17 August 2010

On reductionism in assessment

The link (valid until 23 August only, and only in the UK) is to a Radio 4 programme on the Advanced level examination in UK schools (except for those in Scotland) taken at the age of 18. It pays particular attention to A level English literature, concentrating on a question on Hamlet.

It considers how principally how the examination game is played and how students are trained unashamedly to get the maximum marks by engaging with the "Assessment Objectives" (AOs) of the subject, to the extent of a student readily saying that they can't start discussing the "texts" in class because that might take them away from the AOs, when they only have four weeks for each of their six texts.

The AOs for English Literature are;
  1. Articulate creative, informed and relevant responses to literary texts, using appropriate terminology and
    concepts, and coherent, accurate written expression.
  2. Demonstrate detailed critical understanding in analysing the ways in which structure, form and language
    shape meanings in literary texts.
  3. Explore connections and comparisons between different literary texts, informed by interpretations of other readers.
  4. Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
There's nothing much wrong with them as they stand. They do constitute a sub-set of the skills a critical reader ought to have, but...
  • To see a work of literature as a text, a technical product, is very partial. Babies and bathwater spring to mind.
  • This approach is even more stultifying that the French explication du texte.
  • But most of all it is disabling; I now have a much clearer idea of what my humanities colleagues are complaining about when they bemoan the inability of first-year undergraduates in particular to work independently, to value their own responses to a work independently of what will feature in the assessment, and even to read the whole of a novel or play or poem as a work of art. 
  • They have been drilled to fake appreciation.

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