Weasel Words in Education Part 5: Rigour

A crack team of DfE boffins test the proposed new system for the management and oversight of the United Kingdom’s increasingly fissiparous school system.

Rigour, n.

1. The quality of being extremely thorough and careful.

2. severity or strictness.

3. (when pluralized) harsh and demanding conditions

In education (as in other walks of life) the word rigour is usually meant in sense (1) when applied to one’s own thinking or the thinking of one’s friends or allies: “I am being rigorous. However, you, sir, are merely pedantic.”

These days, sense (2) seems to require the insertion of a prefix, as in “The moderation of our controlled assessments was over-rigorous.”

Rigour is therefore a good thing, right?

However, in my opinion it seems to be used more and more as a talisman rather than as a genuine description.

Mr Gove told the Commons: “The new specifications are more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous. That means more extended writing in subjects like English and history, more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science.”

The Independent, July 2013

I am not sure if Michael Gove* is using the word in sense (1) or sense (2) here. If he meant it in sense (2) then it is a rhetorical flourish to emphasise the idea that GCSEs will be more challenging. If he meant it in sense (1) then the promise of “extended writing [and] more testing” doesn’t tell me how the new exams will be more thorough and careful. This is not saying that the examination system does not need to be more thorough and careful, merely that “extended writing [and] more testing” won’t necessarily make it so.

Let me emphasise that I am not opposed to rigour. I like rigour and being rigorous, at least in sense (1). I would perhaps favour the words consistent and fair rather than use rigour in sense (2) in an educational context, but that’s a personal preference.

In short, I wish people would be more rigorous in their use of the word rigorous. You shouldn’t just use it because you think it sounds good. A is rigorous while B is not should mean more than I like A and dislike B.

And as a final thought, I strongly suspect that many of the people who are most keen to bemoan the lack of rigour in education would have to step out of the kitchen when push came to shove, as in this little vignette:

[I listened] to magazine columnist Fred Barnes . . . whine on and on about the sorry state of American education, blaming the teachers and their evil union for why students are doing so poorly. “These kids don’t even know what The Iliad and The Odyssey are!” he bellowed, as the other panellists nodded in admiration at Fred’s noble lament.

The next morning I called Fred Barnes at his Washington office. “Fred,” I said, “tell me what The Iliad and The Odyssey are.”

He started hemming and hawing. “Well, they’re … uh … you know … uh … okay, fine, you got me—I don’t know what they’re about. Happy now?”

No, not really. You’re one of the top TV pundits in America, seen every week on your own show and plenty of others. You gladly hawk your “wisdom” to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting citizens, gleefully scorning others for their ignorance.

— Michael Moore, Stupid White Men (2001), p.58


* His successor Nicky Morgan look set to continue Gove’s use of the term.

Postscript: For the those (including myself) who are classically undereducated: The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem by Homer about the Trojan War. The Odyssey is another epic poem by Homer recounting the ten-year journey home from the Trojan War made by Odysseus, the king of Ithaca.

Samuel Johnson vs. Michael Gove

Michael Gove suggests that schools who enter GCSE students early in order to “bank” a C grade are, essentially, cheating. Some school leaders have criticised the tone of his announcement. Keven Bartle says they have a point: “The one element of twitter and blogging reportage critical of the announcement by our less-than-beloved Secretary of State for Education with which I wholeheartedly agree is the dismay that met the tone of the piece, particularly with the repeated use of the word ‘cheating’.”

I think I agree. As Samuel Johnson said (and I am not quoting him as an authority here, rather I simply adore his turn of phrase):

Sir. It must be considered, that a man who only does what every one of the society to which he belongs would do, is not a dishonest man. In the republick of Sparta, it was agreed, that stealing was not dishonourable, if not discovered. . . . I maintain, that an individual of any society, who practises what is allowed, is not a dishonest man.

