Can We Still Think?

Originally posted on her blog, Renny Gye describes her own experiences of the educational system and the troubling changes she has witnessed. In this article she tackles the limiting nature of today’s exams, mark schemes and the curriculum from GCSE all the way through to degree level.


"Something is rotten in the state of education today.  It begins early and sometimes carries on through Master’s Degree level, possibly further.  It arises from a lack of a sound philosophical basis for education in our schools and universities.  Education is increasingly seen as a way to get qualifications, to create a more skilled workforce, to pass on specific information and techniques or as a way to get a better job, among other instrumental reasons.  It is seldom seen as an end in itself these days, as a way to help young people learn to think and an opportunity for them to open their minds and expand their thinking in creative and life-enhancing ways.


When education is primarily about getting qualifications, study becomes dominated by exams or assessed course-work and their requirements.  Time for thinking more widely about a topic becomes squeezed out and a narrow way of approaching subject areas becomes the norm.


Consider the GCSE biology question: Give one reason why some people objected to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  A bright sixteen year old writes a short answer: Because in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, it says that the world was created in six days.  Wrong.  No points.  The examiner cannot accept this answer because she has been instructed to require the phrase “for religious reasons” in the answer.  The examiner has a mark scheme which tells her what answers are acceptable or unacceptable.  An answer which most people reading this article can see is spot on, is rejected because formulated in the “wrong” way.  Although the teenager has given a fuller and more accurate answer to the question than is needed, he gets no marks for his answer because it does not conform to the dictat of the examination board. 


The mark scheme allows teachers to instruct young people on how exactly to answer questions – it sets the limits of what will be “needed” or “allowed” in the exam.  The year’s curriculum is set out in a tightly-drawn specification,designed to lead to the exam and this and the mark scheme set and therefore limit what is taught.  Instead of young people developing their thinking and beginning to understand the areas they study in a widening way in their last four years in school, their education is limited and specified by the specifications and mark schemes.  This arises because of the very widely accepted assumption that education at this stage is aimed at passing exams, so what is studied is almost exclusively what is on the exam curriculum and required by the mark scheme.  Any learning done outside the limited curriculum of the subject being examined has to be kept out of one’s examination answers; free thinking is discouraged.  The GCSE curricula often encourage the learning of very specific chunks of information which must be regurgitated in the right way. 


You might think that this narrow form of learning is because GCSEs are the first major public exams and taken by young people with a very broad range of abilities.  If this were the reason, we would see improvement as we climb the academic ladder.  However, at both AS and A level there is the same problem.  Indeed, one head teacher admits that it is a “sad fact that nowadays, unless one parrots the words in the specification during the examination, then one does not get full marks” – at both AS and A Level in many subjects.  The same tendencies continue to crop up over and over again at university level, even on Master’s courses.


At university there is often an institutional tendency to teach students skills and content, as opposed to encouraging them to think.  Essays are marked with great emphasis on whether the right sources are referenced in the right way.  What matters is so often to read the assigned material and regurgitate it in the right way – as if it were a GCSE answer.  Original thought is an afterthought, to be included only when the student has fully expressed everyone else’s thoughts.  An idea which comes from a student’s own mind may well be met with the comment, “Where did you get that from? What is your source?” rather than, “That’s an interesting idea, let’s discuss it.”  Of course, this is not universally true and students sometimes encounter maverick lecturers whose approach is more challenging and more interesting but sadly these inspiring teachers are relatively rare.


Consider an extremely bright, dynamic and assertive young woman studying for a Masters at a highly prestigious university in London.  “When I really work on an essay, taking time to research widely and include my own original ideas as well as ideas from material not on the reading list, I don’t do well but when I can’t be bothered to try hard so I just regurgitate what was on the reading list, I get a First. I hate that.”  Originality and real thinking are undervalued, whilst doing what is expected in a limited and focussed way, is rewarded.  This Masters Degree seems to be designed to narrow the minds of its students.


Do those who run our educational institutions take the time to stand back and consider the purpose of education?  Do teachers and academics realise that their role is so much more exciting than “delivering the curriculum” or achieving good exam results for those they teach?  Education, at its best, encourages thinking and a broadening out of the person through exposure to a wide range of ideas, values, culture and information.  It enables people to express themselves more fully, to participate on an equal basis with others in society, to adapt and respond to changing circumstances and to think for themselves.  An educated person can easily learn skills, find out how to do tasks and gather information but these are not the key purposes of education, they are part of what education enables.


Of course qualifications are important but when education is driven by exams and exam results, children and young people miss out on the real benefits which education can bring. 


As an Oxford University undergraduate in 1980, I was extremely privileged to be part of the tutorial system which forced me to think, expressing myself both in tightly-argued essays and orally with my tutor.  My essays were not constrained by the need to reference all my sources and I was free to develop my own ideas.  It was an extraordinarily broadening experience.  The old term, “reading for a degree” expressed well the philosophy behind the degree course – we read, we thought, we wrote, we talked.  Exams were few and far between and when we eventually sat our Finals, they were marked by real people with an understanding of the subject which allowed them to mark the work high if it demonstrated a thoughtful, imaginative, deep and clearly expressed understanding of the subject, rather than if it conformed to pre-set marking systems.


Even at school, the exam syllabus was merely a guide to our work, not the reason for it.  For example, when I studied O Level and A Level English, we were encouraged to read several of the novels of the authors of our set books and we always studied more Shakespeare than was in the exam syllabus.  We were learning to think about English literature – our class discussions were expansive and never restricted to what might be in the exam. 


When I found myself back at university recently, doing a second Masters, things had clearly changed.  I had to spend more time referencing than thinking.  It seemed as though the system was designed to produce an academic, able to research and reference, rather than someone who was educated in the subject I was studying.  I enjoyed the course but the essays and dissertation were made a misery by trying to comply with the rigid requirements of the institution, instead of helping me to think more deeply about the topics I was researching.


Perhaps my own experiences are not at all universal but I am convinced that educators have been side-tracked away from providing an education which helps young people to think.  If we focus on skills and qualifications but discourage young people from developing the ability to think for themselves we may find that we are producing a society where people can do all sorts of things but where they have no idea why they are doing them.  It is thinking which enables us to understand the world, other people and ourselves – and to know what is worthwhile. If we lose the ability to think, we lose something infinitely precious."

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