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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Levels: Back to the future

So, apparently, modularization,  AS levels, assessed coursework and so forth were nonsense all along. Two year's hard labour and sudden death exams have been rehabilitated. If we are going to force  children to make extremely narrow subject choices at age 16 (and that is an important conditional) so that they can study things in depth, then I, for one, am not too distressed by the about face. 
All I can speak from is personal experience. As a 16 year old I was pretty clueless and there were no 'cultural resources' (as the sociologists would say) in the family home to give me much guidance. I chose History and English because, I thought, I was good at them and Geography, even though I had given it up at 14, because I was no good at Art, despised RE and could hardly conjugate a French irregular verb. In my school you couldn't mix and match arts and science subjects so that was that - already channeled down the road to one of the two cultures. 
And that is where my problems started. History I could manage - it just seemed common sense. Every two weeks you wrote a longish essay. The question was expressed in comprehensible English, you read the books, assembled the evidence and produced an answer. There was a rough formula. Spell out in the introduction how you are going to answer the question. Say what is relevant and what is irrelevant and outline your conclusions. Then write 8-10 longish paragraphs dealing in as much detail as you can with the evidential basis of the argument. Then finish it off with a final paragraph or two setting out what you conclude and why. If you didn't get it you quickly did,  as long as you had a scintilla of grey matter between the ears. My History master directed our thoughts with a wonderful system of abbreviations that he inserted in the margins of  an essay, the most humiliating of which was a capital I indicating that a paragraph you had lovingly crafted was completely irrelevant.
Geography was in part a bit of a bore. I disliked the teacher who taught us meterology, climate and geology and my dislike of her transferred itself to the material. On the other hand I was pretty confident I could, given time and motivation, master the material and the same was true of geomorphology - slope processes, fluvial processes, glaciation etc - and human geography. It wasn't rocket science and even if the teaching was in places patchy you could learn it from books.
English was my Achilles' heal. Strange in a way. I liked reading and had done reasonably well at O level. But now I struggled. Perhaps my lower school recreational diet of John Wyndham, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsyth didn't really provide me with the critical tools I needed. Certainly I didn't get it, whatever 'it' was, and my marks were, at best, pretty mediocre. Basically I didn't understand what it was I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be providing a 'close critical reading' of the novels, a 'fresh personal response' to the poetry (of Marvell and Milton for G**'s sake!) and a 'dramatic understanding' of the plays. Worst of all was the unseen text and poetry response paper. Anything could turn up - I remember in the lower sixth mock it was Ozymandias and responses like: "Sorry, not my period mate. Percy who?" were not allowed. 
What did these terms mean? I had no idea and nobody at home to help me. Basically I had to learn the rules of the game by trial and error (and Brodie's notes) and this all took time. There were some epiphanies along the way. In a free period, which we were allowed to take in the school library, I found a set of short paperbacks that discussed various literary concepts - irony, imagery, tragedy, Greek dramatic conventions etc. Somebody recommended Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture and suddenly the taken for granted assumptions of the audience of Hamlet and Richard III became clearer. An increasingly desperate teacher gave us a photocopy of an essay by Martin Esslin on the Theatre of the Absurd and suddenly Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead started to make sense. 
Eventually I figured it out. You had to read and study the texts in minute detail.  Identify what kind of effect the author was aiming for, then take the texts apart until you could see how they achieved (or failed to achieve) it. Then you had to say whether it worked for you and if it didn't why. If along the way you could fake a familiarity with the last 500 years of European literary culture and its classical roots along with the last 50 years of critical commentary then you stood a chance of a good grade. A necessary prerequisite was that you could quote from memory more or less the whole of several Shakespeare's plays, substantial chunks of Milton, complete poem's by Marvell ("...stumbling on melons...I fall on grass") and the best parts of several novels.
For me it was like learning a foreign language. Your first efforts are hesitant and unsure. The conventions have a logic, but the whole thing is, in a sense, arbitrary. You just have to learn and accept the rules of the game and practice a lot. For me it worked out, I became one of the winners. Four months or so before the exams I cracked the code and worked out how, in all senses, to pass. You could say, in a way, that it was a triumph for the traditional way of doing A levels. You have to grow into an unfamiliar culture and you need time. If all you have ever known is the Dragon and Eton maybe modularization works fine. Chances are you don't feel like an alien in your own culture. If your lot was Briton Road Junior and Binley Park Comprehensive then the world looks a little different.

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