We've bred a generation unable to think

6th February 2009 at 00:00
An animal-behaviour expert says schools' failure to prepare pupils for university has left them lacking basic skills

For any animal, including ourselves, the transition to independence is a major challenge. For many young people, the move away from school to higher education is the beginning of freedom - which for them is a major attraction of university. Freedom to drink, to have sex, to spend, to select which courses to take - and to decide whether or not to attend them. Managing all this freedom is not a trivial task, and getting it right can make the difference between academic success and failure.

University is not a continuation of school. In recent years there has been concern over the increasing mismatch between the two, with universities sometimes complaining that schools fail to prepare pupils for university adequately, and schools complaining that universities fail to make allowances for new undergraduates.

I have taught various aspects of biology at university level for the past 30 years, and while I still cannot tell you what proportion of responsibility for the state of higher education performance lies with parents, teachers or university faculty, I can discuss what I consider to be some general issues, and those that relate to my own subject.

The most striking thing about some undergraduates is their dependence, their lack of initiative and their reluctance to think for themselves.

This is reflected in their often-shocking inability to engage in intellectual conversation and to organise their thoughts in writing.

New undergraduates seem to expect to be told what to do at every stage. It is almost as though the spoon-feeding-and-teaching-to-the-test culture at school has drained them of independent thought.

Those lucky enough to have had a year out before coming to university are usually much better in this respect.

I believe this dependency to be a consequence of two things. First, the reluctance of many parents to give their children the freedom to find things out for themselves as they are growing up.

Second, the national curriculum prescribing exactly what is to be learnt and, in so doing, often eliminating the discovery process from learning. If there is any discovery, it is so sanitised by health and safety that any pedagogical effect is lost.

The difficulty new undergraduates have in expressing themselves in writing is especially obvious in biology. When I ask the students in my tutor group to write an essay, many excuse themselves beforehand by saying that they haven't written anything of any length for at least two years and hence have largely forgotten how.

Similarly, if I ask new tutees about the last book they read, it isn't unusual to see a wave of fear flash across their faces. In desperation, one recently proffered The Three Billy Goats Gruff (which I remember reading, so I could at least quiz them on it): I hope they were joking, but they may have been serious. Some, of course, have read a lot - much of which is relevant to their degree.

Reading and writing tend to go together and girls are usually much better than boys in both regards. Literacy test passes in schools may be rising, but the ability of university students to write is still often very poor*. A major change is needed at government level to rectify this.

Why does it matter whether biologists, or other scientists, can write? The answer is because writing, and writing well, is the key to success in many university science courses and vital in any job. A large proportion of university assessments rely on undergraduates preparing coherent, unambiguous written accounts of experiments, field course exercises, research projects or reviews of the literature.

Professional scientists, and those who teach undergraduates, have to be able to write - the notion of "publish or perish" is still true, and clear writing still means clear thinking. When I mark tutorial essays today, most of my comments focus on the quality of the writing.

Obtaining facts is so easy via the internet. There is rarely a problem with the factual content, but producing a well-structured, cogent argument in good English seems to be a major challenge. They also find it challenging to learn the importance of the - admittedly quirky - rules of scientific writing: attributing facts and ideas to particular researchers and citing references in the text, for example.

This isn't academic trivia: our goal is to train undergraduates to be professionals. And these issues are not peculiar to biology.

With the right guidance and motivation, writing can be mastered. A more serious obstacle facing new undergraduates (and sometimes old ones, too) is thinking for themselves. Not in terms of day-to-day survival, but intellectually.

I recently suggested elsewhere that an A-level in "thinking for myself" ought to be a requirement for university entrance, at least in some disciplines. No such A-level exists, but I was surprised to learn that one called critical thinking does. It is a course of which few of my colleagues and schoolteacher friends were aware. Wondering whether this might be little more than airy-fairy twaddle, I obtained the latest specifications and a selection of text books, and was duly impressed.

It is reassuring that some schools already offer the critical thinking ASA-level. A qualification in that subject, alongside regular A-levels, would be a huge bonus and would go some way towards making the transition between school and university more satisfying all round.

* See the Royal Literary Fund Report on Student Writing in Higher Education at http:www.rlf.org.ukfellowshipschemeresearch.cfm

Tim Birkhead

Professor of behavioural ecology and teacher of animal behaviour and history of science at the University of Sheffield.

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