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This will not do!

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 17 Jun 2014, 09:49

Fig. 1 My A' level Geography exercise book

Somehow a handful of exercise books and files from my A'level years have survived three+ decades. On very rare occasions on stumbling across these in a box, in a garage or shed, or attic I've glanced at a few carefully drawn diagrams or maps, smiled proudly at the grades achieved in the final pages, but never stopped to take a careful look at the truth.

The truth when I read it made me faint. Was I that bad? Was the teacher so blunt? How come I didn't go ape-shit and promptly quit the course? 

If I wish to I could seek enlightenment in the diary I kept at the time; I have little doubt that on a teen quest for 'love' there were other priorities in my life. 

Reading this I fear my brain has buried my feelings; it's as if I am reading it for the first time. Every page, 'only twelve', are lightly scored through. In all credit to a brilliant teacher - I believe, ultimately that all but one or two in the class got an A grade 18 or so months later, he offers a bullet-pointed suggestion of an essay plan. The 'half-term' reply to this gets a C-- and a middling response that clearly indicates that only an 'A' will do. All of this experience is new to me in my schooling to date. Threats usually failed, seven years previously having done badly in a French Test I was threatened with a caning if I didn't get x% minimum in a retake ... after half-term. My arse was saved; I suspect my response could have been as violent as the teacher's had he come near me ... 

When it comes to the 'carrot and stick', my experience is that I need both applied and given firmly. 

Four essays and as many weeks later this teacher's response is somewhat different: 

 Fig. 2. Same Geography exercise book, four to five weeks later.

It is odd, though invaluable to be reflecting on this some 35 years after the event. It relates to learning; I'm not teacher-trained. It relates to e-learning too, at all the levels where it is offered. How does or can the technology be used so that a teacher or tutor can provide blunt, constructive feedback in a way that achieves its aims for the individual student? How did this teacher get extraordinary results out of a class, many of whom I knew well and would have rated themselves at the D/E level of likely attainment?

Fundamentally, I feel, is that he, and most others I had during these years were a) vocational educators b) brilliant at their subject c) practitioners.

This teacher was cold, but hugely enthusiastic and knew the subject down to the tiniest detail. He knew his art and gave classroom presentations that came from his soul, not from an Edexcel textbook on his desk. A year later he frankly said that he would teach us what we'd get in our first year at university to maintain our interest ... to keep us simmering as exams approached. And as the 'Physical Geographer' he would often start a lesson with photographs of a climbing trip in Scotland or flying a glider over Northumberland.

 Fig.3. What kind if daisy is your essay?

At the end of this particular exercise book the teachers fills half a side of A4, in red biro, doing his best, now for the umpteenth time, to get me to understand what an essay at this level requires; it is here that he draws takes up drawing a flower, a daisy, suggesting that the perfect essay has five or six petals and a simple step, not the twelve petals, or lopsided, or trunk of an essay that I could produce. 

The purpose of the essay, especially assignments that are not graded, are multiple but never, from I can see, used in the e-learning produce by the Open University. Where is the chance to find your feet, to have a go and fail, to learn through trial and error how to get it write? What role, in any case, would a tutor play to improve an essay style, or to simply help a student get their approach right? And what is the value in assessing a student in a modular form when they cannot expect to be anywhere near to mastering their subject until they've been studying for a year?

How can this vital, human component, make its mark in e-learning? 

Artificial Intelligence must surely offer a smart answer; how else can the many millions who are denied an education at this level have a chance at the experience?

Tellingly, I see that there are comments made in these text books that I struggle with still. I write too much, but in the essay where the purpose is to gather in and focus multiple ideas from several sources in order, at a later date, to refine and prioritise what YOU personally think matters, then more is far, far preferable and necessary then the essay with the limited word count. What happens otherwise is that too early in the learning process the student is expected to reduce down a substance, their research and thoughts, which in the early stages are bound to be on the thin side. From this 'thin; input a thinner essay is meant to be the basis on which the student takes their learning forward. 

There has to be a better way.

Or alternatives.

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Design Museum

Oxbridge History Exam 1980

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 5 May 2014, 07:03

The journey I set out on to get to Oxford or Cambridge took two years.

Not getting along with Economics I switched to History after a term in the Lower Sixth. (Not getting on with Sedbergh School, Cumbria, I left smile !)

My essays, though long (always, my habit, then, as now - why say something in six words when eighteen will do?) Tell Proust to write in sentences of less than six words, in paragraphs that don't flow from one page to the next (ditto Henry Miller).

Where was I?

See how a stream of consciousness turns into a cascade?

I digress.

My essays (I still have them. Sad. Very sad). Were on the whole terrible. A 'C' grade is typical, a 'D' not unknown. So what happened to get me to straight As, an Oxbridge exam and a place to study Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford?

Composting

I was bedding down. Putting things in a stack. And working my pile. Perhaps my history tutors detailed notes and bullet points fed on my poor essays? Perhaps the seeds that took root were carefully tendered?

Repeated testing (my self) and learning how to retain then regurgitate great long lists of pertinent facts helped.

Having an essay style I could visualise courtesy of my Geography Teacher helped. (Think of a flower with six or so petals. Each petal is a theme. The stamen is the essay title, the step the introduction and conclusion).

Writing essays over and over again helped. Eventually I got the idea.

Try doing this for an Assignment. You can't. Yet this process, that took 24+ months to complete can be achieved over a few weeks. Perhaps a blank sheet of paper and exam conditions would be one way of treating it, instead I've coming to think of these as an 'open book' assessment. There is a deadline, and a time limit, though you're going to get far longer than the 45 minutes per essay (or was it 23 minutes) while sitting an exam.

Personally, I have to get my head to the stage where I've done the e, d, c, and b grade stuff. When I've had a chance to sieve and grade and filter and shake ... until, perhaps, I reach the stage where if called to do so I could sit this as an exam - or at least take it as a viva.

Not a convert to online learning as an exclusive platform though.

Passion for your tutor, your fellow students ... as well as the subject, is better catered for in the flesh.

The way ahead is for 'traditional' universities to buy big time into blended learning, double their intake and have a single year group rotating in and out during a SIX term year (three on campus, three on holiday or working online.)

P.S. Did I mention teachers?

Have a very good teacher, it helps. The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle where I transferred to take A' Levels delivers.

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