Saturday, 14 October 2017

#27: exam

‘Exam’ is not exactly a dirty word among liberal educationalists, but the idea of testing people and ranking their performance is viewed with suspicion by many, despite decades of research into how to assess academic performance and today’s fairly true-to-life exam tasks in many subjects. 

For example, in Museum Studies courses I have worked on, students may have to mount an exhibition, design questionnaires, assess a workshop and carry out many other practical things likely to be just as much help in future jobs as researching, clarifying and expressing ideas by means of an essay (also a much maligned task, which I will look at in a future blog post).
So, as someone who plans to take an exam of her own free will (Spanish B2) here I would like to list a few reasons to – not exactly love them, but to appreciate what they do:

1.     They make students work. That old and good pedagogical command ‘focus on learning and not teaching’ is a constant reminder that activities, materials and curricula should have that as an end goal. I wonder sometimes how much time is spent on improving teaching as compared to encouraging and enabling learning, and if teachers spend too much time on the former (since it is under teachers’ control). The powerful stick or carrot of an exam are as valuable for the work the student does in preparation, as for the achievement afterwards.

2.     They are a target to aim at. Learning a language is in some ways an endless process, but an exam is an achievable objective.

3.     They test things which may not come up in other contexts. Imperfect subjunctive, anyone? Exams are a wider context to use skills and knowledge that you might never get the opportunity to in real life.

4.     At least in language exams, they are one of the few contexts where accuracy is important. Once you can make yourself understood, people you talk to are unlikely to correct your language mistakes. An exam makes you attend to your verb endings and prepositions.

5.     A qualification is evidence which is standardised across industries, countries or universities. For example, the A1-C2 language scale is from the Common European Framework of Reference for modern languages (CEFR).

6.     They can powerfully improve your work or higher education prospects. Some people say they shouldn’t, but they are a kind of shorthand which contributes to your overall educational or professional profile.

Rejection of exams just won’t wash for all subjects. Would you like to be seen by a doctor who had failed their medical exams, or be on the road alongside people who had failed their driving test? Obviously exams can’t cover all the skills needed in any profession, but are a standardised indication of competence. So I'm not sure why language competence should be exempt from examination.

‘Any critical approach to education… is bound to take a sceptical view of exams, whether viewed as a measure of achievement and potential, or in the context of their potentially limiting impact on teaching.’ So says Scott Thornbury, an education theorist I admire, whose language teaching blog is the best I have come across.

But do exams always have to have a limiting impact? Can they not sharpen and expand the range of areas which students study?

Thornbury, S. and Meddings, L. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

#26: Airport

Aerial photo of Heathrow airport, 1955 
 The National Archives UK - Heathrow StarOur Cat ref: BT 219/115

Last week I passed through one of those strange distorted worlds on the edge of space-time: an airport. Distorted because they exaggerate some aspects of life and make others disappear. Take your identity – you are either a potential security risk (when you arrive) or a conspicuous consumer (once through the gates). There’s not much middle ground. 

For example, at Malaga airport as soon as you have put your creams, liquids and gels back in your bag you are greeted by the (presumably) surgically-enhanced breasts on a giant-sized Victoria’s Secret model pictured outside the lingerie shop bang on the other side of the barrier, before having to walk the sparkly floor of the perfume mall.

There’s not much sign of organic life there, unless you count the lettuce in the bocadillos or the sparrows hopping among the tables (how did they get in? Will they ever get out?).

Dimensions are also distorted at airports. Tempers are shorter (or mine is at least – not sure why, maybe it’s constantly being told what to do, combined with tiredness). People seem fatter. Prices are about three times higher.

So how would I improve them? Book exchange? No – can’t leave unattended objects. Public pianos, like at St Pancras? Not with a captive audience – you can’t walk away if you don’t like the music, as at a station. Free language-learning apps to get a few phrases for your destination? You can already get them – Busuu, say, which actually has an option for travel language, or Duolingo. Nooks where you can sit, un-advertised at? There are some, usually those large window ledges but also at the departure gates. More greenery? Yes, I think so. Stand-up computer display booths with info about local wildlife and culture? Yes, why not – just something uncommercial!

Maybe feeling like an item on a conveyor belt is the price to be paid for efficient, cheap international travel. The logistics behind managing an airport are incredible. And airports have to pay their way somehow. You don’t have to buy anything, after all. Still, I wouldn’t mind a few more plants – maybe even scented ones, to compete with the clouds of synthetic scent to be navigated at the beginning of every trip.

Malaga airport ©2015