Archive for August 17th, 2007

Mary Beard in The Times: Are A levels (still) dumbing down?

Friday, August 17th, 2007

Mary Beard emailed me in response to my little rant yesterday (I could blame the late hour but what’s my excuse at other times?) on A-levels pointing me to her very interesting article in The Times Literary Supplement which is well worth a read.

This paragraph struck home for me:

“I know of at least one A level examiner who has given up because he was forced to mark down candidates who wrote really intelligently about a subject but didn’t give the points that were demanded by his ‘marking criteria’.

I never did A-levels, leaving school as I did at 16 (I later did my degree and MA with the Open University while working full time – these kids today don’t know the meaning of the word ‘stress’!) but I recently found my old O level and 16+ certificates which have just passed their 20th anniversary. I failed English Literature, Religion and Art. (E, E, and D respectively). I got an A in English Language (which is writing, effectively) but failed the exam on comprehension of, in my case, Jane Eyre and The Importance of Being Ernest, two texts which I now count as among my favourites. My problem, thinking back, was that I was a bit too clever for my own good, taking issue in my essay on Jane Eyre, with the idea of literary criticism that pretends to know what was in the author’s mind. A bit precocious, no doubt, and certainly not answering the question, but I wonder if the examiner who failed me didn’t think my answer was worth a bit of discretion.
Religion I failed because I was going through my rebellious phase at the time and remember distinctly challenging the Catholic church’s policy on abortion and, for some reason, nuclear disarmament.

Art I failed because, according to the teacher who marked me (it was a moderated course work exam) I ‘lacked confidence’. Way to boost that, miss!
I wonder if she knows what I do for a living now?

Anyway, the issue of rewarding risk and unexpected outcomes is one that always comes up in art and design education whenever assessment criteria and learning outcomes are discussed (of which more shortly) but the easy answer to that is to write that into the things, but at least make it transparent to everyone concerned.

This next section in Mary’s article also chimes with me

“When they get to university the hang-over of this is still horribly apparent. Students will press you to say what kind of class you think their essay would be given. If you respond ‘a 2.1’, their next question is likely to be, ‘So what have I left out that would get me a first’. As if getting a first was simply about fulfilling all the assessment criteria.

But tub-thumping about standards is a bit of a thoughtless response to all this. The sad thing is that the tick-box style of marking is an almost inevitable consequence of the very proper attempt to democratize A levels. It’s all very well thinking that the open ended intellectual essay style is what should be rewarded. But what do you do if you go to a school where they don’t know the rules for that genre? Isn’t it reasonable for you to expect to be told what you would need to do to get an A?

Perhaps even more pressing is the question of the examiners themselves. In the old days, when A levels were a minority option, you had a small group of experienced (and, no doubt, underpaid but devoted) examiners. You might trust them to make reasonably independent judgments about a kid’s essay (and, in any case, the numbers were small enough for them to be checked up on). Our recent mad fixation with formal assessment has more than quadrupled the numbers of examiners that are needed –  the demand being such that in some subject trainee teachers are used to mark the most important tests in a child’s career. So, of course, we have to generate firm rules and fixed criteria, simply to train and police the examiners.

The real question isn’t whether we are dumbing down. It’s what on earth we think all this examining is for. If it’s for choosing the brightest, it’s a blunt, time-consuming and inefficient instrument indeed. But maybe that’s not its point – and we should be thinking of quite different ways to do that.”

(A quick aside… Several years ago, when the course I ran was validated by Oxford Brookes, I was told never to use a classification (2.1, 2.2 etc) as a mark, only as a degree, and I’ve stuck to that advice ever since. But it’s still quite common to hear first year students talking about getting a ‘first’ – to me that sends the wrong signal, that simply maintaining that level of performance will guarantee a first at graduation)

Now I’m probably going to go off at a slight tangent here. (It’s part of my charm).

I’m a big fan of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, things that are fashionably unfashionable at the moment, mainly because very few people can write the damn things properly and so assume the idea is at fault rather than the implementation. I think Mary’s critique is spot on and she identifies the same issue: that we are using the wrong methods for the things we are trying to identify, and that these methods are directing students’ learning.

John Biggs, in “Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does”, describes exactly how this happens and what to do about it. It’s a must-read for anyone involved in assessment and apart from anything else makes you realise that assessment is teaching, in that students will quite rightly (as do we all) work out what has to be learnt and done based on what it takes to pass. Writing your course and its assessment in a way that encourages ‘deep learning’ is the key to avoiding the issues Mary identifies – but that is more than, as some would have it, simply telling students that to get an A they have to read lots of books and write lots of essays. Learning is a strategic activity – it’s a basic human characteristic – and as much as it might pain the more romantic (read dinosaur-like) academics to acknowledge it, so is teaching.

Dog exercise is among police FOI requests

Friday, August 17th, 2007

The Scotsman reports that my local police service*:

“yesterday revealed some of the more unusual requests made to them in the past two years.

Tayside Police showed under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation that officers were asked if police dogs used treadmills or exercise machines to stop them becoming overweight, what a beggar’s average daily income is and how many parking tickets are given to foreign nationals.

Other bizarre questions submitted to the force included a request for information about an incident in which a flowerpot was ‘criminally damaged’.

Another was for details of how many Dundee taxi drivers accessed internet paedophilia sites between the hours of 4am and 7am.

The force was also asked whether it employed psychics to help with the work it carries out. A spokeswoman confirmed they did not.

The health of police dogs seemed a particular cause for concern. As well as being quizzed over their exercise regime, the force was also asked whether the animals became travel-sick, and if so, how they overcame it.

A Tayside Police spokeswoman said: ‘All the police dog handlers exercise their dogs several times a day in the normal fashion – by taking them for a walk’.”

I’m going to make a request under the act to find out how much time and money is being wasted by people asking such stupid bloody questions.

(* The Scotsman calls it a ‘police force’ but the corrct term these days is ‘police service’. I learnt that watching ‘Hot Fuzz’ at the weekend – one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen).

(Via The Scotsman.)

BBC Radio logos – an idea half thought through

Friday, August 17th, 2007

Michael Johnson writes almost exactly the same thing I woke up this morning thinking about (I really must get out more):

Earlier this year, Fallon beat off several proper design companies to review BBC radio’s idents.

Here was a chance for advertising to flex those design muscles, and show ’em how it’s done. And yes, they are better than they were, but that’s damning with faint praise – look how awful they were before.


Taking their cue from the previous Radio 1 identity (a ‘1’ in a circle) they’ve taken the decision to, er, put all the numbers in circles. Coloured circles, mind you. Some of the numbers have little ‘gags’ – the ‘3’ contains a bass clef (for music, you see), the ‘4’ a quote mark (I guess that must be for talking), and so on.


Not being a Radio 7 listener I presumed it aired DIY shows until it was pointed out that the symbol was a smile, not a bent nail (shame – that’s an interesting idea for a logo).

What was probably quite a neat little system fell apart somewhere between soho and white city – rather than have any gags for radios 1, 2, 5 and 6, we just have coloured numbers. Oh, and some hair for the Asian network. All for 120,000 pounds.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really like Fallon’s work and think they have a better ‘design’ eye than most. But if we’re applying the ‘wish I’d done that’ test, well I don’t. Had this been a blind tasting I’d have guessed this came from a mid-table design company who had their first idea messed up by the client.

Mmm. Maybe this design thing isn’t as easy as it seems?

This is an adaptation of an article by Michael Johnson in this week’s Campaign magazine

(Via the johnson banks thought for the week.)