Learning in the UK

Created on 13/5/2008

When I was in charge of a film degree programme at an English university I was once confronted by the parents of a student. My first question was, why are the parents of a 20-year-old student confronting me, when it should be the student talking to me? The student had failed the year, and the parents would not accept the situation. Their questions betrayed everything about current British social attitudes. The attitude of these concerned parents was aggressive and ill informed. They felt that they could legitimately demand that their child’s grades be reconsidered on the basis that, as they were paying something towards his education, they were customers or consumers, and therefore the fault must be with the suppliers, not their child. As we had “failed” to provide the student with sufficiently good teaching to pass the year we should be penalized, rather than the kid.

I had the unhappy task of informing the parents that their offspring had missed many classes, failed to deliver course work on time, failed tests and exams, missed lectures and been disruptive. Their response astonished me. Despite all this evidence of their child’s failings, they didn’t think we were entitled to have failed him. This was not a one off instance. These are the consequence of a society where people have been educated to believe there should be no winners or losers, just participants.

For those of you living in Britain today is another day of national educational testing for our children. In this country there are such tests for all children and all educational establishments all the time. I should declare an interest here, other than having been an academic myself. I am also part of the testing establishment as I have worked as an External Examiner at various UK universities, and still validate degree programs at others. In addition I have marked student papers both for universities and evaluation boards. I know that our systems are rigorous, fair and as good as anything to be found internationally, and better than most. I do not question that we need such a systematic approach to evaluation. The questions I am raising are about how these systems are being employed.

There is a perception in other countries that the English are arrogant. It might have been true in the past, but now, I think the truth is the opposite. The English tend to undervalue some of their finest accomplishments, such as its university system, and this has led to over scrutiny of their institutions. As a consequence the country does more than it needs by way of constant checking and double-checking. This is certainly true in education where it is becoming very difficult to deliver normal teaching.

I shall give you one example of this. When I was teaching at Further Education level recently it has become standard practice to break down lectures into twenty minutes sections, and each of these mini sections had to be planned, within the length of the whole lecture or class. This could mean, in a three-hour lecture, that there were, in fact, nine mini classes to prepare. In addition the lecturer has to prepare a lesson plan for each class, each student, and this all had to fit within the course curriculum and the annualized plan for the subject. I could continue but your heads would spin with this huge paper over indulgence. I was teaching, face to face, on a part time basis for twenty hours per week, and it took almost another twenty hours to prepare and assess the results of our labors. This is both disproportionate and wasteful. We would have been much better employed working more effectively with the students, but this is the result of being more worried about box ticking than it is about teaching and learning.

What undoubtedly started as a method to make sure everything was fair and appropriate has degenerated into an effort to evaluate everyone and everything as if it were meeting an almost mythical target composed by a bureaucrat who knows nothing about the teaching process but a great deal about how you best tick a box. Believe this or not, it is very possible to tick all the right boxes in education and still not deliver what you should, and the opposite is equally possible.

Yesterday it was reported that there are schools and colleges in Britain who conduct their classes in eight-minute sections. After each eight minute section the class is distracted intentionally by being told to get up, play some basketball and then, after fifteen minutes, return to the next eight minute section of study. They do this because a study told them this would be a more effective method for students to retain information. The results, apparently, support this finding. I frankly want proof that this is so, and even then, would argue against this method. Having worked with a twenty-minute version of this system I can report that it does work with some students, sometimes, depending on what you’re trying to do, the subject matter, and the part of the curriculum you’re trying to teach or learn. It is both foolish and destructive to adopt a one size fits all mentality.

Clearly the teaching processes and its evaluation is a question of balance, and for the present I am compelled to report that we are still seeking to achieve something approximating this. The aim remains right, but the methods employed are, on occasion in England, too intrusive, change too often and are inappropriately harsh in many instances.