Posts Tagged ‘Exams’

Was there an unlikely skill or area at school that ended up serving you so well later on in life?

There was some media exploration of the declining numbers of girls studying mathematics as senior students this week (in Australia). I’ve provided a link to one of the articles, in the Sydney Morning Herald here. This post isn’t looking to explore this topic per se, but the topic did get me thinking more broadly about the subjects you study at school, and their relevance to your future. We have all wondered about that subject just making up the numbers so that we are eligible for the final qualification. Tales in the days of old of a bonfire of notes post exam for that much maligned subject that you somehow ended up taking, have been around for years. But what about things that aren’t even subjects, that end up helping you beyond expectation?

Students often ask me if I always wanted to become a teacher and are surprised when I say “no”. I was always good at English but it was rarely my strongest subject in terms of results. My mother was a teacher, as was, for some time, my paternal grandfather. When asked what I was going to study at uni and I responded “Arts”, it usually elicited an “Oh… so you want to me a teacher!”, which I seemed to rail against. But, I got to the end of my Arts degree, then an Honours year and hit a wall. What now?


Lectern (Photo credit: Timmargh)

Mum suggested I look at a Dip Ed. At the time I was hoping to become the next big Australian playwright and having the chance to do a bit of part time teaching seemed like a good way to support the ‘craft’. The same year I was doing the NIDA Playwrights’ Course. With three months of the Dip Ed to go, I’d decided it might be good to get the C.V. in order, apply for a few jobs for experience and without quite knowing how, wound up with a one-year position for someone on maternity leave. That one-year ended up lasting me for nine, before I switched schools.

So back to the question at the top – and my answer to the students – the unlikely skill set that best helped me with where I am now? It would come down to two things. The first was Debating. I took it up in Year 9 and can recall the first topic “That there is too much violence on the news”. I was first speaker and can still recall the sheer terror of talking ‘unscripted’, with my mouth drying up to make this uncomfortable smacking sound as I tried to pronounce words and make them into something approaching a coherent sentence for an eternity of minutes. But over the next three years, unwittingly, it taught me how to breathe, how to think, how to pace myself and, perhaps most important of all, how to speak in front of large numbers of people without gabbling-like-I-used-to-do-when-slightly-nervous-and-excited-in-equal-measure!

The second stemmed out of English, out of my love of writing. It was joining the Drama Society at University and along with watching and being involved with plays, discovering that I wasn’t bad at writing them. Out of that came my ability to enter a Diploma of Education in English and Drama, without my having formally studied Drama. Out of that came the chance to study for a year at NIDA. Out of that came the chance for me to get an interview for my first job as a teacher… one that I got. And, perhaps most happily, out of that came the chance, with my first play touring to a University Theatre Festival interstate, to meet the girl who would end up becoming my wife 9 years later.

So this post probably has more in common with Ken Robinson on Creativity than a call for more students (of either gender) to study mathematics. But it’s nice to think that I can tell my children that, thanks to the Arts, I was able to meet your mother and ultimately, to be able to have you.

I’d love to hear about those unlikely or serendipitous moments from your education that perhaps had a greater sway on your life than you could possibly envisage.


The future of the humble (hand written) essay?

Posted: August 16, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Why do we get students to write essays?

It’s always good to reflect on what, how and why we’re assessing. Try asking students in a class (such as English) why they think you are asking them to write an essay. After the avalanche of quips and retorts, consider asking the question again.

Eventually, some sort of consensus will come out; that essays aim to show that a writer is able to answer a question, with a logical progression of ideas, using examples and techniques. Rather than quick fire responses, essays allow the writer to build a more considered response and afford the marker the chance to see what a student is capable of.

Yet, more and more with the changing face of education, students question this type of assessment.

Sir, what relevance is this going to have when we leave school!!” would not be an unfamiliar student observation.

And sometimes it is nice to play to the observation – “Not much…”

Of course, this only piques their interest (or, in more stubborn cases, confirms their disregard for the subject) to which, after a moment’s pause, I look to consider it with them more fully and open it up for some debate…

Of course, I might say, in many ways, you’re right. Think ahead to possible future careers. When, in your life, will you be asked to:

  • write a first draft as your final draft
  • by hand
  • in 40 minutes (with two other sections, just to add to the lovely muscle-feeling your hand now displays)
  • without being able to consult another person, a set of notes or (gasp) the internet
  • on a range of texts, techniques and critics

And the answer is, I would hope, never. I’ll throw the following back to their side of the court to consider. Why not, allow students to type their responses on a computer (with, if you are feeling draconian, spell-check and the like disabled), with a larger window of time, to facilitate some basic editing to occur? This would allow us to build the word count, if nothing else – on the basis that students could type much faster than they could write by hand. Could there be a range of sources that could be brought in for consideration and possible inclusion? What about collaborative efforts? My wife is currently studying for an MBA, where much of the work is group orientated and subsequent efforts assessed.

A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library
Accession Number: 15/5/3090.00830

So, it is interesting then in 2012, to consider why the essay response, an item that probably dates back to the 19th Century, still holds such a significant place in final testing? As changes in ICT occur, I feel this will probably warrant ongoing scrutiny. I did enjoy the introduction of the current HSC system in NSW, which looked to connect texts to real-world events and situations (seen in the Area of Study- from Change, through to Journeys and on to Belonging), but it seems like (giving a nod to old debating training) it might be time, to revamp the method and manner in which students are able to respond (rather than the matter).

With the roll out of lightweight consumption devices such as iPads and laptops and the like at schools across the globe, I wonder how long before students will be able to respond ‘electronically’? Are we within a school generation that would see the younger students able to use these devices in final exams before they graduate? Not that I am suggesting that the iPad is the way to go – it certainly has its limitations and, being a touch-typist myself, I’m not sure a semi-SMS-tapped-out-essay on the virtual keyboard is the way to go. I use a wireless keyboard when I need to do more than a few lines, but we still have some way to go before all this is seamless. And then it will need to be available to all students at all schools, without any nagging tech concerns of batteries, lost data or being unable to save or upload.
So, for the time being, the status quo remains. And so, I usually end by telling the students that the final exams are a kind of game. Not one that tests what your full capabilities are, but one that asks you to put your skills to a 40 minute test and how well you can play under those rules. I still like essays and what they can offer.
But how close are we to seeing this all change?