I’ll be honest: I’m a dinosaur.
Or at least that’s what I’m labeled by the progressives who make so much noise in the field of education. To them, teachers like me are throwbacks, anachronisms, conservative reactionaries, Sisypheans who roll the rock of futility up (and, like me, over) the hill. I also suspect we might be targets if “21st century learning” becomes more than just a fad.
All of this I’ve learned to live with. I’ve learned to live with the disconcerting discrepancy between my larger political views (as a social democrat) and a teacher-centered education philosophy that is championed by right-wing think tanks and American anti-labour education reformers. I’m still figuring out how a teacher-centered approach is necessarily conservative – Why would they want to empower teachers? – but that’s how things have developed in the last few decades. In any case, I carry on as a teacher who’s embraced education and technology and created student-centered lesson plans, but who also believes that 21st century learning is unlikely to gain wide adoption (and might also be a con job).
So what does this have to do with provincial exams? Well, two weeks ago the B.C. government announced that the optional Grade 12 academic exams would no longer be offered. This was the final stage of a multi-year plan to phase out the Grade 12 “provincials”: first they were made optional for graduation, then they became optional for university entrance, and then they withered into irrelevancy as nobody wrote them. Though many progressives (especially in the Twittersphere) have welcomed the official demise of the exams, I am saddened by their passing. To me, the Grade 12 exams were an important bastion of education standards; their loss is a loss for all of us who believe that intellectual criteria and academic rigour are more important than the current reductive obsession of modern education, high school completion. As a dinosaur with lots of fight left, I offer the following as specific reasons for lamenting the loss of the provincials:
- They were good exams – I have taught three courses that featured provincial exams: History 12, English 12 and English Literature 12. Over the decades, these provincial exams were written, marked and updated with the help of hundreds of teachers throughout the province. Not only was this an excellent form of professional development, but it also led to well-written and balanced assessments that accurately reflected what was going on in the classroom. I firmly believe that these exams, especially History 12 and English Literature 12, were excellent forms of assessment. They combined reading, writing, critical thinking and content in a very effective manner. They included balanced multiple choice questions, paragraphs, essays, and primary document analyses. [History 12, for example, included a conceptual essay, three paragraphs, and multiple written responses to primary sources. Combined, these were worth more than the multiple choice.] Were they perfect? Of course not. But they were probably the highest quality assessment that students would encounter in their schooling. So I had no problem “teaching to the test”, because if my students did well on the exams, they had clearly learned a great deal about the particular discipline. It is therefore lamentable that the exam for English 12 (arguably the least rigourous of the three courses) is the only one that remains.
- I think the current Grade 10 (science, math and English) and 11 (social studies) provincial exams, worth 20% of the course mark, have yet to find their “balance”, though they may in the future. Their focus on multiple choice questions, a notable lack of exemplars, and the absence of widespread teacher input remain their greatest weaknesses. And I wonder if it makes any sense to move the pressure from Grade 12 to Grade 11 and 10.
- They were a hedge against grade inflation and lower standards: It already started to happen once the exams became a voluntary part of high school graduation, and especially once they were no longer a mandatory part of university entrance. Now the pressure on teachers to inflate grades, and to reduce the demands of these “exam” courses, is palpable. I can offer no definitive evidence, but I’ve received an overwhelming amount of anecdotal feedback from high school teachers and university professors that these problems have greatly intensified. As both a high school teacher and a sessional university instructor, I can tell you that this is my own experience, too. In History 12, for example, I’ve started teaching students (mostly males) who, in the past, would not have taken the course. I’m all for inclusion, but these same new students are angry – quite literally, outraged – that they have to write so many essays (four) in the course.* They don’t like writing essays, and they’re not going to university, so why should they write essays??? Some of the recent emails I’ve received from students (and their parents) would amaze you. At this point, I’m still holding the fort. I’m stubborn, and I still perceive the course as university preparation. But time will tell if I wilt… like other teachers who have admitted to such pressure.
- They assessed something valuable and stable – The exams were a stark reminder of something we seem to be forgetting: content matters. I’m sorry, I know I’m going to offend some people, but the idea that content doesn’t matter is utter twaddle. I’m shocked by how many times I have heard the argument, especially from administrators and education “experts”. The Premier’s Technology Council explains this point of view quite succinctly: “The system must place greater emphasis on the learning of skills over the learning of content. The content relevant to a student’s interests is constantly changing and growing so students will have to continue learning new things throughout their life. Instruction should more consistently focus on the skills required to find and use relevant content rather than on the delivery of pre-determined content.” Let’s think about this. I have no doubt that much information and data has changed and will change over the coming years. But have the classics of English Literature changed greatly? Are the techniques of rhetoric, argumentation and grammar suddenly different? Are the histories of Fascist Italy and Germany, or any history for that matter, merely random and subjective? Are the elements of Confederation or the Constitution Act (1982) so unstable as to be worthless fields of study? How about biology, physics and chemistry? Have the contents of these disciplines changed so drastically in the last few decades that we should just Google them when needed? As an educator, I see myself as a guardian (and interpreter) of something incredibly valuable: a rich cultural and intellectual inheritance that we all share as Canadians and global citizens. Of course, this legacy can change and evolve, but this evolution is usually fairly slow; the topics above are not “constantly changing”. And before they do, this legacy not only defines us as citizens, but also allows us to have a common conversation; if we only allow for “content relevant to a student’s interests”, are we not encouraging a highly fragmented society in which pop culture is the only thing we have in common?
- Important skills were taught, within a necessary realm of content -I find the distinction between skills and content fairly juvenile. Yes, they are conceptually distinct, but any experienced teacher knows that skills are taught within a particular realm of content. Knowledge, as I see it, is the exercise of intellectual skills within a field of study. In the three courses above, for example, detecting bias was (and is) an extremely important skill. So how do we teach students this skill? To begin with, we examine content and compare it to other content. So students need to “know their stuff” before critical comparisons and detection of differences can illuminate potential bias. You need to think critically about something. Or, as the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham reminds us, ” The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge).” It also helps to have a common knowledge base, so dialogue between learners can have meaningful points of reference.
- They built confidence – In an age where a student’s self-esteem appears to be based on endless praise and the avoidance of failure, the old provincial exams built confidence in the time-honoured manner: students earned it. The exams, and the courses designed to prepare students for the exams, were challenging and demanding, just like real life. The exams were worth a significant percentage – 40%. Nevertheless, for students with decent academic skills and a good work ethic, the exams were entirely reasonable. It was a privilege to work hard for students who themselves were working hard, because they realized there was no substitute for a good effort. We didn’t have lots of fun, but we did have a great degree of satisfaction. And, at the end of the year, the students’ sense of satisfaction from a job well done was an incredibly rewarding experience for me. I knew they had the knowledge and the confidence to move to the next phase of their lives.
There are probably other reasons to lament (or celebrate) the demise of the Grade 12 exams, so I’d like to hear your thoughts.