Wednesday, September 27, 2006

OK, now they get to do coursework supervised

Maths coursework is to be axed. And all other coursework will be done in supervised conditions. I suppose I should be happy. As an educationalist, I'm reasonably happy. But as a human being with a partner and a life, I am just washed with a tremendous sense of weariness and dread. The exam results will not be allowed to dip - the great statistical God will demand that we find ways of keeping the grades just as high when the stays are tightened on coursework. It will be us who have to work harder, devise more and more ingenious ways of ensuring our students succeed.

I know I haven't commented on the survey... I'm building up to it. And waiting for a few more of you to comment. Although I'm in education, so I should probably take the small smattering of data and turn it into a league table.

PS Blogger's spell checker suggests corkscrews for coursework. The Internet is positively urging me to have a glass of wine...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Vote now - what is the most difficult thing to do?

On a blog as tiny as this, two negative comments on one posting counts as a storm of protest. In addition, I've been getting it in the neck from him indoors for saying that Drama A-level isn't good preparation for English at Cambridge.

As a result, I've been forced to think some more about the issues raised in Boris Johnson's 'Physics not Media Studies' article, and realised that my writing and thinking were rather sloppy. (See below for links to the original posts)

There are three different issues involved in the 'crunchy A-level' debate (and none is actually the real issue.)
1) Are some subjects inherently harder?
2) Are some A-levels inherently harder (by virtue of amount of content covered, style of assessment etc.)?
3) Are some subjects better preparation for a degree at Cambridge University, or better discriminators of a particular aptitude?

My casual adoption of Boris Johnson's label 'crunchy' has not helped at all - I wanted it to mean 3) as distinct from 1), while skipping neatly over the issue of 2). However, I don't think I've even managed to be consistent on that.

As I muse further on these issues, it occurs to me I could do a poll among my huge readership. So...

Please rank these six 'subjects' in order of difficulty . Note, this refers to the subject itself, not the A-level, GCSE or similar. Go on, vote. You can dicker about the terms of the debate at the end if you want...

Which is most difficult?
1) Theoretical physics
2) Acting
3) History
4) Psychology
5) Driving a car
6) Programming a computer

Crunchy posts so far:
The crunchy and the smooth
Crunchier and crunchier

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Please skip on over to Mr Chalk and read his version of Rudyard Kipling's 'If'

My literacy diagnostic assessment

I had to do a literacy test yesterday to practice using the software for my new tutor group next week. The only real way to prepare to deliver something using software is to pretend you are a student and try it out; however, becoming childishly obsessed with getting all the answers right is optional. After working my way pendantically through a level 2 literacy test, I was horrified to find that had not scored full marks (even after I cheated by asking the Head of Modern Languages what a passive verb was.) Apparantly, I 'need to work on use of appropriate language'.

F***ing stupid computer program.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What every school really needs ....biometrics

London School to fingerprint students

Is this to save time, because getting 32 children to press a fingerprint scanner is quicker than calling out their names? Or is it to stamp out the wide practice of register fraud, when children pretend to be each other? When the technology instantly notifies a harrassed head of year or secretary that Johnny has gone AWOL in the corridor between French and Maths, will that member of staff be able to leap instantly to her feet to track him down? Or is it another case of measuring something ever more accurately in an attempt to hide the fact that you have no actual sanctions to deal with it?

And apparantly schools can fingerprint children without parental consent Children can give informed consent. Teaching the Data Protection Act, traditionally the low point in any ICT class, has never been more important.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Gay computers

Went wandering on the Interweb last night and found a new teacher's blog for your consideration; Tales from the Chalkface. Vinni had a link to this flurry about the use of the term gay from back in June (about the time I lost the third member of my department to ill-health and gave up sleeping as well as blogging.) His writing on the subject is very amusing.

Personally, I am in a time of transition on this issue. Much as my tolerance for pimp chic is sadly growing by the year, I regrettably no longer pursue the 'gay computer' issue with as much passion... which is sad because I think it's completely obvious that the word 'gay' (as in the sentence 'Miss, this computer is gay') means 'crap' only because there are people in our society who think that gay people are crap. It's disingenuous to say 'the word has changed it's meaning'.

If kids took to saying 'This computer's really Muslim' we wouldn't be having any of it. It's grim to note, however, how both genders play fast and loose with each other's genitals when insulting people; that battle is lost forever. (Er, please read that sentence carefully.)

As with all these things, it comes back to the effort required to take a 'zero tolerance' approach to things like this. Teachers have to pick their fights and save their precious ammunition.

Not to be confused with...

...the more famous blogger Mr Chalk, who yesterday saw his book 'It's your time you're wasting' hit the shelves. I've not linked to Amazon as I'm sure he'd much rather you clicked on the above link and bought it via him.

I'm hoping I can glean some new readers accidently by people Googling the book name wrongly, and finding me instead...

Good luck, Mr C and congratulations!

Arrange the desks in a U shape! and other great ideas

Two links sent to me that juxtapose rather nicely and could make the basis for quite a nice discussion on 'the benefits and limitations of ICT in education' (A-level ICT teachers out there, don't say I don't look after you)

'Technology spices up learning for Net generation'from Mac News World.

'Saying No to School Laptops'
from the Wall Street Times

I don't really agree with the logic that says, Hey! Kids like iPods! Let's give them educational podcasts, that will make them interested in learning! Hey! Kids like TV, but that doesn't mean they choose documentaries over soaps. Lots also like books, but that doesn't mean they choose Lett's Revise Science over Harry Potter. And kids love the Internet, but as I am tired of explaining to aspiring ICT students, 'It's not an A-level in soft porn and gaming, you know.'

