Posts Tagged ‘learning to drive’

On curiosity

September 21, 2020

Yes, aphoristically it killed the cat, but I’ve always been a curious type; I notice things and want to know more, to ask questions and get answers. Why? For the sheer satisfaction of knowing, I think. And throughout my life I’ve always been a little surprised that not everyone is like me: there are so many people who just appear to plod on through life without ever wanting or needing to know why…

There are things I’ve always been interested in, and found relatively straightforward: reading and languages in particular. They helped turn me into a bit of a traveller, one that couldn’t help but be curious about all those different places, their habits, behaviours and customs, their food and drink…

Equally, I’ve always enjoyed talking about and discussing all sorts of subjects, arguing at times, too, although less of that as I’ve grown older and perhaps more reflective and more accepting of differences – or better at avoiding people with whom I’m not going to get on. As a student, many evenings and nights were spent ranging widely as we attempted to set the world to rights, far into the early hours.

There have been times when I surprised myself by doing something rather more adventurous, moving out of my comfort zone, as it were. Learning to drive was something I affected not to be interested in for a good while, but while still in my hippy days I decided I would learn; it was not easy or straightforward, but it was worthwhile and at the moment I have the confidence to take myself off on solo road trips all over Europe, visiting places I would otherwise never be able to get to.

I was dismissive of computers and IT as well, until they began to creep into the teaching profession, at which point I was incredibly fortunate in having a self-taught head of IT as a mentor in school; she encouraged me and assisted me in so many different ways, and I developed abilities and competences and explored far more widely than I needed to, and discovered I actually enjoyed playing with computers and the internet. I ended up teaching myself to use linux pretty competently when I got too frustrated with Windows… and was an IT volunteer at my local library for a while after I had retired from teaching. And I managed successfully, at the end of a telephone, to keep my mother of eighty-plus years happily online for a good few years: she got a lot of pleasure from the internet, too.

I never expected to become as interested in gardening as I now am. I started collecting and caring for houseplants as a student, moved on to cacti, and when we were finally able to afford homes with gardens, found calm and relaxation and satisfaction in weeding and tending the garden, fruit bushes and trees especially.

What is the point of it all? In the end I have a limited number of years on the planet, and will not be able to do everything I want to do, travel everywhere I’d like to see, or read everything I’d like to read, so I have grown used to making choices. And I have realised that curiosity has opened new doors at various points in my life, and given me new opportunities. I know that the incredibly complex bundle of biology and electricity that makes me tick will stop at some point, but until then I’ll chase whatever catches my eye. Asking ever more questions is the way to go, along with realising that there are no easy answers…

On being tested (not for COVID!)

June 2, 2020

Something brought to my mind the horrifying realisation that it’s half a century this month since I did my O-Levels, which were the end-of school examinations at age 16 in England way back then. This has had me reflecting on the experience of being tested, which seems to happen a great deal more frequently than in my younger days…

I took the 11+ shortly before my tenth birthday (for some unknown reason, Lincolnshire County Council allowed you a go at age 10 if your school wanted you to, as well as the usual attempt at 11. I knew that it was an important test, on which my future education possibilities depended, and wanted to pass; the headmaster of our primary school coached a small group of us and I was successful. I have no recollection of the experience being stressful, and found the test itself quite straightforward and rather strange in places – I recall a (presumably mathematical) question about an election in which each of the candidates received exactly the same number of votes (2 each).

