Saturday, 4 April 2009

This Week (Bye for Now)

This week I am effectively suspending blogging, unless something vital comes about that draws a quick comment. However there will be one exception.

I have two pressing matters that must have priority until Friday 10th April. The first is I am writing a full service liturgy and rewriting the sermon for the Easter Day service at a Unitarian church. When done, I'll put it on my website and link from here. At present the ideas for this are in my head but fleshing out makes all the difference. Secondly is a job interview for a Study Skills and Academic Writing Tutor that must receive my concentration and focus via reading including around the subject. It is well paid, well located in Higher Education and would make all the difference to my life as it is a job that interests me given my experiences.

So here is some more about each.

Unitarians do not necessarily observe Easter, and if they do some of them only observe it in the sense of a seasonal renewal of light and life. A minority will refer to some sort of resurrection, probably spiritual or subjective, and there is very unlikely to be any sense of a universal sacrificial view of the cross. My service will be as coming from outside as Anglican influenced, but on the radical edge, with an open sermon regarding any resurrection, and a use of myth drawing on Darwin and the death that lets life become stronger and more complex. I have the Unitarian hymn book now and will have the verses printed out amongst the whole text.

When I was teaching Sociology A level I came to the view that only a quarter of the students should have been doing the course. Most lacked the literacy to put even AS level ideas together, and if not they lacked the necessary minimum abstract reasoning. I realised that they had received their 5 GCSEs A to C by a pattern of processed learning, and I was told to do the same for AS amd A levels. My illusions had been that here would be academic students, or at least would see themselves that way. But they had to be processed too, and thus given dreadful facing-pages bullet point plus textbooks from which to write out revision paragraphs (to be learnt) and we actually gave the essay structures into which these paragraphs were slotted.

This defied everything I'd been taught in teacher training. Very soon the students were bored. I did visit a college that didn't use the textbooks and did engage in students in lots of discussion, and they had work packs to use as individuals or small groups. This was the riskier method, and it was not in the city where education is a particular difficulty. As my students got bored they used what they had learnt in school: how to do other things while appearing to do something of what they were supposed to do. Some students should have been doing vocational training, some students had chosen the course down their list and were soon uninterested and disruptive. I was also too academic in normal speech, that is to say it was a disadvantage to have achieved a Sociology doctorate and teach in sixth form.

But all the students were processed, and enough passed, and the A level results were 100% all but. Which shows, to me, that A levels are worthless, that is to say students do a lot of work, a lot of writing, they do look things up as directed, but in the end they get to university and... they cannot study for themselves. The classic defining moment for me was teaching AS when I said, "I won't spoonfeed you," when standing by an essay plan on the whiteboard asking for what goes where and getting no replies (due to them waiting for me to say the answer anyway). A student then said, "Adrian, will you spoonfeed us." Another defining moment was with A level students, trying to discuss the difference between Marx and Weber regarding ideas and the economic structure, when they simply could not get a simple contrast where, for Weber, ideas might have a life of their own. In the end I gave a concrete example of a Puritan believer saving his money and investing and profit as a mark of election, when one student asked, "Why didn't they go shopping?" No historical imagination whatsover, never mind sociological imagination - no necessary abstract thought.

When they get to university they simply have not read anything of substance, tackled any issues where abstract thought is needed, and universities are having to do the job that sixth forms used to do. Sixth forms were bridges between school concrete learning and university abstract consideration.

In sixth form teaching I had wanted to introduce study skills methods but there was no time to do this and we just did forcefeeding. And I wasn't very good at it, and the students' behaviour slipped and I wasn't able to pull it back because they were so bored.

What I would do with A levels is this. Get rid of AS levels. Have less quantity of work with A levels, as much of it is entirely unnecessary and a substitute for quality. Get students always to compare and contrast, right from the beginnning. Integrate study skills into the subject. Make sure students have plenty of variety of learning. Get students to make presentations and these could be about newspaper articles and television programmes or online texts relevant to the subject. Students must write originally, and not by so much copying.

It was different in my day. I'd come through a middle stream at school, but got enough CSE grade 1s to add to my few O levels. In the sixth form teachers used to talk, and we had to follow the teacher's speech and write notes for ourselves, and then we were given essays to do and just had to do them in the library and at home (guided by the notes). We did them too. We had to answer questions in short tests and consider different viewpoints. Nobody held our hands and by the time I went to university I had a good idea how to think in order to put an essay together. I could also attend a lecture, write relevant notes (that told me the focus of the course) and have those notes go towards an essay and revision, which required my own notes from library work. University was even more a case of lecturers turning up and talking, and seminars were about students writing their own presentations for everyone to discuss. Nowadays students need additional support early in their Higher Education encounter - and this when sixth forms and colleges do the publicity that they score 100% for A level passes, which they never did when we learnt to stand on our own feet. These days statistics are everything, and everything is appearance.

University lecturers do their research and lecture similar to before, but students need learning strategies and added value. They need to learn the skills of studying. Let's face it, we in the seventies and eighties could have benefited from this (I never even received research training at Ph.D level, which is now part of any funded research student's programme). I did have a higher education job that extended into study skills, and saw what such a flexible, drop-in, learning expansion could do for independence of thinking and student confidence: we had ad-hoc discussions, I attended practice presentations, I advised on writing styles and on effective reading for both paper sources and online.

So in such spirit, off I go to write an hour's service and to make sure I'm back on form with study skills strategies. I'll be back to commenting here in a week (other than posting the service). Should something unavoidable arise, I'll make only a quick comment.


Anonymous said...

Good Luck Adrian, May you find your new job rewarding. I have enjoyed your posts and have appreciated a different point of view on religion than what I have been exposed to thus far. Looking forward to reading your Easter sermon.

-Gene in
Oregon, USA.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

If I get the job.

JayV said...

Well, yes. Let's hope you do get that job! Sounds like a win-win for you and the people who will benefit from your knowledge!