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Fifties rigour is old hat, and that's a fact

Rote learning has no value without understanding: I should know, says James Williams

Rote learning has no value without understanding: I should know, says James Williams

In 2005 I taught a 1950s curriculum and set an O-level exam for the Channel 4 series That'll Teach 'Em. It was an eye-opener. Some 30 16-year-olds were transported to a 1950s school, where the dress, meals, curriculum, timetable and textbooks were authentic. The teaching techniques were as close as we could get to the era: lots of rote learning with no discussion about meaning or understanding.

A 1950s syllabus comprised no more than a few pages of key concepts. It was left to teachers to decide how they would impart the knowledge. That is what 1950s education was all about, pupils as empty vessels to be "filled" with knowledge. It was transmission teaching at its worst. I taught the names and parts of various bones, how to draw and label a cross section through skin or the structure of the ear, all devoid of context. Ultimately, some of the pupils could reel off facts, but scratch the surface and they did not display much understanding about what they were learning or why they needed to know it.

Modern-day politicians hark back to O levels, saying the new exams will be "rigorous", but they never define rigour. It can mean harshness and severity, or accuracy and precision - thoroughness, even. Does this mean the exam will test every bit of the specification? That would be thorough. Or will rigour come from a requirement to demonstrate recall of facts and figures, accurately and precisely? Alternatively, is rigour being equated with difficulty; the intention being to make the examinations more harsh or severe?

There is a proposed reduction in the use of teaching aids, too - for example, limited use of calculators and no periodic table for chemistry, no source material in history. All this leads me to think that memorising formulae for maths and physics or, as I did for my O-level chemistry, learning the first 20 chemical elements in order, will take on more significance. What about naming the wives and children of Henry VIII (a school certificate question from 1858)? Is this rigour?

Surely knowing equations or the order of elements is far less important than understanding how to use the equations or why the periodic table is constructed in the way it is?

What of the 1950s O levels we used in the television series? They are bad models for a 21st-century assessment. One word sums up why: language. The "rigour" of O level lay in whether the pupils could understand what the question was asking of them, rather than the cognitive demand of the question itself.

Take, for example, this 1956 O-level arithmetic question: "A field is bounded on two sides by straight hedges which meet at an angle of 63 degs. A triangular portion of this corner of the field is formed by erecting a straight fence which cuts off 45 yards from one of the two sides and makes an angle of 74 degs with this side. Find, to three significant figures, the length of fencing required and the area of the triangular portion so formed." The phrasing makes the question more complex than it should be.

A one-hour 1956 English language paper asks the candidate to write a composition on either "the night sky", "how much appearances matter" or "traffic congestion". It stresses the importance of spelling, punctuation and sentence construction. The idea of making it engaging, writing for a specific audience or in a particular style is absent. But today pupils are asked to think of such things when attempting creative writing, along with sentence structure, spelling and punctuation. Which is more rigorous?

The purpose of examination should be a holistic assessment of what someone knows, understands and can do. It is not just for people to show off what they have learned by heart with little understanding. I can recite Shakespearean passages learned for O level, but the meaning is now lost on me. The Shakespeare I still understand was performed in context on stage in the 1970s. I cannot recall all the Player King's lines from Hamlet, but I do understand what Hamlet is about.

Where Michael Gove is wrong is in his insistence that "knowing" equates to high standards. "Knowing" is a low-level skill. We have moved education on from simply knowing things to evaluating, synthesising and applying knowledge. Putting the brakes on higher-level thinking is missing the point of assessment in a spectacular way. Education is so much more than reciting poetry, quoting Shakespeare, naming elements and reeling off times tables.

That said, if this is where we are headed, we could take pride in producing a generation that is second to none in winning TV game shows and pub quizzes.

James Williams is a lecturer in education in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sussex.

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