Why it's time to forget about exams

It's a bittersweet time of year for us educationalists. On the one hand there's the faint tinge of sadness as we watch our young people moving on to their next chapter - the overwhelming feeling is of course immense pride at their achievements but I shall miss this year's cohort especially; the student who introduced me to new novels; the student whose writing suddenly burst into clear, flowing, erudite prose; the student who stopped saying "I don't know" and started saying "maybe it's..."; the student who laughed at my jokes... - but on the other hand there is the sudden heady rush of freedom as time becomes available and plans that have been neglected now get a chance to be enacted.


This year my plans are about resources and I began compiling a collection of short stories, short extracts of journalism and pieces of prose which my English students could use. I began looking for pieces that could conceivably be used as the basis for exam style analysis. Then, inevitably, I got distracted. My desk is now a teetering pile of random books and magazines. I have accidentally been sucked into short stories by Highsmith and Kafka; journalism on Soviet mysteries and sewage; biographies of Rasputin, Simone de Beauvoir, James II, Joan of Arc. I am overwhelmed with all the possible things that we could investigate and talk about and analyse and evaluate and, above all, LEARN!


I love this. This is the indulgent part of my job, where I get to just sink into reading and absorb before turning my findings into lessons and learning opportunities for my students. Sometimes I feel a little bit guilty that I am sat here having so much fun when I'm supposed to be working and then I remember - this is the point! My lessons are not about exams as such - success in exams is a by-product of what we do - they are about the skills we need to navigate the information and language that is thrown at us every day. It is about learning to read widely, think deeply, analyse critically and be willing to change your mind. It is about expressing an argument coherently and concisely; knowing what information will support your point and what is irrelevant; recognising the perspectives of others and your own.


These skills are sometimes referred to as soft skills but they're not really. They are HARD and they require constant attention. Possessing these skills will lead to exam success but, much more importantly, they enable students to live a life of enquiry, thoughtfulness, and growth. Forget about the exams. Go and read a book.


Some Things I'm Reading....


Henry James - Portrait of a Lady. Not the easiest book ever and, frankly, not my usual taste (I tend to find stories about which rich person should marry which other rich person rather dull) but an interesting view of the role of women, the impact of money and the differences between the American and English cultures of the nineteenth century.


George Orwell - Road to Wigan Pier. Can't believe I haven't read this all the way through before. A fascinating investigation into the lives of the working classes in the early part of the twentieth century.


Helen Lewis - Difficult Women. It's been sat on my shelf for some time but this is great fun and a pleasingly angry history of feminism which looks at the battles women have faced from the perspective of a range of different issues.


The New Yorker - anything. Probably the best long form journalism available. The magazine includes poetry, short fiction and long investigative pieces and interviews.



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