather than research into the somewhat broader framework of teaching and learning. I haven't been able to find any indication that Oates or Gove have thought through education from first principles - why education is important, what constitutes 'success', what features an education system needs to have to achieve that success, and how to make it accessible to pupils of all abilities. I'm sure they have thought about these things, but can't find their thoughts anywhere, and since they are both very articulate, I'm sure they could encapsulate their views in a paragraph if they were so minded.

elsie

Heather F
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by Heather F » Tue Nov 20, 2012 7:55 pm

Elsie Thanks for your thoughts.
I have always had to jump my students through hoops but my point is that the latest mark schemes have led to some quite specific and unanticipated problems. My point was that doing away with these mark schemes will actively HELP the lower ability candidate. It is in the highest degree unlikely that your friends or partner understand the issues of preparing weaker students to be assessed for A level under the current regime. I say this because only a selection of my colleagues even reflect on what it is that is causing them problems - for a parent to have those insights is as good as impossible, they simply don't have the information. They have not taught a range of students, they have not marked with the mark schemes they didn't do so before the changes to make any comparisons, they have not been to exam board meetings and they have not marked A level papers for the last 12 years. I appreciate that you are far from ignorant about trends within education but it is highly unlikely that I am going to consider that you understand the specific issues That have arisen in the last 3 years because you have a few friends with children currently doing A Levels.

elsiep
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by elsiep » Tue Nov 20, 2012 9:06 pm

Heather, I'm not disagreeing with you about specific problems with current mark schemes - I can't comment on them, obviously, partly because, as you keep pointing out, I'm not familiar with them and also because you're not explaining what they are - possibly for perfectly valid reasons.

However, your view appears to be that because I don't understand these specific problems and because Michael Gove is attempting to address them, therefore I can't disagree with his proposals about anything. Gove's proposals seem to me to be much more far-reaching than changing the way A levels are marked, and I don't understand what it is that I don't know which means I'm not in a position to comment - apart from the A level marking issue, that is. :???:

elsie

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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by Anna » Tue Nov 20, 2012 9:57 pm

I am finding this a very interesting discussion. I wanted to flag up an excellent article by Minette Marin, about Gove's speech, in last Sundy's Sunday Times. Unfortunately, you need to be a subscriber to read it.

Marin makes the point that certain facts are necessary ( but not sufficient) for higher-level learning to occur. These facts have to be learned to automaticity so that no conscious effort is needed to recall them & all processing can be focused on using the knowledge - for example applying times tables facts to more advanced mathematics. I think this is very important, especially as so many children diagnosed as having special needs, have weaknesses in various aspects of memory & require structured, explicit, small step teaching in order to achieve automatic recall of facts, spelling patterns, punctuation etc.

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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by volunteer » Tue Nov 20, 2012 10:45 pm

I'm not sure that one has to be good at arithmetic to be outstanding at higher level mathematics ...... we have calculators. It's the same with spelling - you could write a fantastic novel and be a lousy speller. It might however be difficult to get through to the higher levels if one felt bogged down in primary school by the arithmetic and by spelling.

Being a fact free historian or student of literature is another matter entirely.

Heather F
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by Heather F » Tue Nov 20, 2012 11:07 pm

Elsie my view is that you changed the terms of what was being discussed. You posted an off the cuff dismissal of Gove's speech implying he didn't know what he was talking about. I said that from my experience he did know what he was talking about, in some areas at least!
Of course it is important to consider whether his proposals would actually work, which is what you seem to want to do, but I never raised that issue I was reacting to what seemed a knee jerk assumption that of course the man was ignorant, when he struck me as surprisingly well informed. We don't know whether his professed support for the idea that knowledge is necessary for understanding (to crudely summarise) will lead to better exam specs and mark schemes but I do know that the assumptions about skills and knowledge that informed the last round of changes meant things got worse.

elsiep
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by elsiep » Wed Nov 21, 2012 5:55 am

