The Problem with English Lessons

I’ve been reading a brief of UK Education Secretary Michael Gove’s planned changes to the GCSE system in England.  This doesn’t affect Scotland (which is introducing its own controversial changes to education) but it is still fascinating for me to read.  Some aspects I’ve always been opposed to, such as the emphasis on external examinations as a means of assessment.  I’ve always been in favour of coursework for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I do not believe that one bad experience during the exam should invalidate a whole year of work; and secondly, it’s totally unrepresentative of the kind of work people will face in adulthood (when will someone ever have to write a detailed essay in 45 minutes with no reference material?).

But I’m digressing.  What shocked me was that, for the subjects I have a claim to – English and History – the proposals to the actual course sound almost decent.  In English, the BBC put emphasis on how pupils will have to read ‘whole books’ or ‘whole Shakespeare plays’, rather than the ‘chunks’ they can get away with now.  This would be a very good change.  No wonder pupils resent English and reading so much when they’re forced to learn plots, characters, arcs, themes etc. without having had the opportunity to enjoy the piece.  I still remember my absolute horror of my Higher English teacher skimming through Macbeth, murmuring “No, you don’t need this bit, um… A major character dies here but that’s not very important…”  Sure, pupils can opt to read the whole text themselves – as I did – but realistically, with the stresses of exams, not many books are going to be read that year.

Another problem with English lessons is the uniform way in which we are taught to do it.  Formulas are driven into us (STAR = Statement, Text, Analysis, Relate) which becomes the basic way in which we construct essays; creative writing is seemingly judged not on innovation but on the number of metaphors used and the ability to follow a standard narrative.  Then, once we reached Advanced Higher level, our teachers were surprised at how rigid our approaches initially were.  I think in my case this was a particular problem because our school made Higher English mandatory for all students, so teachers were faced* with classes of pupils who loathe the subject.  Which is why they understandably react with simplification and the abhorrent STAR system.

As for history, there will supposedly be a greater focus on essays for GCSE level, which I also think is a good thing.  Answering questions is alright as an introduction to the subject, but teaching pupils to construct reasoned, developed arguments as early as you can is not a bad thing in my opinion.  That said, it’s incredibly difficult to do just that during exam conditions and, although a good idea on its own, will most likely exacerbate the problem of focusing entirely on exams.  I’m also not too keen on a move away from ‘World History’; the Scotland-centric curriculum I’ve had to put up with, as much as I enjoyed them, became rather repetitive.

Make no mistake, I think Michael Gove is making a terrible Education Secretary – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a news headline: “Teachers vote of no confidence in Gove” – and I’m extremely glad he has no power over education here in Scotland.  Yet, some elements of education do need reform.

*Using past tense still feels incredibly weird.

Advanced Higher English Exam!

Yesterday I sat the second exam of the May 2013 Block: Advanced Higher English.  We only do one essay in the exam due to having submitted a creative writing folio (both will be published online on the 6th August 2013… And one might even end up in a paperback anthology a little later!).  The writers we’ve studied over the year are William Shakespeare (Othello and Antony and Cleopatra) and Carol Ann Duffy (16 plays – I can’t bear to name them all).  Duffy was always meant to be my back-up question, so I went for Shakespeare when the question looked possible:

“Iago and Octavius Caesar are each, in their own ways, obsessed with power.”
Keeping this assertion in mind, compare the role and function of Iago in  Othello with the role and function of Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra.
(30 marks)

I know that looks like an easy question – and it was – but I struggled with it.  Sounds silly, but I hadn’t expected to be asked explicitly about the antagonists.  I had the knowledge to draw together an answer but not the time to properly plan and bring all the evidence I needed together (I expect the examiner will be amused by my desperate scribblings on the front page; if not amused, then at the very least they might pity me).  Looking back, I did essentially answer the question, which always helps, but I did so in such a clumsy and digressive way that I don’t expect to have done fantastically.  Hopefully enough to have passed, but…

Still, the exam only constitutes 30% of the overall grade, and I don’t need it for anything besides pride – since I’m doing English Literature at university, I feel that I really aught to be handling this.

Coming soon: Geography and RMPS Higher!  Then freedom and boredom (and probably more interesting blogs as a result).

A Quarter to Freedom

Just finished my first exam!  Advanced Higher History, 3 hours – not fun.  Here are the essay questions on the South Africa section we’ve studied, if you’re curious (in bold are the ones I chose):

1.  How important were the demands of the diamond and gold mining industries in determining South African government policy, 1910-1939?
2.  To what extent was disunity amongst resistance groups the main factor in undermining the effectiveness of opposition to segregation before 1939?
3.  How far can it be argued that the unique sense of Afrikaner identity was the main reason for the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism before 1948?
4.  How valid is the view that the policy of Separate Development after 1959 was apartheid by another name?
5.  How significant was the United Nations in influencing the foreign policy of the South African government, 1960-1984?
(all worth 25 marks)

The first could have been better but I rambled a fair few points and remember a lot of historiography.  The second was close to the subject of my dissertation (which I’ll upload after I get my results on 6th August!) so that was a rather pleasant experience!  And I got to criticise Thatcher and Reagan, which is always fun.  Just realised I spelled Reagan’s name wrong in the exam…

The source questions weren’t so good.  Basically, we have a 16 mark question to compare the views of two sources, and add recall; a 12 mark ‘how useful’ question to analyse the provenence of a source, and add recall; and a 12 mark ‘how fully’ question, to interpret the points of a source… And add recall.  Unfortunately, after 90 minutes, noisy people on BOTH sides of the room, noisy rain falling onto the fragile roof and a bell INSIDE the exam room (great idea), my nerves were a little weakened and I fell apart a little bit on these questions.  Hopefully not majorly, but… Oh, and we had to fill in a page’s worth of details whenever we needed new sheets of paper.  Does the SQA want us to pass?

