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Tuesday 22nd January 2013

I miss my old friend Dr. Douglas ‘Mac’ McDermott whose life was cut tragically short in his mid-40s last year by pancreatic cancer. Like me Mac was a dyed-in-the-wool tutor – a scholarship lad from the depths of rural Cornwall who had clawed his way up by sheer brainpower to get a place at Oxford which led, eventually, to a doctorate in Chemistry from Wadham College. Dr. Mac was a bright lad and could have succeeded at anything he wanted to do, but he chose – like me – to become an A-level tutor, in his case in Chemistry.

I miss him for many reasons, and not just because he was a fellow Oxford man and also from the south-west. But principally I miss him as a kindred spirit in the battle against the tyranny of mediocrity espoused by too many UK schools (both state and private) aided and abetted by examination boards whom we both believed to be, quite frankly, worse than useless.

Not all teachers are like this, happily. But there are enough useless ones around to make sure that Mac and I made (and in my case still make) a good living out of ‘picking up the pieces’.

By the nature of our job it could be said that tutors get to see a rather skewed, self-selecting sample of ‘failures’. However, a surprising number of our students are ‘worried well’ and I often feel that 80% of my job is providing reassurance to perfectly adequate students who have been given the mushroom treatment at their schools. But I do see enough examples of appalling teaching in my students’ files to be in a state of despair as to the general state of British education. One or two classic recurring comments from students will give you some idea. For example (a phrase I hear a dozen times every September) “Well, one of my teachers is good but the other one is rubbish” (so why aren’t they both good?) And (usually on revision courses, where I am teaching classes) “Why don’t they do it this way at school?” (why not indeed…it really isn’t the proverbial rocket-science to chop-up the facts into logical bite-sized sequence is it?)

I can usually tell within seconds of looking at a student’s files who is being taught by ‘The Lecturer’ (“don’t write anything down – just listen to what I have to say”) whose study file consists of scrappy jottings assembled in random order or ‘The Handout Queen’ (a folder overflowing with unread photocopied sheets). ‘The Tester’ is another stereotype whose products I see a lot – a file overflowing with past examination papers covered in red ink, usually the result of ‘peer marking’ as the teacher can’t be bothered to do it themselves. Just occasionally I see a well-balanced file that has been the result of a judiciously-balanced mixture of solid explanation, selected written information and testing…it’s at times like this that I feel there might be some hope for the world.

I don’t know what they teach teachers in these so-called ‘teacher-training’ establishments (and I don’t particularly want to since my and Mac’s own methods were and are so much more successful) but it does not appear to be based around any notion of what Mac and I held dear to our hearts. This is, quite simply, that the facts need to presented in a logical, progressive order – one fact building upon another in an ordered sequence (and, no, neither of us is, or was, of German extraction!) It seems that far too many school teachers simply swan into the lab and start to teach whatever takes their fancy. This is not how the human brain works, as even an amateur psychologist will tell you! Memory works for most of us by association, one thing leading to another like a series of flags on a path. To teach science out-of-order is akin to expecting someone to memorise a book of random six-figure numbers – and, to me, it is a complete anathema. Once this logical pathway of facts is shown to them 100% of my students agree that it is by far an easier way of studying.

To be fair to teachers (and I’m not usually!) this system of reducing learning to pub quiz trivia (“here’s a random fact – go away and learn it, there’s a good chap”) is fiercely aided and abetted by the examiners who seem to be living up to the twin adages that they are failed teachers designing camels by committee. And to be fair to the examiners (if I absolutely have to be!) they are under the cosh of politicians who, in the footsteps of Blair, seem to love to tinker permanently with things they neither know nor understand. However, between the three of them these groups appear to deliver teaching courses that are the educational equivalent of last week’s leftovers.

I can only comment on Biology A-level (yet another reason I miss dear old Mac who could have chipped in many words of chemical wisdom) but I despair at the fact that unless the student in question is ‘lucky’ enough to be doing OCR I can send them off to Medical School not knowing a darned thing about the Liver or Kidney. This omission has actually sparked a minor tuition boom from some of my old students, now at university and utterly baffled, coming back to me to ‘fill the gaps’. And what has replaced knowledge of these vital organs in the specification? A load of disconnected ‘trendy’ twaddle about genetic engineering that would be best left to university, that's what! Whatever genius thought that one up deserves to be shot.

The AQA biology specification actually pulls off the astounding feat of having content in the AS-level that makes no sense whatsoever until you have done the A2 course a year later! Genetics appears to have been thrown into a mincer and had random parts pulled out to make up the AS and A2 parts of genetics, rather than building up a logical body of knowledge in order. The AQA (somewhat stunningly) specify that the ‘principles’ of protein synthesis need to be done for AS and the ‘full details’ only for A2…this is the academic equivalent of taking a driving test in two parts: in the first one you demonstrate command of steering and in the second one you worry about the pedals. Utter foolishness! Any sensible person would simply stick the genetics in AS and A2 together and teach it as a unitary whole (which is what I do on principle) but it is amazing how many ‘proper teachers’ simply go along with this lunacy, thereby further confusing their poor charges.

As for the whole Edexcel specification - it is frankly a complete joke. Both Mac and I reserve/reserved our particular spleen for the ‘Nuffield’ approach of ‘learning by discovery’… any teacher espousing this half-baked ‘method’ of teaching frankly needs their head examining. Anybody who has completed this particular A-level biology course will know an awful lot about disconnected, trendy bio-medical techniques (assuming that they could be bothered to listen) but will be almost totally ignorant of the basic biological principles underlying them. This sort of approach is good for pub trivia quizzes but not a lot else - I would be exceedingly dubious about admitting anybody to a biologically-based degree on the basis of this particular patchy ‘qualification’. Learning by discovery is best left for the PhD. At A-level you just need a thorough command of the basic facts – otherwise you are trying to learn to write a language without knowing the alphabet.

The title of this Blog is “Why has tuition become a boom occupation?” I suspect that the answer may well be “probably for the same reason that we need wardens in the madhouse…”. I like to feel that Mac would have enjoyed that analogy!

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