‘Only machines make no mistakes’

‘The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.’
Yevgeny Zamyatin

Part of the reason I finally decided to abandon teaching was the awfulness of A-level preparation. The same moment that stacks of great books were at long last brought out of the cupboard, I was forced to reduce my teaching to training young people to produce essays that met assessment objectives. Students encountered Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, George Orwell, Christopher Marlowe, Aravind Adiga, Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, only to be told to consider what they read in terms of a short list of bullet points. Teaching A-level degenerated into a glorified version of filling out forms; as they get closer to exams all conscientious students want is to complete past papers and see break downs of their scores. A-levels do not equip young people to think for themselves.

My first complaint is that the focus on assessment objectives encourages young people to ignore their natural intuition as they read. Assessment objectives are set by Ofqual (a non-ministerial governmental department that ‘regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England’) and incorporated into A-level and GCSE examinations by the various boards. They are a list of bullet points, which supposedly measure a student’s achievement. A good student (by which I mean one who gets high marks) is likely to read with half a mind on what the assessment objective wants them to say. Hence the phenomenon of students fixated on filling the margins of books with annotation that corresponds to specific AOs: ‘Miss! We haven’t got enough notes in our books! We can’t do the essay!’ A student reading Act Two of Macbeth might need to know the term ‘dramatic irony’, but the effect of writing ‘dramatic irony’ repeatedly in the margins, with (AO1) carefully added next to the phrase, is to remind the student they can only score highly by referring to AO-focused notes, rather than their own feeling about Macbeth’s failure to stand up to his wife. Most do have their own feelings – even some vague thoughts – about Macbeth’s feebleness, but prefer to focus on what they know the exam requires, because that will get them a better score.

My second complaint is that the author’s meaning is disregarded. A book is rendered dull and impotent by A-level study, because whatever interpretation you might want to make is fine, so long as it ticks AOs. After finishing my PGCE, I taught Death of a Salesman in a sixth form college, sharing the set with a more experienced teacher. I was given a load of essays to mark in which many of the students had said that Death of a Salesman was particularly poignant, because it was performed before an audience who were going through The Great Depression, hence would share in Willy Loman’s suffering. But the play was actually set, and first performed, in the late forties, when America was experiencing post-war economic growth. I asked my colleague how we could fix the problem, how we could give the students a better idea of exactly what relationship the play had to The Great Depression. My colleague suggested it would ‘be alright’ to let them leave that in even though it wasn’t accurate. It met the AO for referring to the play’s ‘context’: more important for their grades than a real understanding of what Miller was writing about. There were 25 in the class and many of them spoke English as a second language; we had enough problems as it was. I could see my colleague’s point of view, but I was left wondering what exactly I was meant to be teaching them; disliking the answer – we were only teaching them to pass tests.

In state schools there is hardly any time to allow students to reflect on books through open class discussion. I have experienced the difference. In a private school you teach small groups and see them a lot; in a state school you might have an A-level class of over 20 and fewer lessons with them. In state schools, there’s huge pressure from management on results in English. And in the state sector you have more basic problems before you can even get to talking about the books: reading the books, grammar, paragraphing. Basic writing is difficult for any teenager habituated to text message grammar, especially if their class is big and their teacher is over-stretched; especially if their parents can’t, or don’t, help them at home. In the state sector I felt permanently wrecked. So it’s easy to understand why teachers fixate on the AOs – sometimes from week one of the A-level course – anything to get the kids a decent grade. But our students pay too much, if the price of a decent mark is forgetting their natural curiosity when they read; learning to reduce books to a list of points and quotes, which answer AOs. Books are transformed into tedious tangles from which students laboriously extract threads; reading becomes a task rather than an experience.

I wonder if the recent fashion for aggressive political correctness in universities might, in part, be down to students being taught at A-level not to think for themselves, or at least not being rewarded for expressing real thoughts from their own brains. Many young people can’t bear to be offended, to the extent that long-time gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was no-platformed in 2016 by Fran Cowling, the NUS’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) representative, ‘who said that she would not share a stage with a man whom she regarded as having been racist and “transphobic”’ (Guardian, 2016) In a debate on safe spaces at the Oxford Union the following year, Tatchell commented, ‘all ideas should be open to scrutiny and critique.’ (YouTube, 2017) It is bizarre that making such a statement in a university should be controversial. If someone says something you don’t like at university argue back! Is that so very upsetting? Maybe it is, if you have never learned to defend your own views. Or if you have been trained in thinking according to a list of correct ideas.

Because a student who is not encouraged to notice and describe their own natural response to a book will be left waiting to be told what the correct response is. They will allow the authority to tell them what they should say and what they say will become what they think. An ex-colleague of mine is a moderator for one of the exam boards. He recently drew the attention of the Chief Examiner to a school whose students had followed a memorised essay formula for answering exam questions; they had expressed similar ideas in similar patterns. The students on the whole achieved good marks, because they had ticked off the AOs. But they had clearly not thought for themselves. The Chief Examiner suggested that my friend should mention this in his moderator’s report, but did not adjust the grades, or seem to think there was anything really wrong.

Teachers may be inured to the authoritarian character of English A-levels and too over-worked to fight back. But A-levels have a serious effect; the way they are assessed must be open to question. A-levels are supposed to be the beginning of thinking like an adult, of really learning. But the English A-levels students sit today do not encourage individuals to think for themselves, or to seek to understand the thoughts of writers.

We should teach students to comprehend the ideas of other people whilst developing an ability to weigh those ideas for themselves. How can we know our own thoughts if we can’t discern the thoughts of others? Real reading is encountering people: past people, foreign people, old people, people in prison. If we don’t want to understand anyone else’s thoughts, then we don’t want to know our own. We may not want to think – fine, it’s not required. But we must not dress up ticking off AOs as thought. We must not pretend we can get anything from reading books using AOs as a guide. That’s like pretending speed dating is a deep and genuine encounter.

A-level markers work for roughly three pounds per paper. They tend to focus on a single question, which they mark over and over again from scanned-in papers; they ‘get blisters… from repeatedly pressing the same buttons.’ (Guardian, 2014) Can they be measuring much apart from a student’s ability to meet government criteria?

We must not fool ourselves and our children that studying for an English A-level involves real grown up thought, unless real grown-ups think what they are supposed to think and say what they are supposed to.

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