Tom Bennett on A-level results: 'A project of learned helplessness'

24th July 2015 at 12:06

A-level results day is the great leveller; it is the armageddon of the A-level laboratory, the day when, after two years of kids saying they "can't be bovvered" to come in to school, suddenly they are bovvered and it's all "Oh my days I can’t sleep". For a teacher, it’s an alchemy of anticipation and repulsion because, short of a Tardis and a box of dynamite, there’s no way to change the outcome. Like an arrow, the future is in the air; now all we can do is see where it lands.

For control freaks and the anxious, teaching A-levels is a peculiar project of learned helplessness. We possess, without question, the capacity to get students through academic GCSEs if they are willing to walk the tightrope using the exact steps you suggest. But by A-level, your ability to direct and spoon feed starts to dissolve, as it should. If your subject has any form of meaningful content, it shouldn’t be possible to lead the students by the nose into success. For possibly the first time in their academic careers, students cannot river dance over the C boundary by merely attending to your lessons. They actually have to work beyond the classroom. This is, of course, terrifying and unsatisfactory. It is the harbinger, the very Elijah to your emergent ulcer.

Some students take to A-levels as if they have been waiting for them all of their lives – they are chrysalises of maturity and intellectual rigour and dexterity. Others have to be dragged into the world of advanced grades like cartoon cats. Most begin amenably enough, cowed and unsure of the redrawn boundaries; homework, reading and notes are returned with as much punctuality as in key stage 4. But gradually new habits develop. Freedom is both a stimulant and an intoxicant; some students soar outside the aviary, others blunder into branches and end up experts in nothing more than morning television and composing imaginative excuses for attendance.

And this is how the cocktail of anxiety and optimism is mixed and shaken: so much of their success is now down solely to character and understanding that no one will tie a bib on them and wipe the apple puree from their chins anymore; they have to learn things, finally. And in order to do that they have to display perspicacity, not in one great gasp at the end, but with the dull, ungroovy persistence of habit, developed over months and months – which is millennia in student years.

As their mentors, we can see where the plates will fall long before they do. By the end of the first term of AS, you could probably plan a probability graph of how long it will take them to achieve escape velocity, or be dragged into the gravity of a dying star. This is where the conversations come from; the ones that begin, “If you carry on the way you’re going…” And because teenagers are immortal, invulnerable, and free from gravity and time, they nod and say “we understand,” when what they mean is: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Is it lunchtime?”

And, of course, we do understand. Sometimes terrifyingly – because if you’re any kind of teacher you’ll give a damn how they do – we understand more even than they do. Teenagers are possessed of two characteristics that harrow and grieve any adult that cares about them: the intuitive certainty of their own autonom and the inability to grasp the perils inherent in that liberty. These qualities find their feet in the two ages they straddle; emergent adulthood and receding childhood. And we stand, as ever, as guardians and gatekeepers against disaster.

But some lessons cannot be taught by instruction; they require demonstration and empirical verification. Children have to make mistakes in order to become adults. Much as we might wish they wouldn’t make them in our classes, all we can do is point out clear paths and get ready with the stretchers when they unicycle off cliff edges.

And sometimes they manage just fine. Sometimes they even amaze us. That’s the burden – and the benediction – of the best job in the world.

Good luck getting some sleep the night before.


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