August 2003. The exams Here are some extracts from essays in this year's English literature GCSE exam:
* "The poem consists of three stanzas and each stanza is a quatrain which is traditionally the most popular. The writer wants to give you the immediate impact of the language he is using.
"The first few lines give you the impression that the poem is very descriptive because of the language used. It deals with a lot of imagery and enjambment which gives you the impression that the language is very striking at the start of each line or stanza. The poet conveys enjambment well at the start of the poem."
* "It describes the oncomeing battel and then finally the battel itself. It has 10 ceasures in it. That is quite a lot for such a short powem, but they help to enthesize the sharp stegarto prosseedings of war. It is not a slow poem. It has lots of onshalment, as though the writer were writing it as it was happening..."
* "The very descriptive parts start from the very beginning. This helped create a picture in my mind. This picture was of what was happening in the story. The picture tells me that the words used in this extract are powerful just by the way these images are created."
* "Overall Owen's poem doesn't create any images, but is quite catchy mainly because it rhymes. The poem contains no similies, no onomatopoeia and at first glance I could not spot any personification either."
I'd like to believe comment on this nebulous drivel is superfluous, but these examples are only slightly more embarrassing than most responses in this exam. What is happening?
Obviously, we have the naming of parts. At no point is the totality of the poem grasped. To refer to anything in a war poem by Wilfred Owen as "catchy" is to be completely out of touch with its content and mood.
Another essay I have seen dealing with the same writer says: "The main aspect to notice in his poem is that it is a sonnet."
No, no, no! The main aspect to notice is the "pity of war", as Owen himself said. These candidates (from various schools) have been drilled in technique to the point where they have missed the point of literature altogether. Candidate 2's descent into a Jabberwockyesque collection of half-understood literary terms is particularly sad because there is an indication that heshe has something to say. "Sharp staccato proceedings" sounds rote learnt, but the candidate can obviously feel the moment-by-moment energy in the poem. Use of the subjunctive hints at more potential literacy than heshe can muster here, too.
Candidates 1 and 3 deploy the ubiquitous phrase "very descriptive".
Ingratiating students often compliment great authors for being "very descriptive". What a hollow term - the first sign of a candidate's lack of engagement. Neither can break out of a tornado of language. "Descriptive" words and the terms imagery or enjambment circle around, obscuring the subject matter they are supposed to reveal. And candidate 4's series of negatives succeeds in making the poem itself disappear altogether. In each case, the rote learning of figures of speech has stifled the candidate and betrayed the poem. What are the teachers doing? Let's see.
JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls is a popular GCSE text. It has a good mystery to "hook" the readeraudience and its sledgehammer dramatic ironies are accessible for 15-year-olds. The moralsocial content is also straightforward. Here is a teacher's Year 10 worksheet:
Explore the dramatic impact of the final sequence of An Inspector Calls Task: to write a close analysis, using quotes, of the play following the inspector's exit that demonstrates the following:
* The impact of the "inspector's" visit on the characters and how their various reactions develop following his departure.
* The way that JB Priestley uses language and dramatic technique to gradually reveal ambiguity about the nature of the "inspector" and the fate of "Eva SmithDaisy Renton" and the implied symbolism of these characters.
("STOP!" I hear you cry. "I can't follow all that." But it continues:)
* The comment that JB Priestley is making about society in his times (the 1940s) and the time the play is set (1912).
* The dramatic effect of Mr Birling's final speech.
I had to cover this lesson set. The kids were totally at sea. The target boxes on language, dramatic technique and socialhistorical context had all been ticked and the pupils left to pay hurried lip service to each. And they had to be fed the answers because, in their confusion, fear and anger, they closed their minds. The results were similar to the exam answers.
The essay title is a stimulating one. Kids mind-mapping that would come up with some interesting ideas, I've no doubt. But they don't get a chance.
Not only are all the ideas provided by the teacher, they are so random that they make us forget the title, which asks only for a close analysis of the scene. The instructions cover two social contexts, metaphorical speculations and personal response. In other words, three essays are needed. Bewildering abstractions ("ambiguity", "symbolism") interrupt the reading of the question and confuse further. One boy said: "I've got so many things going around in my mind, I've forgotten everything."
An essay should be coherent, not fragmented. I'm not sure I could get started on this one. The teacher is frightened of failing to fulfil the requirements of the course. Fear has made himher stupid. Look at the piling up of abstractions in the second bullet point. It screams panic. The desperation and stupidity are passed on to pupils, who then dumb down, lose initiative and become resentful.
This moving from the abstract to the particular has become common. I covered a history lesson for 12-year-olds which set the following task for studying the Spanish Armada:
Describe the reasons why Philip II sent the Armada. Consider:
* religious reasons;
* economic reasons;
* political reasons.
I had to explain each category. The "economic" reasons were simply Drake's raids on treasure-laden Spanish galleons. The politics were so confused with religious issues that one did not know how to separate them. One boy said seriously: "I didn't know they had politics in them days."
Why use the abstract terms in the first place? The three-point list fragments the response to a question that ought to be simple to comprehend.
It also falsifies the subject matter. The three reasons are not separate but interconnected. Twelve-year-olds can easily cope with the facts involved in this categorical complexity, but breaking it down in this way confuses and inhibits them. Wouldn't it be daring and good to change the title from "Describe the reasons..." to "Tell the story of why Philip sent the Armada". All the separate "reasons" would come into play, weaving in and out of each other in the way a story allows.
In an English lesson I covered, 11-year-olds had to worry over the "opening, development, conflict and resolution" of a story without even thinking about its content. Once again, the teaching started with concepts instead of concrete or emotional details with which the children could identify. The story itself was good. The children were bored, but set about retrieving the information needed to fit under the headings. Once again, they needed a lot of help. Since when did force-feeding concepts improve standards in education?
Children see life in close-up. They assemble detail. They don't abstract or look for an overview until much later on, when they have acquired a ground-base of knowledge. All the above exercises are inviting them to conceptualise before they are qualified to do so. They are inviting pupils to practise the kind of fakery, or "bullshit", as the Americans say, that we saw in the exam extracts. Which is why, when I was in the middle of marking 400 exam answers that were no better than pallid regurgitations of teachers' notes, I cheered when I came to the front page of this answer booklet:
English literature GCSE
"Why do you have to study books? Why not music lyrics or videos or good plays?"
"I'm worst at what I do best and for this gift I feel blessed. A little child I've always been and always will until the end. God save the Queen and her fascist rayesem that made you a mourone. I do not agree with the capisits system which has to have stupid exams to decide my future. Anarcky in the UK!"
In the box for the examiner's initials he had written one word: "Useless".
He wrote no more and got 0 for the exam. He was, of course, in the wrong.
He was a naughty boy. He should have taken his work and the exams more seriously. But I would really like to meet him, shake his hand and say:
"Jonathan, you failed brilliantly."
This is the concluding extract from Failed Better, a book by Philip Hume, who writes under a pseudonym. He has yet to find a publisher. Contact him at: email@example.com