Well, what do you know?

Hilary Moriarty says learning in order to pass exams might not make for lifelong knowledge

I mean really, what do you know?  And how did you find it out?  Were you taught it?  And if so, were you taught it by teachers, by mates, by parents or by the hard knocks of the School of Life?  Or – even – by the telly?  Go on, admit it, you can learn a lot from the apparently endless parade of quiz shows in one format or another. There’s probably a sociological study to be done of such shows: on a daily basis, they remind us of the value – literal, hard cash value – of knowing stuff. Much of it probably of no use to you at all except in the cauldron of a quiz show, where it can be very valuable indeed. 

Mastermind offered an interesting combination of stuff you had specifically prepared – your specialist subject – and the general knowledge round, which was more akin to a pub quiz. On a ‘three degrees of separation’ level, I know one contestant who was completely calculating in his choice of specialist topics and rigorous about swotting up on general knowledge, as opposed to coasting in with his fingers crossed, and won the programme and got offered a job as a question setter. Truly, ‘stuff’ turned into a career and a salary.

But deciding what people should ‘know’ and then devising a school curriculum and examination system to ensure that young adults know it is surely a nightmare task. For one thing, new ‘subjects’, such as  sex education, citizenship and British values, keep arriving, but even where a subject sounds familiar – History, for instance – a quick look at current questions compared to those set twenty years ago reveals that today’s young historian is being taught very different things from those drummed in to his Dad. History is probably not what it used to be.

OK, make that 40 years ago, because I happen to have a fat volume of actual exam papers for GCE Ordinary Level dated autumn 1975 – remember how you could re-sit an O level in the autumn, with most people convinced the autumn papers were easier? If these are the easy papers, then all respect to anyone passing the summer exams that year.

Limiting the syllabi and telling candidates exactly what to say and how, with marked exemplar material easily available, makes passing the exams really easy, and particularly easy for the very bright

The English exam of 1975 included this gem: a question offered candidates prompt questions about TV – ‘Does the choice of programmes lead to disputes? Who makes the final choice?’ – then required, for 30 marks, ‘a statement of the part played by television in your own family life.’ There was a caveat at the end of the question, ‘if you have no television, write the statement about another family.’ For the avoidance of doubt, the paper declared: ‘this question is designed to test your ability to be careful and accurate in your writing of English’. Nothing to do with TV at all, then.

But I digress. What I really wanted to explore was those subjects which defined much more obvious bodies of knowledge and were therefore more likely to contribute directly to what anyone leaving school might reasonably be expected to know. The 1975 Geography paper includes an Ordnance Survey map and a map of the world. Fifteen years later, my daughter’s study of Geography seemed more concerned with supermarkets and playgrounds, opinion, not fact. Even a geographer’s world changes.

A national newspaper recently reported a history GCSE question offering views of a painting of Parliament in the nineteenth century and a recent photograph. Spot the differences, and get marks for noticing that MPs used to be old white men, nowadays they may be women, young and from ethnic minorities. Really? Is that now suitable material for a history syllabus? Stuff you should know as you sail into the world, an educated person? And if it is, why is the question posed with the answer visible in the pictures?

There are no pictures in the 1975 history papers and the questions are demanding. How about: ‘In the nineteenth century Britain became a Free Trade country. Explain what you think this sentence means, and trace the stages by which it came about.’ You can’t de-code that on the spot. You either know it, or you don’t. ‘Stuff’ which might stay with you a very long time, yea unto the time of pub quizzes and lucrative TV programmes.

The other truth about the 1975 papers is their demand for high-grade essay writing skills – which of course you learned in English lessons. These history papers all require four or five half hour essays. Know your stuff, write it fast.  And how I remember the agony of knowing a lot of stuff that did not appear on the paper, and not knowing stuff that did. So much for selective swotting. Apart from furnishing my brain, much of what I learned got no formal outlet, and therefore no credit, at all.

I was the other side of the desk when the quiet revolution occurred, and we decided exams should test what you knew – bang, bang, bang – not your capacity to write like a novelist. And perhaps that was fair enough.

But it opened the door to testing within limited and fairly predictable frameworks. 1975 offered enormous syllabi and very little information about how to do well. Students were at the mercy of staff with variable expertise. My A level in History is owed to a supply teacher who arrived a month before the exam and asked why our homework essays were ten pages long. ‘Half an hour on each topic! Stop with the waffle!’ Our usual teacher must have spun in his hospital bed.

Limiting the syllabi and telling candidates exactly what to say and how, with marked exemplar material easily available, makes passing the exams really easy, and particularly easy for the very bright. In the mid-70s, a mixed handful of grades was perfectly respectable even for the very best students; now any student with a will and a competent, clued-up teacher will clock up all As, if not all A*s and have little idea what subjects he or she is really good at. What to do for A level?  ‘I don’t know!’

Surely the days of teaching subjects – big, baggy, fascinating, unpredictable, sometimes unmanageable, sometimes tedious things – have gone.  They have been replaced by teaching to the exam – not what you need to know, but what you need to know to get the grade. ‘Here’s an Assessment Objective, and here is how you hit it – go!’ The intention might have been that the exam would signify, stand for, all that a candidate knows; in practice, it may actually be all that he or she knows – the way a driving test candidate knows the test route by heart, but is actually a lousy driver.

So if you are pondering what you know and how you learned it, you might also consider what will the young adults who leave your school in the future know?  And how much use will they be in a pub quiz team?

And my last piece of evidence?  Recent episodes of ‘University Challenge’, heavy with the silence of a lot of not knowing.

I rest my case.

Hilary Moriarty, former Head and National Director of the Boarding Schools Association, taught English for 25 years and examined at A level, O level, CSE and GCSE.    

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29 April 2PM [GMT]