Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Exams have left my students incapable of thinking

The word ‘why’ fills them with dread and being asked their own views provokes panic. A book is a decoration, a thought is a distraction and an idea is irrelevant.

“How many sentences should I write? How big should I draw the diagram? Should I write my own opinion?” These are some of the questions my students asked me this morning. Looking at that sample, you might assume they are in primary school, but you would be wrong. I teach a humanities subject in an “outstanding” sixth-form college in an affluent area. My students are bright, engaged and well-behaved, but there is something missing: they cannot think.

“Is this a thinking lesson?”
Not only can they not think, they don’t realise that education is about thinking. In the same way some people claim that reading is a hobby, they see thinking as an exhausting activity, not the minimum requirement for education.

“What word should I use to start this sentence?”
Minds focused on the future and eyes trained on exams, anything unrelated to the syllabus is considered an irrelevant distraction. I was moved to write this by a conversation I had with one of my brightest students last week. In the middle of a lesson, she asked if I was going to give the class a summary sheet of answers.

“Er, no…” I responded, “I’m not going to spoon-feed you.”

“Oh,” she said. “But I like being spoon-fed.”

I felt winded. I don’t know where I got my love of learning from, but, thinking is freedom. The legacy of the Enlightenment. Thought is what separates us from animals, gives us human rights, protects us against groupthink, and enables us to create democracies, computers, music and comedy. I am immeasurably grateful that I have been encouraged to think, to satirise, to criticise. I have been asked questions, not given the answers. But all my students want to do is blindly copy down information.

“Which category does that belong to?”
They lack creativity, not just in how they deal with the content of what they are learning, but in the process of learning itself. They will not make a mark on their paper unless I tell them to, or highlight a sentence without my permission; they won’t even start a new paragraph without checking first. They don’t understand that learning is thinking.

“Will this help us in the exam?”
It is no wonder this is all students care about because this is all they are conditioned to care about. Every student has Ucas predicted grades, internal predicted grades, minimum expected grades, personal expected grades, AS grades, and A2 grades. It cannot be said enough that we should teach students to think, not just to learn the syllabus. All they want is to follow the rulebook and pass exams.

“What should my conclusion be?”
Last week I caught another of my A-grade students using his phone in the lesson. As a starter exercise, I told them to think of as many advantages as they could of being on the UN security council. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m googling the list of advantages,” came his wary reply. I was flabbergasted. I tried to explain that there is no list of advantages, but that I wanted his own views.

“Can’t you just tell us the answers?”
Trying to free them from the shackles of exam formula is an uphill battle. My students don’t get a formula from me but instead work together to analyse a question and develop their own conclusion. Whenever they express their point of view, they have to answer the question “why?” I show them articles and blogposts so they can see diverse and unique writing styles, and we continually discuss how every concept is contested. It is getting through to them slowly.

“There’s no more space to write in the box. What should I do?”
My students are not lazy. They want to learn, but the problem is they think learning is about passing exams, and thinking is an irrelevant pastime. The word “why” fills them with dread. Being asked their own views gives them panic attacks. One of my hardest-working students emailed me to ask what the formula was for getting an A-grade in the exam.

“How many examples should we write down?”
They treat education like a military exercise. Students think there are set answers to life’s questions; they want a formula for the number of sentences per paragraph and expect information they can rote-learn. How does this prepare them for anything? A book is a decoration, a door-stop, a paperweight. An idea is irrelevant. A thought is a distraction.

What grade have I got for this?