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27 June 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

Beyond straight “A“s

Exam-factory schools are churning out model students who can achieve faultless results - but lack an

By Susan Greenfield

University selection is a painful process these days – and not just for the candidates. Puzzling over piles of faultless applications from would-be students, what can a university tutor look for that differentiates one from another? What interests me, as one who used to sit through year after year of interviews with applicants for admission to study medicine at Oxford, is that we are running out of selection criteria.

Let’s leave aside the troubled question of whether standards at A-level are falling, and ponder the inevitable consequence of so many students being predicted – and obtaining – top grades. Scanning the forms, I used to be dismayed to see just how apparently renaissance these young men and women were: not only had they engaged in appropriate extramural activities that complemented their calling, but on top of that they were inevitably brilliant at debating, captains of sports teams or leading lights in the drama society. It was amazing that they could have fitted everything in to the school day.

So what could I look for at interview that would differentiate these stars? What critical qualities had somehow eluded the very exacting questions in application dossiers that already went beyond the faultless academic track records?

It became easier once the candidate had entered the room. I was often surprised at the mismatch between the assured, stellar performance that was recorded on paper and the persona of the individual facing me. First was the sadly detectable recourse to pre-prepared answers: “I would like to be a doctor, because I would like to combine science with working with people.” This response was all too predictable among girls, for whom it had clearly been implanted as an article of faith that working with people was a Good Thing, and appropriately feminine. Challenged why anyone would want to be a “people person”, they responded with a sad half-smile, a nervous giggle, a shrug or a whispered “I just do”. This would have been the time for a truly desirable candidate to come through with a truly original answer. And therein lies the problem.

What the education mill has somehow ground down is that ineffable spark which can make teaching, at least tutorial teaching at university level, such a joy. How I used to long, sitting in on interviews, to get a whiff of curiosity – someone who came back with a question or rejoinder, someone with whom one could iterate a problem, tossing it backwards and forwards in true Socratic dialogue. I know that it’s a tall order for an 18-year-old to engage in argument with some smug, middle-aged don, holding their future in their omnipotent hands. But it could and did occasionally happen. What I knew I was after was someone who found that, in the words of the American satirist James Thurber: “It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.”

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If someone knows all the answers, has the oven-ready response off pat, then just how teachable are they going to be? Are they going to benefit from dialogues, from the kinds of learning situation that characterise the best in university education? Curiosity is what drives everything else. If someone has the ability, tenacity and talent to ask the right questions and persist in doing so, until they get to the bottom of a problem, much else will follow. After all, they will be able to research on their own, pursuing their own lines of inquiry, perhaps coming up with original or new thoughts, but certainly challenging dogma and accepted wisdom. Surely this, in turn, lies in the hearts of true academics, and it is this kind of attitude that is needed first to advance our knowledge and then to apply it.

So what do you need to be curious? Presumably, above all, one needs to have sight of some more distant goal, beyond the mere step to which the fact or finding takes you. You know how to push an idea further, to say “So what?” Next you need to build a bigger picture, put your latest fact into a larger wall. You need to have a sense of a larger framework, a bigger concept.

And if curiosity needs a big framework, a large canvas, a wide landscape, then it follows that it is in the earlier years of education that we must paint such a big picture. My own view is that these large canvases/landscapes/pictures are not well served by the current application of IT in the classroom. Quite the opposite. Sadly, we see touted on the telly revision reduced to “bite-sized” pieces, so that they are “digestible”. Isn’t this the very opposite of what we should be after – not the learning of facts piecemeal, digesting them one for one, but instead relating them one to the other? We want something monolithic, awesome, something you nibble at, chew and mull over, rather than just compartmentalise into boxes that you tick to get through an exam.

Exams, instead of being a means to an end, are becoming the end in themselves. In extreme cases, one might view schools as exam factories, with the product being the all-important straight “A” grades. But to be successful, products need appropriate markets and ideally for demand to exceed supply; neither of these criteria is being met by the glut of students with straight “A”s. Moreover, as more young people gain unfettered access to computer screens, the temptation will become even greater to meander around hypertexting, without a clear narrative – as would once have been imposed by the authors of a book. And given that one can have such a sensory feast at the touch of a button, then perhaps the onslaught on ears and eyes will become premium over reflection, over looking up from the dry and static printed page.

If this current generation is living in an avalanche of answer-rich, question-poor inputs, and if we dons are faced with everyone being “above average”, faultless, yet lacking curiosity, then we are heading towards a rather bizarre disconnect between what is taught and what we need and value.

Surely we should be determining how we are going to bring back a scenario where young people have the confidence to risk being wrong. They should be taught in an environment where there is no problem in seeming stupid, and asking endless questions, and where they have time to venture down intellectual cul-de-sacs, to explore unlikely possibilities, to weigh up alternatives and, above all, to work out for themselves a framework within which they view the world.

Baroness Greenfield is professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and director of the Royal Institution

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