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Stating the Bleeding Obvious

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

This post is probably the most ironic I have ever written. I haven't written a post for some months, partly because time has run away from me but partly because each time I sat down to write something, a little voice in my head muttered "don't be ridiculous, everyone already knows that". But of course, that's not always true is it? I may have said it before but that doesn't mean that you have read it; you may not know how exams and schools work; you may not be confident in your own academic abilities. It is never a bad idea to state the bleeding obvious.

And this is what I wanted to highlight to my students this week, many of whom have been receiving mock papers back and who have mastered the art of planning and structuring their writing and whose revision has been thorough and thoughtful. Where marks have been lost it is not a result of lack of knowledge or skill, rather it is because students are convinced that the obvious answers won't earn them any marks.

Let's take an English example. I often use a lovely, poignant poem by Philip Larkin called "Home is so Sad". My first question to students is always: how does Larkin feel about his home. They always hesitate. He feels SAD! Of course he does, it's right there in the title! It's bleeding obvious! But, they stammer, you wouldn't actually say that in an essay would you? It's TOO obvious. Well actually, yes you absolutely would, you would acknowledge how obvious the point is, and then you would start to interrogate that word choice. For those of you who don't know, Larkin was Poet Laureate, a truly great wordsmith (and a total git by all accounts but that's by the by). Larkin had the whole great lexicon of English at his fingertips and yet he chose to describe his home in the sort of words available to a toddler who has lost his lollipop. Why is home not "heartbroken", "despondent", "miserable"? What difference would those words have made to the poem? Once you've established that Larkin has made a conscious decision to use this word, you have the opportunity to dig into that decision making process.

Stating the bleeding obvious is a necessary part of forming and expressing a coherent argument. It is the literary equivalent of showing your workings in maths: without it you leave your reader with the impression that you have plucked your idea out of the air. It also does away with the terror that so many of my students have, of not having enough points to make. I keep hearing "I don't know what to write" from students who have a highly sophisticated understanding of the text (or, in history, the period) but who now think that making the basic points is beneath them.

For parents, this is where you can help, particularly if your child is one of those who is clearly bright but seems to be missing the point. Get them to write you an exam answer and mark it, not as an examiner, but as someone who knows nothing about the topic at all. Ask them questions, point out where they are assuming prior knowledge and, crucially, allow them to explain it to you as if you are a simpleton (sorry). Students spend all their time developing and adding to their knowledge and forget that exams are a test of what they have already mastered, not a challenge to go further. Remind them that the examiner doesn't know what they know, has never met them, has no knowledge of the endless flashcards and mindmaps scattered all over their room. Just like in a driving test, where we jerk our heads over our shoulders before pulling away in a manner that would cause whiplash if we did it daily, we need to be unafraid to exaggerate to ensure clarity and never ever assume that because something is obvious, it doesn't need saying. Saying Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre out loud is the easiest way to show the examiner that we know what needs to be done.

And because I do try to practise what I preach, I will be blogging more frequently in the coming weeks, telling you things which may be bleeding obvious to some people but which deserve resaying anyway. We'll be covering revision, exam stress and writing and, if there is a topic you particularly want me to discuss, do let me know.

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