Saturday, September 02, 2006

My name is Pepperpot and I am not a spammer

Oh, the humiliation.

It must be pretty obvious to you all that M (author of Musings on a Mac) and I converse pretty frequently. It was he who led me to the notorious Boris 'crunchy' Johnson article, and who encouraged me to post to Boris's website while we were online chatting to each other. I had to be persuaded to do this, being a shy flower, and didn't realise that in the course of our conversation he, too, had posted to the site. Result - two consecutive links to my post. Anyway, we have been accused of spamming and I am so humiliated I cannot look my monitor in the face.

All I can say to Raincoaster and the other readers is I am very sorry and it was a genuine mistake. Raincoaster, please accept my offering of Google juice as an act of contrition.

Crunchier and crunchier

The story so far...
New Cambridge University A-level subject guidelines have been published, including a list of A-level subjects that it says 'provide a less effective preparation for our courses.' I first heard about it on Tuesday, which was the day I returned to work to start enrolling new students onto advanced courses for next year. M's comment on a provious post of mine led me to Boris Johnson's thoughts on the matter (I would not normally have wandered there myself) and the bewitching monicker 'crunchy' for the subjects that Cambridge refers to as traditional academic subjects.

By Friday this week I had taken part in many conversations about crunchy subjects as we carried out the usual painstaking task of helping students choose their next step. As usual, there are the students who have completely unrealistic goals; their schools may have encouraged them to aim for the top - and I don't blame them - but it's heart-breaking to have to say to a 16 year old with 5 C grades and 4 D grades, the result of much hard work, that their chances of studying medicine are slim to none. On the other hand, there is the equally difficult task of advising very bright young people, who have come from families with no knowledge or experience of higher education; while they might not be open to the idea now, in twelve months time we might be encouraging them to apply for Cambridge. (It takes that long to grow their faith in themselves and to work through the many stereotypes that they - and their parents - might hold.) We have always advised students in this position to make sure that they include some traditional, essay based subjects, even if they want a more practical or creative focus. So the Cambridge list is nothing new.

This article in the Guardian by historian Francis Beckett made me think further. I am inclined to agree with this:
Parks claims that, far from being elitist, this is an effort towards getting students from poorer backgrounds and tough inner-city schools to Cambridge. "It's not academic snobbery at all," he says. "We want those who might wish to come here to avoid ruling themselves out by taking inappropriate subjects at A-level." Much better to spell it out on the website, where anyone can see it, than keep it as a bit of insider knowledge, known and understood at St Posh's Academy for the Gentry, but never heard about at East Grunge comprehensive.

Far better to be blunt about it, rather than rely on whatever process Oxford claims to use.
Oxford seems also to have given up on the idea that A-levels can be the fine-tuning mechanism that will infallibly select the brainiest of every generation. "We have developed our own ways of discriminating," says the spokeswoman.

I disagree, however, with some of the specific criticisms in the website:
The English department insists, understandably, on English literature, recommends languages and history, and has encouraging words to say about maths and science. And then it adds: "Although drama or theatre studies may possibly be accepted as a third A-level subject, colleges tend to prefer applicants to show more range in their skills and interests." Drama and theatre studies are, of course, among the discouraged A-levels. Parks's explanation is that a performance-based A-level is not good preparation for a Cambridge literature degree.

What's wrong with that? Studying English literature at one of the oldest Universities in Britain is a million miles from Drama A-level. And I'm not denigrating Drama A-level at all; it's very rigorous and extraordinarily hard work. However, I would cautiously suggest that drama and English literature are very different areas of academic study. More significantly, to say that Drama A-level is not an effective preparation for English at Cambridge tells us much about the nature of the English department there, the scopeand limitations of the course, and the emphases and approaches that define the discipline there. Just because Oxford and Cambridge have such high status it does not make them the best choice for every gifted student.

Accountancy is another subject on the list; Beckett questions this, too. 'So a mathematician does not use the skills learned in accountancy?'
Er, no. I wouldn't say that accountancy did teach you any specific mathematical skills you wouldn't gain from Maths and Further Maths A-levels. It will teach you lots about applying mathematical methods to the world of money. Accountants use mathematical skills, not the other way around.

I'm glad that the list is controversial. A-levels should be constantly scrutinised and we should expect to wrestle with how we can offer new disciplines alongside old-fashioned favourites.

And anything that uncloaks the mystery of applying to Oxbridge is a good thing, especially when such myths abound. (A fifty-something NQT I once worked with had to be taken to task for telling the students 'not to bother applying to Cambridge unless you have a family member who went there' - and this was in a school with a steady flow of successful applicants!) It's really good to think that a student in a school with no tradition of helping their students to apply for Oxbridge can get access to solid advice; we will just have to grit out teach if it makes us feel a bit squeamish. I desperately want more students from the state system to go to Cambridge Therefore it's vitally important that the university figures out ways of picking out the students who genuinely have the greatest talents in those traditional academic subjects in which the University specialises. It's so hard to distinguish this type of student in a field where every institution is grimly focused on exam sucess above all else, producing phalanxes of students groomed to within an inch of their lives in exam technique and the complex tactics needed to suceed in the modern A-level. By being honest, I think Cambridge have been very brave, and should be commended.