Friday, 21 August 2009

How did I get an 'A' grade in maths?

Something has been bothering me ever since my A Level results day. Every year when A Level results come out the niggle gets to me again and these last few days have been no different. I knew what I would get in my Politics and Economics A Levels but the one that everything else was riding on was the Mathematics. Somehow, God only knows how, I got an 'A' grade.

Believe me, I am not boasting about this. I am genuinely confused. Just a few months before I had got an 'E' in my mock exam. A Level mathematics was split into two parts- everyone did 'pure' mathematics and then you had an option of mechanics (for the scientists) or statistics (for those who couldn't really do proper maths, i.e. me.) Even by doing the easier statistics paper I was struggling.

I knew that to get to the university I wanted to I would need a 'B.' So from the mock I learnt how to answer the questions. Statistics was fine, I had an excellent teacher, Mr Ralph, who gave us model answers. Just learn them.

The other paper- calculus, induction, quadratic equations and all sorts of other nasties- was an absolute blur. I had no idea what was going on but I got an 'A.' How? I learnt how to answer the questions going back over all the past papers. Without any understanding of what I was doing or what it was for, I still managed to hoodwink the examiner that I did. It's a trick I've deployed a few times since.

So, how did I do it? It's simple actually. Without knowing it, I had actually learnt how to do exams. I had not understood that mathematics is pure logic, a language to convey irrefutable and falsifiable meaning; a means of understanding our world across its dimensions, to analyse its patterns and communicate its form and logic. But I did know how to make the examiner think I understood what it's about.

Which brings me nicely onto the exceptionally tedious debate about whether A Levels are getting easier or not. Awake? This the time of the year when the media celebrates in success with footage of elated students waving their results in the air as if they were flags at the Last Night of the Proms. They then cut back to some grumpy curmudgeon or other who bemoans how easy they are like a father who says, "Son, what a marvelous achievement in learning to play the piano to such a standard. Now let me go and get my sledgehammer and smash it up."

'A' Levels have not got easier. But what has happened is that since league tables, Ofsted and the like, we are now far more likely to teach to the test- much as Mr Ralph did with my class (and I'm very glad he did.) Moreover, there are far more consequential results with so many more university places available. The reason I found a way around the system? I needed a 'B' grade minimum. There are so many more pupils chasing grades to secure a university place so they learn how to do well at exams (either by understanding the subject- the better route- or by, like me, learning what the examiner is looking for.)

So the incentive to improve is strong for schools/ teachers and pupils alike. It's no mystery and anyone who thinks it is because 'A' Levels are getting easier is just plain wrong. Of course, next year we'll have the same debate again. Yawn.

But there is a bigger issue here. As I have said, I did not understand mathematics but could do it. I'm sure there are a great many students who were in the same position yesterday if they are being honest. In this economy- a predominantly knowledge economy- being able to do an exam is a fine skill. But the greater skill set is the ability acquire deep understanding, look at things from new perspectives, deploy knowledge and analytical capability in creative ways, and find new ways of doing things that aren't just about meeting someone else's standard (i.e. an exam.)

The excellent A Level results do create a problem of differentiation for universities which I fully appreciate. Both myself and Professor Adam Foster whose guest post yesterday I would strongly recommend reading got the same grade at 'A' Level mathematics. I can promise you- and there is no humility here whatsoever, just the truth- our mathematical capability was not is the same league. On paper, we appeared to be the same.

(Incidentally, he got a 'C' grade in Politics but he did argue- in a one sentence essay- that the reason that Republicans win US presidential elections was because they are in tune with the values of the American people: they eat big steaks and wear baseball caps. Actually, foreshadowing Drew Westen's The Political Brain, that answer should have got the highest grade.)

However, the main issue is our whole approach to education. This differentiation issue is just part of it. In this society, this economy, are exams the valid measure of capability? Peter Hyman, in an excellent piece for The Observer last weekend, argued that we should concentrate on the skills we need to give students to succeed in life rather than exams etc. I'm inclined to agree. So next year, let's say congratulations to those who succeed and then shift the debate in another direction. Let's ask what do we expect from our education system? What will benefit the students most in life? What constitutes excellence in education in the modern day? Then we can extricate ourselves from this torpid 'are 'A' Levels getting easier?' debate.

Post script: Adam (@suurimonster) informs me that he actually got a 'D' in politics. More grade inflation......

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I am 18 and have just finished my A-levels. Achieving fair grades, enough to get me into Sussex university. I have to say I think the exams were easier; I recently checked some old papers, about 30 years ago and they were much harder I noticed that some questions formerly in single maths are now in further maths (which I also did). The two subjects I checked were maths and economics (my favourites). However I think competition for places at the top universities is much higher; indeed many people with AAB or even I know one with AAABa have not got into any university (or are still floating in clearing) so on balance we have to work as hard if not harder, to achieve the same things with easier exams.

    In conclusion, I dont think it can be denied that exams are easier, but that should not detract from the hard work students still put in.