Sunday, 18 March 2012

Tell me it isn't so... (Bon Jovi)

I'm listening on-line to a lecture given by Charismatic Lecturer to a group of first year undergraduates.  The module is Critical Introduction to Law, and he's berating them about the ways in which our students are fixated on 'the mark' rather than on the traditional idea of what constitutes education.

CL asked the group for comments about the ways in which they were taught at A Level, and some of the comments on the tape make an Old Girl despair.  Students tell tales of teachers who told them not to include research outside the text book.  They tell of their success being due to having developed the ability to regurgitate chunks of the text book - and more horrifyingly, whose schools were given awards because of this.

If this is true (and to be fair it seems to be limited to those home students who do A Levels - the IB, it would appear, encourages some independent thought), then it explains so much.  If universities are to address this situation, then they really have got to 'front-load' courses, and teach the skills of independent and critical thought right from the first day.  And, I would suggest, from my experience this year, we have to do this overtly, it's not enough to hope that they'll get the point.

I've blogged before about education in the 1970s and 1980s - and I firmly believe that the cult of 'the mark' was in existence back then.  But, at A level in 1982 and 1983, we were expected to think.  Maybe it's because of my choice of A level - English Literature and French - but I don't think so.  In 1998, I went to evening classes to study A level law.  I loved it, and the teacher was brilliant - and he did encourage us to think.  But, I could see a change from study in the 1980s.  He taught us how to pass the exam - how to play by the rules, and showed us what a good exam answer should look like.  It's a testament to his skill as a teacher that we were able not only to pass the exam, but also to think clearly and carefully about what we were learning.

Oh, but hang on.  I don't think that it's just A levels that are a problem.  Before I came to Uni, I studied for a certificate in social science with the Open University.  I loved it.  But, I was somewhat surprised to read in the feedback for my first essay, that I should concentrate on using the information presented in the course booklets, and not read around the subject.

In Social Science?  Really?  Particularly as part of the course focussed on discourses and discourse analysis.  It didn't make sense to me.  But I took the point, knuckled down, and chased the marks.  I got the certificate - although I tend to forget about it these days, passing a course by playing by the rules doesn't feel like a great achievement to me.  Hell, I had a career doing that.

Undergraduate education was a bit of a change - there were modules that really challenged me, and I remember one which really flummoxed me.  I'd leave the seminars feeling really worried that I didn't know what was going on, until I realised that I was supposed to feel that way.  That, I feel, was the seminal moment that changed my mindset from mark-chaser to potential academic.

I studied one particular module, philosophy of law, (convened, as it happens, by Charismatic Lecturer) that I knew would bring down my grade average.  And, I hated the course with a passion.  But I use the knowledge and methods that he taught on that module every day of my academic life.  No mark could compete with that, and I am eternally grateful that I made the choice to study it.

Other modules, I treated as the game that they were- usually criminology modules, taught in social sciences.  It worked.  One module that I hated was particularly well taught in this respect.  The rules of the game were clearly explained, and because I listened and ticked all the boxes, I got a clear first in the exams and the essay at the end of the year.  The way I view that module is completely different from those I studied that made me think.  I'm glad I got such a high mark (it made up for the philosophy of law mark), but I don't feel any kind of sense of achievement.  Yes, so I could play the game.  'Triffic.  So what?

I suppose that it depends what we think university education is for.  For the old fashioned academic it's possibly about enabling young people and mature students to think in a way that they've never thought before.  It might be about the pleasure of learning, of engaging with the subject and of giving students the freedom and skills to start forming their own opinions.

But, what if that's not what they want?  What if BPP is right?  Should we be inviting employers in to dictate what we teach?  Should our focus be on giving them the skills to 'play the game'? If so, shouldn't we be giving extra marks for those students who can plagiarise effectively?  After all, in order to get ahead in a savage profession like the law, they're going to have to be ruthless in the ways in which they work.  Wouldn't it make sense to get them used to that?

Dear God, I hope not.

1 comment:

  1. Reading your post made me think of the way the system works here in Ireland. Students are not encouraged to study what they enjoy but what potential employers want. They take this so far that students will get extra points in their Leaving Cert (equivalent to A levels) if they study certain subjects such as Maths. But are we really surprised? In all fairness, employers do not want people who can think for themselves and form their own opinions, they want people who tow the line and keep their heads down. I have worked in US multi-nationals for over a decade now and the culture in those companies defy any logic.

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