Kirsty Gunn: Too much focus on league tables is turning our students '˜average'

It's that time of year for exams and tests and academic assessment results. My colleague at Dundee had a student in tears in her office this week because she had received a B grade instead of an A for her end-of-term assignment and she now believed her whole degree was over. 'It has to be an A' she was saying, over and over. 'What did I do wrong? I always expected an A.'

Students sitting an exam. Picture: PA

What did she do wrong, I am inclined to reply? Only have that grade in her mind in the first place. Only focus so entirely upon doing the things necessary to get it that she might have missed all the complexities of the subject, a humanities subject this is, that carries with it more nuanced outcomes than a simple yes/no, right/wrong answer that rules results tables in sciences and maths.

And, I might add, this focus on, in her mind, the single “correct” outcome that would give her an A, has taken her thinking away from the risky questioning and openness to ambiguity that, in her case, was necessary for an assignment that asked her for close reading of poetry and short fiction, and writing her own story and short essay about it. Because there is no absolute right and wrong in a humanities subject.

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As I tell our students, quoting the great teacher and scholar of English literature FR Leavis, the role of the critic – and that means “you” I say to them – is “to turn opinion into knowledge”. Not to be right or wrong. But to have a range of ideas and reflections that might enrich and enliven your thoughts about a subject.

If the young woman in my colleague’s office had paid attention to that idea, the extra reading and additional work and thinking that comes with it might have made her an A class student, actually.

And none of this is to say that creative thinking is not important in science subjects, too. Of course it is. But the difference is that in science and maths creative thinking comes as the result of empirical research whereas in humanities the thinking IS the research. That desirable A-grade in “Writing Practice and Study”, the subject area I teach at Dundee, comes as a result of, not a means to, thinking. Yet still the students get back their papers and results and feel disappointed – and where has it come from?

We’ve been talking about it, those of us involved in education, marking end of year work now and appraising how our young people are getting on; those of us who are parents to children who are focusing on university study ahead and anxious that they are going to be able to manage all the various deadlines and course content... When did it begin, this relentless focus on the end result instead of the study that takes us there?

It’s something John Swinney might want to think about, following ten years of SNP rule and a corresponding drop in educational standards in Scotland that has resulted in the last set of alarming figures that tell us that we’re only just “average” in the international league tables testing 15-year-olds in core subjects.

For those tests that have been applied, nationally and internationally, are in themselves another form of science-based assessment – all part of a pattern of education that favours that yes/no model of examination over the more discursive, reflective kind I’ve been advocating here. It’s no wonder then, that, in general, Britain overall is not faring as well in education as our counterparts in Asia; no wonder that science programmes throughout the UK are filled with a growing cohort of bright and able students from places like China and Delhi and Singapore. For we rather like being discursive in our education. Or at least, up until relatively recently we have.

Of course, grades have always mattered. Exams count. Results do. But it seems to me, as I watch our young students start out in their first year as undergraduates and then proceed through the system, that there is more and more a particular kind of disjunct that exists between expectation and outcome – one that hasn’t always been there, or not so obvious and that comes from educating for “results” instead of for learning.

Once upon a time a student had a sense of what he or she was good at, or of those subjects that were going to need a lot more attention. Then, there was an understanding that certain kinds of understanding were going to come naturally – generally in subjects that the student enjoyed, and was enthusiastic about and so would go further than was required, putting in extra reading and research and so on – and others that would take hard graft and perhaps would never come entirely right at the end. Those were the subjects in which one would feel pleased to pass or make a good pass.

Then there were other subjects that fell in the middle. Those that, if you really worked hard and “went the extra mile” as I am always telling my own daughters, would reap rewards.

It seems to me that those middle subjects is where we need to be focusing now. Nicola Sturgeon has said that she wants the SNP to be judged on their record in education. Well, after ten years in power, they might start by thinking about that great swathe of “average” and tend at long last to its mighty and exciting potential. That means helping our students and we teachers focus on the idea of education as hard work and practise, practise, practise – not distracting us with foolish short term fashionable and trendy approaches to learning, and over- complicating teaching with ever more burdensome administration.

For too much focus on league tables and “outcomes” will only ever result in, at best, an “average”. Let’s learn to think, and stop “performing”. This week I am going to tell that weeping student to dry her eyes and start working harder. Earning a tick and a star should never be the result of knowing what to think. It should be about learning “how”. We used to be really good at that in Scotland. It’s time administrators listened to the teachers so we can get good at it again.