Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

I’m returning to a topic that I have written about many times in the past, but it is an issue of such fundamental importance to our education system that it can never be aired often enough. The context is Scotland but I would be willing to bet that it applies in many parts of the developed world, and it was prompted by this tweet which appeared in my Twitter timeline from Erica at the Young Adult Literature Symposium in St Louis, Missouri, last week:-

Now, while I don’t have a problem with introducing 45-year-old books to young people – and of course many of the best books  ever written are much older than that – I think implicit in that statement is the fact that when it comes to the English curriculum in schools, and those texts which candidates choose to write about in examinations, the core list of texts often seems to be set in concrete, and the same very narrow range of texts is promoted as if they were the only books ever written – Of Mice and Men anyone? Animal Farm? Lord of the Flies?

How does that reduction happen? Consider the following key outcome of the new curriculum in Scotland. Despite the language of the outcome, which suggests it was written by a committee (and believe me it was), the objective is clear and commendable – that, by the age of 15, or before in some cases, all young people should be able to say that they are regular readers and are able to make personal choices in their reading. I would have preferred it to say something along the lines of ‘Reading is an important part of my life and it is something I will continue to pursue long after I have left school’, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

“I regularly select and read, listen to or watch texts for enjoyment and interest, and I can express how well they meet my needs and expectations and give reasons, with evidence, for my personal response. I can identify sources to develop the range of my reading.”

Curriculum for Excellence Literacy Outcome 3-11a (S1-S3)

Why is it then, when young people are able to meet this outcome by the age of 15, many of them are failing so dramatically to demonstrate this ability by the age of 16 and 17? What has happened to them in the intervening two years? Three simple words – the examination system. Have a look at some of the key points emerging from this year’s External Assessment Report for Higher English. These statements are taken directly from the report and are unaltered.

  • There was more evidence than in recent years of candidates coming to the exam with prepared answers (often on questions from recent past papers, as the appearance of key words suggested) and attempting to adapt these to ‘fit’ the questions asked.
  • The high number of choices of inappropriate choice of poem for questions 12 and 13 leads to the suspicion that significant numbers of candidates are coming to the exam with just one poem on which they are determined to answer come what may. This practice cannot be discouraged strongly enough.
  • A number of candidates are in the habit of writing at the end of most paragraphs stock phrases such as ‘….and this helped me to understand the central concerns of the text’, without ever having stated what they believed these central concerns to be, let alone how what they had just described had aided their understanding of them.
  • The term ‘theme’ continues to be used in an inappropriate way by some candidates, as if it were a ‘technique’, similar to, for example, setting, characterisation or symbolism. A proper understanding of ‘theme’ is key to the study of literature.

This is what happens when teachers are judged by the exam results of their students, when there is pressure on young people to learn a procedure which is quite alien to them, and for all of that to happen within a very short time frame. Writing ‘critical essays’ is not something which most of them will ever do again, and simply reflects an academic study of literature which is inappropriate for all but a tiny minority of students. Any love of reading has been squeezed out of them by the end of the process. How can it be that so many young people who at the age of five were reciting poems and enjoying the rhythms and patterns of language, will, by the time they sit Higher English, be thinking of poetry as that single poem which they have ‘analysed’ to death, the lines and responses to which they will have spent the best part of a year committing to memory.

There must be a better way, and there is. If Higher English is to remain in its present form – and it has seen too many ‘reforms’ in recent years to suggest that there is any appetite for further change – we need to make sure we provide a viable alternative for those young people who have genuinely developed a love for reading but not for essay-writing, and we need those people in positions of authority who talk about Higher English using expressions like ‘the gold standard’ and ‘benchmark’ to think more carefully about their own language. More importantly, we need to recognise that a love of reading, and by implication a love of learning, SHOULD BE THE NUMBER ONE  GOAL FOR ALL LEARNERS.  When a young person is able to ask, in response to the literacy outcome above, “I’ve just read this. What do you suggest I should read next?” you know as a teacher you have done something invaluable.

You may also be interested to read Braintrack’s The State of Young Readers in America

For my extensive list of fiction for 10-14 yr-olds, each text summarised and reviewed, click here.

6 thoughts on “Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

  1. Great post, Bill, and I couldn’t agree more with your premise. I would also add that many fifteen year olds don’t read because, as my incredible school librarian @stenmeister says, their teachers don’t bring them to the library. Pressures of curricular coverage suggests, and I see this all too often, that the library visit or even personal reading is the first thing to go. Coupled with the fact that I come across too many new and training teachers who can’t remember the last book they read. No joke. It was a passion for reading which brought me to teaching English. Is that pasion always there in the English teacher?

    • Sadly Kenny, I think you are right on all counts. Can’t speak about newly qualified teachers, but I have to say I taught with many teachers over the years who hadn’t read a book since they left university. In terms of covering the curriculum, I suppose that is really my main point. The goals are so wrong for most kids. Higher English was designed largely for those going on to study literature at university, not as any kind of ‘benchmark’ of competence. In an ideal world, I think the goal of producing lifelong readers would take over, but the bean-counters would find it too difficult to measure.

  2. I have a 15 year old son who used to read enthusiastically for hours but I lately have observed exactly what you described. He has been given what he considers out of date novels to read and is expected to analyse them until all the life is sucked out of them. Such an outdated system – it just doesn’t work any more for so many students. (Australia)

    • That sounds like a familiar story Sue. I think the problem is greater than we are even prepared to admit, as many kids are able to jump through the required hoops, which makes it look like the system is ‘working’. I suspect your son will read enthusiastically again, but unfortunately despite, rather than because of, his school experience.

  3. Pingback: Don’t Blame Boo Radley | Bill Boyd - The Literacy Adviser

  4. There is a vicious cycle of connivance at work here, involving all the major organisations, but also too many teachers who have developed lazy but “successful” ways of getting the sheep into the lorry.

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