Anyhow.  Moaning aside, hopefully I passed.  I have three exams left, the next being English on Monday.  Not too worried, as it’s only worth 30% of the overall grade (along with a dissertation and two creative writing pieces), so I’d be satisfied just to ramble together something passable.

Basically, this post is an update to say my blog posting probably will be low for the meantime, but I think I’ll continue with my reviews; I’m seeing Star Trek: Into Darkness tomorrow and I *have* to review Saturday’s The Name of the Doctor.

I’ve also been feeling inspiration begin to return, now I’m nearing the end.  Perhaps I’ll have an array of stories and poems to show off by the end of the Summer.

Brief University Post: Edinburgh (and the Scottish Parliament!)

Yesterday, my university trip continued with the visitation of the University of Edinburgh. I have long considered Edinburgh to be my favourite UK city (alongside Brighton, which gets ‘honourary mention’).  I feel instantly at home whenever I step along the cobbles and gaze at the skyline dotted with spires, unlike the sense of foreboding and oppressiveness I feel in most cities.  So I dearly hoped the university would thrill me in a similar way.

And, on the most part, it did.  It isn’t quite as visually pretty as the other Scottish universities I have visited, like Glasgow, Stirling or Heriot-Watt, though it has its charms.  I can imagine George Square becoming a splendour of reds, yellows and oranges in the Autumn, and there’s something lovely about Bristo Square (pictured to the left).

Several particular features of the university excited me.  From a literary perspective, there’s such a charged atmosphere: the Literature Society has regular activities, including meetings with a range of figures, from Owen Jones to J. K. Rowling.  Edinburgh was UNESCO’s first ‘City of Literature’, and there’s a wide variety of festivals in which to engage in both reading and writing.  The city contains the National Library of Scotland, and a pretty hefty lending library.  The university library’s pretty nice, too.  These activites make Edinburgh seem an especially good destination for someone not at all interested in the drinking scene.

I was also fascinated by a talk for the History degree (I’ve applied for a joint English Literature and History degree at Edinburgh).  We were treated to an example lecture on the economic history of the UK, which turned out to be far more fascinating than it sounded.  Edinburgh is a city with a rich history, dating its large-scale growth far back before the Industrial Revolution – unlike Glasgow.  Along one street you’ll see Gothic style buildings, along another they’re almost Medieval, and then you’ll come across a classical display of pillars and gold.

There is also a lively political atmosphere in Edinburgh, which appeals to me highly.  Walk along any street, particularly near the university itself, and you’re likely to see a variety of posters advertising protests: to scrap the Trident nuclear missiles, to oppose the ‘Israeli Apartheid’, to oppose the totalitarian regime of North Korea, etc.  We even stumbled upon a petition-signing event protesting against the ‘Bedroom Tax’, organised by the Scottish Socialist Party, though it was wrapping up just as we arrived and so we unfortunately never had chance to put our names down.  There’s a variety of fundraising movements we witnessed, ranging from collections for children’s hospitals to firefighters marching for the National Union of Firefighters (or something along those lines).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the the 2011 Occupy Movement in Scotland survived longest in Edinburgh.  Having grown up in a small island where the height of political activity is spars over whether or not to build a cinema, bridge, wind turbines, and so on, this was an amazing environment to find myself in.

This brings me on to the more exciting aspect of the trip.  I fancied a quick glance at the Scottish Parliament, located in Edinburgh, so we took a walk down the ‘Royal Mile’ and ventured in.  After a security check, we took a cautious walk into the public gallery of the debating chamber.  To our extreme fortune, it turned out that a session of the First Minister’s Questions were about to start.  My geek-credentials were proven with the fact that this excited me more than anything has in a long time.  One by one, high-profile figures in Scottish politics began to file in.  Johann Lamont (Scottish Labour leader), Nicola Sturgeon (Deputy First Minister), Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative Leader), and, finally, Alex Salmond (First Minister, and the Scottish National Party leader).  We watched him spar with figures such as Lamont and Davidson, and also debate with my own MSP, Tavish Scott.  I noticed Patrick Harvie, one of the few Scottish Green Party MSPs, in the chamber but unfortunately he never spoke.  It was strange, being so close to objects and people of intense interest to me.  I suppose, as I never personally interacted with any of it, the experience was not a lot different from watching the proceedings on TV, except the former never leaves me buzzing in excitement for the rest of the day.

Overall, I truly love Edinburgh.  I liked Glasgow more than I expected, but it would take a lot for me not to choose here as my place of study for four years.  From what I’ve seen of St. Andrews thus far, I don’t think my opinion will be changing.

Life Updates

I have just finished the first draft of my History dissertation.  This, along with drama rehearsals, is the reason I’ve been rather quiet over the last week.  I’ll hopefully upload it alongside my English dissertation in August, once I have the results (my fear is always that the examiner will do that magical process they have to search for plagiarism, and accuse me of plagiarising myself if they find anything online).

Next week might also be rather dull for this blog.  I’ll be performing in the Shetland Country Drama Festival (a play called Audience by playwright Michael Frayn), while joining the actual audience for two other nights.  I will also hopefully sign up to do some work with Norwegian students visiting our islands in coming weeks in a ‘tall ship’ – being a kind of ambassador would be incredible – and participating in a video conference with a school in South Africa, organised through our history class.  I generally take my excitement for occasions such as these as proof that I could probably cope with working as a journalist.

Oh, and I also recently received an offer from Edinburgh University to study ‘English Literature and History’, which is the course I’ve really been after – although I won’t know for sure until I’ve visited the universities later this month.