Tales from the practical class…

by e_e_evans PhD student

I am early in my academic career (the post-bachelors part I mean) so I wasn’t expecting there to be a generation gap between me and the current cohort of freshers. After all they’re only about 5 years younger than me, heck, they would have been in lower years of high school when I was doing my A levels. So why does being a demonstrator for their classes feel like I have come from a different century of the UK education system?

I’ve spoken to many lecturers who despair that what young people are taught and what Universities expect them to know is often as far from each other as East is from West. After the great New Labour push to get 50% of young people into University (for better or worse, time will tell) it seems that the Universities should now have greatest sway over what get taught at A level. If these qualifications are meant to prepare young people for the world of work or for University why does it feel like they do neither!

I’ll admit I’ve not done any quantitative testing to prove the above hypothesis but here are a few personal observations backed up by things said by collogues and lecturers I have spoken to:

1. Lack of observation skills

“Describe this to me. What features are there?” I say, holding a rock specimen towards a fresher who’s asked for help. What then proceeds is a puzzled look, (like I’m asking them a trick question), followed by shrugs, filler sounds and stabs in the dark. I’m asking them to tell me what they can see. With their eyes.
Often they will simply pluck something out of the air. I’ve been told rounded pebbles are angular, something fractured and shapeless looks like a blade, something that scratches an iron nail is soft, the list could go on. This happens ever geology practical session to me and all three of my colleagues. (The best so far was someone, in an attempt to sound like they knew what they were talking about, tossed in geology-babble into their answer and managed to contradict themselves twice in a single sentence!)
So what’s happened?! Why are students perplexed when asked to observe and describe? Why do they find it hard to actually trust their own eyes?

2. Limited vocabulary

Yes, yes, grandparents have been decrying this for decades but when every fourth word I hear when I’m waiting at the bus stop is a four-letter one I’m inclined to agree with octogenarians. I’m a big fan of the English language, why limit yourself to one word when their are dozens with beautiful and subtle nuances to their meaning that could be used instead? Four-letter words have there place (they too have nuances) but it’s such a shame that I have to rephrase a sentence because at the age 18 someone hasn’t come across the term “differentiate” (that’s an actual, honest example from a lecturer who re-wrote a practical question so “differentiate” became “tell the difference”).
When the only reason someone knows the word “clairvoyant” is because of a character in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD I have to worry.

3. Poor computer skills

This is maddening. How can generation-Y not be good with computers? Well, they are in one sense. Touch screens? Easy. Social Media? They’re tweeting in their sleep. Online video? They’ve got accounts with youtube, daily motion, netflix and they know ten proxy server addresses so they can download videos from bit-torrent on school computers without getting caught. So why is Excel an alien planet to them? Why is plotting a simple graph, rocket science? Inputting automated equations into cells, brain surgery? Or to put it another way, why are the most tech-savvy of the generations lacking the intuition to work things out for themselves? Aren’t these the young people who are meant to speak Python and Javascript like a second language?

4. Fear of maths

‘Nuff said (as Stan Lee would say).

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And I have a niggling feeling where all this stems from… the exam-heavy, spoon-feeding style of education that has been forced upon young people for the sake of league tables and Ofsted reports. There’s no time to learn around  the curriculum because young people are too busy revising…. then trying to unlearn all that information for the next module of facts cramming. No time for problem solving and finding a solution in their own time because they’ve got six more pages of curriculum to learn before next week.
Whether a student retains a piece of information in school is based on a simple question: “will it be on the exam?”

It’s taken me five years to over-come that mentality. Five years to get out of the “what mark will I get?”, “I need to get X to get a 2:1/1st overall this year”, “how am I doing compared to everyone else?” thought trap. And even then it’s only now I’m free of the exam-bubble of University I can start to feel a bit liberated from it.

And now… the Aesop’s fable style fluffy-ish moral conclusion…

But I have faith in the freshers of today because those who will become the problem-solvers, the inventors, the academics, the blue-sky-thinkers of their generation will be able to battle past their exam-focused mental coding and do just fine.

But the remaining 95% of the bell-curve have been badly let down.

This note-blog was supported today by four old recordable cassette tapes to stop my laptop from overheating
(if you can’t start on a joke, end on a joke, right?)

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