Anna wrote:I am finding this a very interesting discussion. I wanted to flag up an excellent article by Minette Marin, about Gove's speech, in last Sundy's Sunday Times. Unfortunately, you need to be a subscriber to read it.
I'm afraid I'm not prepared to subscribe to the Sunday Times even to benefit from Marrin's wisdom, but something that intrigued me is that both the Guardian report and Marrin's opening comments refer to rote learning, which Gove doesn't appear to mention in his speech - unless he mentioned it when he spoke and it's not in the official transcript.
Marin makes the point that certain facts are necessary ( but not sufficient) for higher-level learning to occur. These facts have to be learned to automaticity so that no conscious effort is needed to recall them & all processing can be focused on using the knowledge - for example applying times tables facts to more advanced mathematics.
She's right to an extent but I would say automatic recall of certain factual information is useful, rather than that it has to be learned to the point of automatic recall, or that it is best learned by rote. Facts can also be memorised through frequency of use. I learned tables by rote at primary school - nothing wrong with that - but some bits of my times table are still a bit fuzzy, because I hardly ever use those particular multiplications. In fact, despite all that rote learning and taking (and thoroughly enjoying) A level maths, my arithmetic has always been a bit iffy. I heard an interview on R4 a while ago with an astrophysicist who pointed out that her arithmetic was pretty iffy too - but it didn't prevent her doing her job. She's not alone. Prior to the advent of the personal computer or calculators, despite widespread rote learning in schools, most workplaces in which anyone had to do any calculations, would have had a well-thumbed ready-reckoner lying around. Carpenters, shop assistants, or people calculating social security benefits (one of my holiday jobs) would have done some calculation in their heads, on a bit of wood or a paper bag, certainly, but wouldn't rely on their own calculations for anything but the simplest tasks. That was because they had learned from experience that their rote memory wasn't always to be trusted.
I think this is very important, especially as so many children diagnosed as having special needs, have weaknesses in various aspects of memory & require structured, explicit, small step teaching in order to achieve automatic recall of facts, spelling patterns, punctuation etc.
Human memory is a complex thing. There's evidence of different types of working memory, visuo-spatial information is retained in different locations to episodic memory, semantic memory is located all over the place because it's 'stored' in a distributed network. In other words, different facts are going to be retained in different places and access to them becomes automated through different means. You wouldn't learn to drive using rote memory, although you might commit 'mirror, signal, manoeuvre' to memory by learning the mantra.

This variation is reflected in my son's memory issues. His working memory (visual and auditory) is poor, although it's got better as he's got older. His semantic memory has always been excellent, however, and his episodic memory is eidetic - he can recall word for word the conversation between two characters in a cartoon, or the detail of what was in a specific scene. That meant that in primary school, being expected to learn abstract facts like number bonds to ten or multiplications drove him bananas because he simply couldn't do it. Show him a video on the Tudors, however, and he could not only recite most of the narrative verbatim, but he could also explain why what happened, happened.

The abandonment of learning by rote in the education system has come about partly because learning by rote has, wrongly, become conflated in some people's minds with learning only by rote when in fact understanding multiplication tables actually helps you recall them. That doesn't mean rote learning tables isn't useful. The abandonment of an emphasis on factual information appears to have arisen from a social-constructivist view of knowledge - that 'facts' are in the eye of the beholder, and from a misunderstanding of expertise - which I think is what Marrin is getting at - that children can learn to behave like experts simply by mimicking their higher level skills.

But I'm not convinced that educational standards are going to be improved by an emphasis on learning factual information. Especially if there's still a major difference of opinion about this in the education sphere.

elsie

elsiep
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by elsiep » Wed Nov 21, 2012 6:38 am

Heather F wrote:Elsie my view is that you changed the terms of what was being discussed. You posted an off the cuff dismissal of Gove's speech implying he didn't know what he was talking about. I said that from my experience he did know what he was talking about, in some areas at least!
I asked two questions in response to the Guardian's report of Gove's speech; what does Gove know about education and who's advising him? You're quite right, the way I framed those questions did imply that Gove didn't know what he was talking about. That's because I don't think he does. I wouldn't question his knowledge about the education system, but I've seen no evidence to suggest a 'proper' understanding of education. I've spent hours watching and listening to Gove; I especially enjoyed his spats with Ed Balls when Gove was in opposition partly because I agreed with some of his objections to New Labour's education policy and also because he's much more adept with words than Balls is. If I had the opportunity to hear Gove speak, I would take it, because his speeches are sharp, clever and well-delivered. But, as I said earlier, being able to identify problems with the system is a very different matter from being able to address them. I described his speech as empty rhetoric because I think that's what it was. He made lots of references to things but didn't explain anything.