I was at a small Catholic boarding school when O-Levels came around. For some of the subjects I was aware we were following some kind of course; there were set books to study in English, RE and Latin, for instance, and specific topics to cover in History and Geography. None of the work felt particularly onerous, and I had some idea of the kind of questions I might meet. There was a French oral with an external examiner which required me to read a passage aloud and then converse with him about whatever came up…

I contrast my experience with that of students nowadays, including many of those whom I taught in a career of nearly thirty years: I felt very little pressure or stress, either from myself or my teachers. I have been fortunate in that I evolved a system for organising revision which stood me in good stead through all the stages of my education: no revising after 9pm, and no last-minute panic in the morning, so avoid conversations with peers about the upcoming exam. Triage of material: this stuff I know and understand pretty well, this stuff here needs a more careful look over, this other stuff I really do need to work on…

What was different then? Why did I feel more stressed about whether I’d get through three hours of exam without needing a pee, than about the questions on the paper? You were being assessed on what you knew and understood, and the examination wasn’t competitive, in the sense that there would only be a certain percentage of each grade awarded. There was also a trust in the markers and marking, which increasingly disappeared during my teaching career with the increase in the number of papers and exams, and the ever more complicated descriptors and mark schemes. These, along with markers being increasingly badly paid, led to people almost but not quite being dragged in off the street to do the work. I don’t think university places depended so much on grades at age 16, whereas everything seems to be taken into account nowadays. On the other hand, for many universities, O-Level Latin was a must for matriculation…

I felt supported by my parents, and my teachers, whose jobs and future prospects did not depend on how well we managed to do in our exams: they did their job, we did our work and it all came out in the wash.

A-Levels were a similar performance, and university applications and interviews – yes, they were important and pretty much de rigueur – a very gentlemanly business. The professor of French and I chatted and discussed whatever, until at a certain moment he said, “Bien, continuons en français!” (which we did) – I hadn’t expected that, but it was fine.

University exams were more stressful, because I developed hay-fever, which plagues me to this day, even as I write, and because they were in enormous exam halls with vast numbers of invigilators, some of whom thought it was OK to chat in the corners of the exam rooms… I loved my MA exam, because it was my first and only experience of a takeaway exam: we trooped in to collect the paper from the office at a set time and were instructed to return our scripts a fortnight later. And the viva for my MPhil thesis was a very civilised affair over a good lunch at the home of an academic, with two examiners, a hard man and a soft man. A serious grilling, though.

My most stressful experience of being tested came in a practical field: learning to drive. I passed only at the third attempt, finding the whole ordeal much more gruelling than most of my peers. I’m sure this was right, given that letting someone loose on the road in ton of metal that can move at up to 100mph or so is a very serious business. I’m still grateful to the friend and neighbour who insisted on my driving to the Lake District and back in her tiny Fiat 500 the day before my successful test, building up my confidence enormously and convincing me that I could be a driver.

I’ve read about countries where there are no examinations; I’ve read about countries where things are much more competitive and stressful. As a teacher, I experienced and administered 100% continuously-assessed coursework, which produced comparable results to examinations, but without the pressure and stress on students. So what is it all in aid of? How many ways can you weigh a pig? To a large extent, I think we’re victims of the fact that there have always been examinations, and as a society we have failed to think seriously enough about their purpose or necessity. Also, because data collection and analysis is now so easy and a money-making business in itself, the end justifies the means, and we are persuaded to believe that it’s fairer, more scientific, more accurate and a whole lot of other subjective things.

I have had to support students through the stress of their own expectations and their parents’ expectations of themselves. Some suffered greatly, and unnecessarily; sometimes they gave up. Some people can function effectively under pressure in examinations, some cannot; this does not mean they are incapable.

I’m no expert, but I have experience, personal and professional. I can not see any point in exams at age 16, since we expect students to remain in education until 18. Perhaps there is a need for some kind of certification of competences at a certain level in a few areas such as language, maths and IT at the end of schooling. Unless we plan to limit the numbers moving on to higher education, then what’s needed is an assessment of whether someone is capable of accessing and potentially succeeding at the next stage: this doesn’t have to be by examination…

Finally, I remind myself that examinations are now a vast industry: writing and rewriting syllabi, writing and publishing textbooks, producing exam papers and marking them, analysing all the data, providing training courses… the money recycling goes on ad infinitum. And who is it all serving?

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