Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Fifties Rigour Is Old Hat, and That's a Fact: Comment

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Fifties Rigour Is Old Hat, and That's a Fact: Comment

Article excerpt

Rote learning has no value without understanding: I should know, says James Williams.

In 2005 I taught a 1950s curriculum and set an O-level exam for the Channel 4 series That'll Teach 'Em. It was an eye-opener. Some 30 16-year- olds were transported to a 1950s school, where the dress, meals, curriculum, timetable and textbooks were authentic. The teaching techniques were as close as we could get to the era: lots of rote learning with no discussion about meaning or understanding.

A 1950s syllabus comprised no more than a few pages of key concepts. It was left to teachers to decide how they would impart the knowledge. That is what 1950s education was all about, pupils as empty vessels to be "filled" with knowledge. It was transmission teaching at its worst. I taught the names and parts of various bones, how to draw and label a cross section through skin or the structure of the ear, all devoid of context. Ultimately, some of the pupils could reel off facts, but scratch the surface and they did not display much understanding about what they were learning or why they needed to know it.

Modern-day politicians hark back to O levels, saying the new exams will be "rigorous", but they never define rigour. It can mean harshness and severity, or accuracy and precision - thoroughness, even. Does this mean the exam will test every bit of the specification? That would be thorough. Or will rigour come from a requirement to demonstrate recall of facts and figures, accurately and precisely? Alternatively, is rigour being equated with difficulty; the intention being to make the examinations more harsh or severe?

There is a proposed reduction in the use of teaching aids, too - for example, limited use of calculators and no periodic table for chemistry, no source material in history. All this leads me to think that memorising formulae for maths and physics or, as I did for my O-level chemistry, learning the first 20 chemical elements in order, will take on more significance. What about naming the wives and children of Henry VIII (a school certificate question from 1858)? Is this rigour?

Surely knowing equations or the order of elements is far less important than understanding how to use the equations or why the periodic table is constructed in the way it is?

What of the 1950s O levels we used in the television series? They are bad models for a 21st-century assessment. One word sums up why: language. …

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