Your response to my initial question was that Gove 'based' his speech on a book by Daniel Willingham. Now I haven't read Willingham's book, so I might be wrong, but from what I have read of what he's written, I don't get the impression that he's a man who's preoccupied with international league-tables. Whereas Gove's education policy appears to be based on the UK's standing in international league-tables.
Of course it is important to consider whether his proposals would actually work, which is what you seem to want to do, but I never raised that issue I was reacting to what seemed a knee jerk assumption that of course the man was ignorant, when he struck me as surprisingly well informed. We don't know whether his professed support for the idea that knowledge is necessary for understanding (to crudely summarise) will lead to better exam specs and mark schemes but I do know that the assumptions about skills and knowledge that informed the last round of changes meant things got worse.
Actually, you did raise that issue - you said;
I quite enjoyed the transcript of Gove's speech, being a secondary teacher and having to cope with the problems of current GCSEs and A Levels I am relieved he is trying to do something about it.
'Trying to do something about it' is what's been happening throughout the history of education in the UK. The last round of reforms was 'trying to do something about it', but it clearly didn't work. Considering whether proposals will actually work or not isn't just 'important', it's crucial. The real world is not a glorified school - you don't get marks just for trying. We have a methodology available to figure out whether something is likely to work or not; it involves literature searches and data gathering, pilot studies and evaluation. Another method, increasingly popular over recent decades, is suck-it-and-see.

I don't know why you assumed my querying Gove's knowledge about education was a 'knee-jerk' response - it's based on a keen interest in education policy over the last decade and direct experience of it going back half a century, and, as I say, hours watching Gove in action. I might be wrong about him, but so far I don't have any evidence to suggest otherwise.

elsie

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maizie
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by maizie » Wed Nov 21, 2012 8:49 am

elsiep wrote: Another method, increasingly popular over recent decades, is suck-it-and-see.
That, surely, is the only method that has ever been used.

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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by JIM CURRAN » Wed Nov 21, 2012 9:36 am

For far too long in Education learning has been viewed as a natural, fluent and effortless process or as Frank Smith said “Learning is continuous, spontaneous and effortless, requiring no particular attention, conscious motivation or specific reinforcement” (1992 Learning to Read ) as the excellent Martin Kozloff has pointed out “This statement is true if you are talking about sucking a lollipop” (Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina).

Vicki Snider in her book “Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching: What really happens in the classroom labels this phenomenon “The Myth of Fun & Interesting” as she points out this myth completely ignores the fact that the initial learning of a skills or concept is rarely fun. It’s the fluent performance and application in a new context that is enjoyable. You have only to think about your own experience of Learning to drive to understand how true this is.

elsiep
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by elsiep » Wed Nov 21, 2012 10:18 am

maizie wrote:
elsiep wrote: Another method, increasingly popular over recent decades, is suck-it-and-see.
That, surely, is the only method that has ever been used.
In education, I'd agree. In manufacturing, or medicine or organisational design, this would be considered completely daft.

Although I can dimly remember some pilot projects when I was at school. My primary school was part of a MFL trial and I did a couple of Nuffield syllabus O and A level courses as part of a pilot scheme.


elsie

elsiep
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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by elsiep » Wed Nov 21, 2012 10:33 am

JIM CURRAN wrote:For far too long in Education learning has been viewed as a natural, fluent and effortless process or as Frank Smith said “Learning is continuous, spontaneous and effortless, requiring no particular attention, conscious motivation or specific reinforcement” (1992 Learning to Read ) as the excellent Martin Kozloff has pointed out “This statement is true if you are talking about sucking a lollipop” (Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina).
:lol:
Vicki Snider in her book “Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching: What really happens in the classroom labels this phenomenon “The Myth of Fun & Interesting” as she points out this myth completely ignores the fact that the initial learning of a skills or concept is rarely fun.
I think the idea that it's not fun is also a myth. Learning can be hard work and enjoyable.
It’s the fluent performance and application in a new context that is enjoyable. You have only to think about your own experience of Learning to drive to understand how true this is.
Dunno about that. The only learning I remember as not being fun was A level Chemistry practicals, but that was because I was doing re-takes and had switched exam boards, so was having to learn a lot of new stuff on the hoof whilst under second-year A level pressure. Oh, and I didn't enjoy a course on assessment and testing, but I think that was partly due to the guy who taught it. A related course from one of his colleagues was one of the most insightful and memorable I've ever experienced. As for learning to drive, the only bit I didn't enjoy was the tests :oops: and being made to overtake lorries on a dual carriageway in a car with a small engine and no power steering.

elsie (who has yet to pass her driving test)

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Re: Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success

Post by kenm » Wed Nov 21, 2012 10:44 am

elsiep wrote:Margaret Brown a professor of mathematics at King's,
That's King's College, London. Some of us might think first of another one, founded 388 years earlier.
"... the innovator has as enemies all those who have done well under the old regime, and only lukewarm allies among those who may do well under the new." Niccolo Macchiavelli, "The Prince", Chapter 6

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