Sunday, 18 August 2013

Some pieces of paper are more important than others

I think I've started to write this post or something like it about 5 times, but I either scrap it or it becomes something else during writing. It's done it again to some extent, and the message I thought I'd sat down to write about was very different to the final post that I've just re-read. That's one of the fascinating things about writing a blog - you think you have this amazing, powerful argument for something groundbreaking and then you write it down to realise it's a bit of a generic rant. Hopefully this has turned into something more worthwhile in the writing!

An old assembly
After finishing my A-levels I did a year out in industry before going to University. As part of the training I did during this year I went back to one of my old schools to do an assembly for the students about to start their GCSEs.

The assembly went roughly like this:

I held up a £10 note and asked the students what I was holding - obviously they all said "ten pounds" (hardly a challenge). We then got into a bit of a discussion about the fact that it was actually just a piece of paper, but society had attached an extra value to the specific printing and format of that piece of paper. If I took another piece of paper and wrote £10 on it then the value doesn't follow it. The message I was trying to send from this is that some pieces of paper are more important than others as society attaches a particular value to them.

Having then quickly established that all of the students (and the watching staff) wanted to have lots of £10 notes in their futures, the students suggested that the best way to do this was to get a good job, and we linked that to good qualifications. From there I steered the discussion towards my newly received A-level certificates. Again I was emphasising that they are all just pieces of paper, but the information on them and what it means to society makes them more important than some other pieces of paper. These certificates (pieces of paper) had helped me to secure a university place, and my plan was that this in turn would allow me to get a good job and earn lots of £10 notes.

In summing up I tried to emphasise the need for the students to work hard in their new school to maximise the value of all of their bits of paper to give them the best chance of having lots of £10 notes.

Important bits of paper stand up to time
I'll fully acknowledge that the assembly I've just described was a bit clumsy and heavily contrived - I was only 19 years old after all! However at various points in my life, and even more so since I have been a teacher, I keep coming back to the fact that we build our society around certain pieces of paper.

Beyond the A-levels I was able to talk about when I was 19 I now have my degree certificates, chartered engineer accreditation, teaching qualifications, marriage certificate, birth certificates of by children, and I could go on. Each one is technically just a piece of paper, but in its own way has a value way beyond that. Critically these pieces of paper endure over time and stand as proof of certain events even if the detail of the events themselves fade from memory.

For example, I have a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Bristol. To get this I studied topics such as thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, solid mechanics, systems and control, electronics, and several more that don't spring immediately to mind. I took exams in these topics at various points during the course, and I graduated in 1999 with a certificate stating that I achieved first class honors.

I understood the course well at the time and given my results it is clear that I was able to demonstrate this in an exam, however if you now presented me with almost any of the questions I faced back then I would struggle. I can recall some small bits of information on some topics, but the vast majority has been forgotten due to the fact I stopped using it after finishing my degree (even though I immediately took up a job as an engineer)

Importantly though the qualification represented by my degree certificate (piece of paper) doesn't fade with time - it still has the same impact and value on every job or course application form I have ever completed. While my school qualifications, degree certificates and professional accreditations didn't actually secure any of my engineering or teaching jobs on their own, they were there as evidence when I completed the application forms (more bits of paper) that got me shortlisted.

What all of this demonstrates is that though my working knowledge of the subjects I've earned certificates for may have diminished, I have hard proof that I achieved a specified standard at some point in the past. This proof (piece of paper) has a value in society much greater than the detail of the topics needed to gain the certificates in the first place.

Hard evidence
What I'm getting at is that I think it is important to remember that when a student leaves our care the key thing they take with them as hard evidence of our impact on their life is the exam certificate we help them to achieve. This will be the case so long as society attaches a long term value to these pieces of paper.

Yes schools do so much more than just create exam results, and of course it's not always just about the grade, but grades are often the core currency of a student's future. Of course I hope that I encourage students to be interested in maths, and to be the best people they can be in the future. However if I've not also maximised their grade using whatever tools I have available to me then I've let them down in some way.

In 5 years time it is unlikely that anyone could tell based on hard evidence if that particular person was taught to the test or studied a broad and rich curriculum. They may also have just scraped their grade or just missed out on the grade above. The past student may well have forgotten how to add fractions, use the cosine rule and have thrown away their scientific calculator. They might have discovered that trick I showed them as an act of desparation to solve a particular type of exam question stops working when they apply it in all other contexts. Or they might realise why I forced them to derive that formula so that they knew where it had come from, even though it wasn't part of the exam.

Whatever route was taken to the qualification (be it educationally awesome or awful), the piece of paper it gives to the student is the thing that lasts the longest; it could well be of more future value to them than all the skills they used in order to earn it.

Most importantly
I intend to celebrate successes and learn from any disappointments. Then I'll consider how I can best help next year's cohort - their pieces of paper are still blank!

As always all thoughts welcome!

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