O for a draught of vintage! (Or: Bring back POAE!)

O for a draught of vintage! that hath been

Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth

— John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 was long remembered and became a byword. Indeed a generation later one might hear an old gaffer in an inn, after a good pint of well-earned ale, put down his mug with a sigh: “Ah! that was proper fourteen-twenty, that was!”

— J. R. R Tolkein, The Grey Havens, from The Lord of the Rings

I don’t know about anybody else, but I could do with a draught of the vintage good stuff right about now. I am that old gaffer in the pub muttering: “They should being back POAE, they really should.”

In all probability, only Science teachers of a certain generation (translation: old farts like me) will recognise the acronym P.O.A.E.

For the youthful pups who now seem to comprise the majority of the UK’s teaching workforce, it stands for “Planning, Evaluation, Observing and Evaluating”, the “strands” (dread word!) by which we used to mark practical skills in the good old days of yore, when the world was yet young.

And truth be told, they weren’t all that good. It is only in comparison with more modern iterations that they achieve their near-mythic ‘fourteen-twenty’ status.

One of the jobs I have been studiously avoiding over the summer holidays is to mark a portfolio of Y10 students’ controlled assessment practical work. I am dreading it. The reason is, I have to use the worst mark scheme every developed in the entire history of humankind. Or before. Or, applying a rigorous Bayesian statistical analysis of relevant probabilities, since.

Accuse me of hysterical hyperbole if you will, but take my word for it: this mark scheme is a turkey that out-turkeys all the Christmas lunches served over the past two millennia.

Let me explain. What is the purpose of marking students coursework or controlled assessment? Wearing our summative, assessment-of-learning hats for a moment, the essence of marking in this context is to generate a number that indicates a student’s relative performance. Ideally, another professional marking the same student’s work would generate a similar number.

Using the old-style POAE scheme, I would have to assess a student’s work against 25 hierarchical criteria which would give a “best fit” number out of a maximum of 30 marks. (Boy, this sure is a fun post, isn’t it?) From memory, moderators would tolerate a disagreement of plus or minus 3 marks before adjustment.

Using the modern, rubbish mark scheme, I have to assess a student’s work against, by my count, 67 hierarchical criteria which give a “best fit” number out of a maximum of 64 marks. This takes a while, as I challenge anyone to memorise or internalise the mark scheme.

And the end result: is a mark out of 64 ‘better’ than a mark out of 30? Does it allow a finer discrimination between the performance of students?

In theory: perhaps. In practice: no. It is just another example of assessment-itis:-itis” being the most appropriate suffix in this case as the entire system of assessment is, indeed, inflamed. More is, in fact, less.

As an example, under the old POAE-scheme, the P for Planning strand (dread word!) had 7 criteria and a maximum 8 marks. Using the new mark scheme, I mark the same set of skills which are now labelled as S for Strategy (“Mategy, Categy, Sategy”) and include two individual sub-strands (even more dread words!) with a total of 21 marking criteria and a maximum 16 marks. And . . . it doesn’t tell the student or the teacher anything that the older scheme did not.

It is, in my opinion, a badly-designed exercise in futility which provides no useful guidance or feedback for either student or teacher. Let it be sent forthwith to whatever corner of limbo that clapped-out assessment formats go to die. A curse upon it, and . . .

Sings to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”:

Bring back, bring back, O bring back my P-O-A-E, A-E!

Bring back, O bring back my P-O-A-E to me!

The Power of Instruction

“But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1, p.147.

And so, the A-level Physics results were announced. And . . . they weren’t too bad. Actually, I thought the A2 ones were pretty good. I was pleased. The AS ones were more mixed, but still they were “not too shabby” as Lenny from The Simpsons might say.

Like many other teachers, I spent the previous, fateful Wednesday night sleepless with worry. Mainly selfish worry in my case, I am sorry to confess. Would the results be such that I would be drawn slowly over hot coals by SLT? Thankfully, in the morning, some quick calculations on the back of an envelope helped me to dispel that worry, at least.

The Physics results stacked up well against Biology and Chemistry, and were comfortably above the school average. This is how our current “data driven culture” has affected the behaviour of a typical teacher on the ground. It sometimes seems that we worry more about our percentages than our pupils.

But this post isn’t about that. It’s about a thought that occurs whenever I am complimented on “my” examination results. How much of my students’ success (or failure, for that matter) is actually down to me?

I have helped. Of that I have no doubt. There is a small share of exam glory that belongs to us — we few, we happy few that dare to tread that strange, dazzlingly-lit space in front of the interactive whiteboard.

But I believe that it is a lesser share than is commonly supposed. I know that the public, many parents, most students — and perhaps even the majority of teachers — actually accept this myth of “it’s mainly down to the teacher” as an article of faith. And I think they’re wrong.

Let me suggest an analogy to explain what I mean: “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.” I believe that teachers are in a similar situation: you can lead students to knowledge but you cannot make them learn.

Does that mean that I’m a passive, inactive take-it-or-leave-it teacher? Hell, no! I bloody well am not! I am busy jumping up and down pointing out that the water in this here waterhole is ever so nice and cool and clear and I will happily serve it in a golden goblet with a paper umbrella and a cherry on top while singing the hallelujah chorus if only the skittish ponies in my care would just . . . drink. A little bit, please? On some days I’d even settle for a sip. On others, I might even be satisfied it they so much as glanced in the direction of the water.

But the point is: the ultimate decision to learn or not to learn is theirs, not mine. Oh, I can come up with all sorts of ingenious activities to keep them occupied and busy, but busy does not equate to learning. In fact, it is my considered opinion based upon both my experience as an A-level student (many, many moons ago) and as a teacher that, particularily at A-level, the most important learning often takes place outside the classroom.

What we do in the classroom is encourage, signpost and help students overcome the occasional obstacle or misunderstanding. For the most part, the magic of genuine learning happens out of our sight.

A while back, an ex-student sent me an email which I still read now and then when I am dispirited or discouraged. The student wrote: “Life at university has been great, but you can’t imagine the number of times that I’ve wished that learning in life was as easy as learning in your classes back then.”

I am touched and honoured that the student felt that way, but feel I must acknowledge that the student’s own efforts did the lion’s share of the heavy lifting. This student — amongst many others that I have had the privilege of teaching — had that “happy disposition” that meant (in my opinion) that my instruction was “almost superfluous”.

Almost superfluous. But not, by any means, completely superfluous. Just “almost.” And that makes me smile.

This was the feeling that made the opening quote from Edward Gibbon resonate with me. But I find some wise words from Machiavelli also carry weight: “God is not willing to do everything, and take away that share of glory that belongs to us.”

A small share of our students’ glory is a teacher’s portion, and for many of us, it’s actually the best part of the job.