Unsubstantiated enthusiasm

A British parent complains in The Telegraph that students are trained to write essays with no imagination, lest they lose marks on their exams.

My daughter had to do a précis of Macbeth. After mentioning Malcolm’s coronation at Scone, we encouraged her to follow her instincts. She ended her essay with: “Somewhere on a distant heath, the witches are laughing” – which we thought was a terrific insight. The homework came back with the sentence crossed out. She was told that it was not in the play and therefore not her business to suggest that it should be.

The children repeatedly tell their literature-loving parents not to interfere. One says, “No – please stop intruding. Examiners look on that kind of unsubstantiated enthusiasm as just bouncing up and down and woofing.”

Another Telegraph story reports on a headmaster who’s decided to ban homework as well as subject matter teaching. Patrick Hazlewood wants to make schooling more “relevant to life in the 21st century” by giving students responsibility for “managing their own learning.” St. John’s is testing methods developed by the Royal Society for the Arts, “which rejects the notion that a teacher’s job is to transmit a body of knowledge to pupils.”

The project aims instead to encourage pupils to “love learning for its own sake” and the project is intended to replace the “information-led, subject-driven” national curriculum with one based on “competences for learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information.”

The point of schooling, the RSA says, is to acquire competence not subject knowledge. It believes that exams only impede pupils’ progress.

The headmaster wants parents “to become pro-active partners in the process,” but it sounds like they weren’t consulted.

About Joanne


  1. Of course he shouldn’t have done this without first getting buy-in. The concept, though, is pretty sound; that’s one of the driving forces behind homeschooling.

  2. Of course he shouldn’t have done this without first getting buy-in. The concept, though, is pretty sound; that’s one of the driving forces behind homeschooling.

  3. When I had to take composition exams in Maryland (a high school graduation requirement), we were taught to keep to the prompt, be straightforward, and no literary innovations. It was a standardized test, after all – not a submission to a literary magazine. These were competency exams — their only point was to make sure that those leaving high school could write coherent, 5-paragraph essays.

    So we did our 5-paragraph essays and passed. Just as we had to do those math competency exams that didn’t even cover algebra. It’s entirely equivalent.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I seem to recall a scene in Pinochio where they did this very thing.

  5. About the second part of the item: the abolition of homework and the having students “take responsibility for their own education”

    “Taking responsibility” is all well and good if you are mature enough to look at the long-term consequences as well as short-term enjoyment. However, even at the college where I teach people who are technically adults, a goodly proportion of the population (even in the sciences) would take no math, no chemistry, no “hard courses” were they not required to. (And when I was a college student: I saw some of the best minds of my generation led astray by the siren call of “General Studies,” where you could design your own major and therefore potentially avoid taking classes that would add up to a cohesive sort of degree, where you actually knew a fair amount about a particular topic, in the end)

    Allowing younger (and presumably less mature) students to be “responsible” for their own education is kind of like turning a seven year old loose in the grocery store with thirty bucks and a gentle admonition to not spend it all on candy and pop.


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