Like you, I get lots of emails every day. I’ve not yet figured out – or rather not bothered to figure out – how to turn off the automatic alert. As a consequence, I frequently get interrupted at work. Earlier this week, an email popped up with the subject Quotation Bank in it. Mildly intrigued and on this occasion needing a distraction, I clicked the link. I wish I hadn’t. I think I have discovered a new low in educational profiteering.
As their name suggests, The Quotation Bank offer banks of quotations for all the major exam texts, all helpfully analysed for meaning and method. Whilst they are probably no worse than any other study guide, online or otherwise – they all adopt the same cynical approach of focusing relentlessly on assessment objectives and working backwards from mark schemes – there is just something very depressing for an English teacher of reducing literature to a bunch of quotes. Equally disheartening is having a whole industry that exploits the narrow end goal, but invests very little (by way of decent textbooks) on how to actually get there.
Perhaps I have a particular beef with what Quotation Bank has to offer because to me it signals a new low in the race to the bottom – one step too far in the finding of cute ways to maximise exam success through the back door. It’s fair enough for teachers to arm their students with an understanding of the text’s key lines alongside the study of the text itself, but to build a revision approach around a few decontextulised snippets alone seems to me to be rather missing the point, and certainly not what I thought I was signing up for when I came into teaching English.
All this reminds me of something that occurred a few years back when I was teaching Dorian Gray at AS level. I remember coming across a critical opinion crib sheet on the Internet, which consisted of a dozen or so quotations from different critics about the novel. I think I sighed before continuing my searches. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, were it not for the fact that a couple of weeks later when I was reading through some recently released exemplar essays from the exam board, I came across some of the essays that contained the exact same critical quotations. Word for word.
Now it may well be that the crib sheet came after the exemplar essays. Maybe a resourceful student (hopefully not a teacher!) got hold of the scripts and knocked up a list of all the critics mentioned onto a flashcard for their own preparation. I don’t think so, but it was over five years ago now, so I cannot be sure. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. A quick search now for some of the ‘critics’ cited (and their supposed thoughts on Dorian Gray) throws up multiple cheat sheets and online flashcards with exactly the same material. It’s the literary equivalent of what journalist Nick Davies calls Flat Earth News, where news stories become news stories by sheer virtue of being spread widely with no one having the time, inclination or expertise to check their validity.
Now, I don’t expect A Level students to read the whole of tomes like Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex – who has? – but I would hope they could handle more than just a few pithy lines from a dubious critic. I’ve always been of the belief that one of the purposes of A level study, particularly in a subject like English, is to prepare students for the next stage of an education, whether or not they choose to continue with it. A level should, in part, be about introducing students to scholarship, teaching them the concept of literary theory and giving them a decent taste of the real thing. Not watered-down soundbites designed to convey an appearance of knowledge.
In my opinion, these are both examples of the race to the bottom – a race that is unfortunately still being run, despite the best efforts of many principled teachers and school leaders to base improvement on long-term, sustainable developments informed by evidence and genuine subject expertise. The pressure to achieve success is clearly is still all consuming and fuels a desire to find ways to bypass hard work, to look for quick wins and is the reason why companies like Quotation Bank continue to exist. The knock-on effect for a university education is only too clear.
What I think confounds the problem is the failure of the exam boards to do their jobs properly. And I am not just referring here to their inability to distinguish between knowledge and soundbites. It seems to me that, at least in my subject, there are just not enough examiners and that those examiners we do have do not always have the expertise required to examine properly. Whilst anecdotal, I know of several teachers who examined this year on texts that they had not read. A Twitter poll I conducted a few months ago suggested these were not isolated cases. Now, if you think about it – that’s ridiculous: you determine the grades of students for a text you’ve never read!
The response to this would probably go something like, ‘oh, but it’s the skills you are assessing for on the mark scheme.’ Sounds plausible, but it’s really just nonsense. Again, only anecdotal, but we have had several cases where our strongest students got much lower grades than we expected. Obviously, I understand we all have good days and bad days, but almost every time we ask for scripts back it is clear the examiner has not fully recognised some of the more sophisticated points made, and that trite, yet obvious analysis is rewarded whereas insight and subtlety is not. Surprise, surprise – on almost every occasion we appeal, grades go up, sometimes by a ludicrous number of marks.
It would be better if exam boards stopped focusing on making money on designing resources to support the teaching of their own specifications. The primary function of an exam board is surely to design and assess their qualifications, and to make sure the grades they award are consistent and fair. The curriculum, teaching and learning is for schools and teachers to worry about. Likewise if exam boards put more money and effort into recruitment, and not relied on the dubious proposition of valuable CPD for teachers, they would not need to lower the bar to get all their scripts marked. If all examiners had expertise in what they were examining, students would be encouraged to understand the whole text and get to grips with hard content and not just how to create the impression that they understand.
Without a market for short cuts, there would be little incentive for anyone to provide them, and the race would turn round in the other direction.