And it must be conceded that any school that entered students early — either in the hope of banking the magic C grade, or starting a borderline C/D student on the treadmill of resit after resit in pursuit of the same goal — was not, in the technical sense, dishonest in terms of breaking rules: they were simply practicing “what is allowed”.

And what about their motives? That’s a more difficult question. Some schools, no doubt, did the deed out of a genuine desire for the best results for their students. Others, perhaps, could be likened to the “lions-led-by-donkeys” generals of World War One, heedlessly throwing underprepared cannon-fodder into the bloody fray in order to “move their drinks cabinet five yards closer to Berlin” (as Blackadder might put it), or improve their league table score by two tenths of a percentage point.

And therein lies the rub. Although early entry (or repeated entry ad nauseam) might be in the interest of a small minority of students, an over-reliance on them smacks of gaming the system

Sir, I do not call a gamester a dishonest man; but I call him an unsocial man, an unprofitable man. Gaming is a mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good. Trade … produces intermediate good

And there (although he was speaking of gambling rather than GCSEs) I think Sam Johnson nails it once more. The frantic pursuit of exam grades for their own sake is an empty pursuit, and all too often the chancers, gamers and gamblers of the whole byzantine examination system have done their students a disservice, and been (in my opinion) unfairly lauded and feted. The “intermediate good” that their students were deprived of is hard to identify precisely but could include: the luxury of time to prepare (and be taught properly) for their exams, understanding that the exam is part of the process and not the point of the process, and that panicked random cramming (either on their own or as part of teacher-led “intervention” cram-fests) is not the way to understand complex and subtle ideas.

Gove’s latest animadversion apparently signals an end to “unsocial” and “unprofitable” gaming of the exam system.

I hope. As with many of Gove’s more sensible announcements (and there have been one or two), it’s not the animating spirit of the idea, but the inflexible, procrustean, peremptory finality of the rule change that could make it a change for the worse, rather than for the better.

Du Code Goveon

“Professor Moriarty: the Napoleon of Crime!” – Sherlock Holmes.

In the whole of France, apparently, there is not a single cultivated hedgerow which is over six foot in height. Any hedge which serves as the boundary between properties can attain a maximum height of two metres, and no more.

And the reason for this is Napoleon. Or, more precisely, it is the Code Napoleon, the body of laws put in place by Napoleon. You see he was more than Austerlitz, Josephine, and Waterloo (somehow the thought that he also made the stagecoaches run on time surfaces from somewhere, but we’ll skip that for now).

The fact is that Napoleon couldn’t imagine a reason for any person in the entirety of the French Empire to want or need a hedgerow that was more than six foot tall. So he passed a law about it. That’s the amazing thing about the Code Napoleon: it is a body of law which is coherent, complex and flexible enough to run a modern state that essentially emerged from the brain of a single individual.

Perhaps I overstate my case. But it is a fact that Napoleon insisted that every law should be seen and approved by him, that it should pass through the prism of his mind.

And much of it is good. Much of it survives to this day as the foundational law of the modern French state as the Gallic leviathan woke from the near-anarchy of its feudal, monarchic slumbers. (Hums: #Red, the blood of angry men…#)

But there are oddities which stem from the predjudices, habits of thought and visceral likes and dislikes of a single, flawed individual. The hedgerow is one example of that.

And the point of this discussion? Well, it struck me the other day that Michael Gove is attempting to do the same thing. He’s doing a Napoleon. He is midway through what can only be described as an attempt to make himself the Napoleon of Education. He is instituting a Code Goveon whereby he sets up a body of educational law and a framework of assessment where every element of which has passed through (and been approved by) the ideological prism of his mind.

It is a significant ambition. Will he succeed? The truth is, he just might. Gove’s equivalent of the Napoleonic Hedgerow Decree is, I think, the insistence on assessment by terminal exam. At first sight, it is vaguely sensible. But the truth is, there are times when a modular exam structure (like a seven foot hedge) might be a good idea. Maybe not for everybody. And maybe not all the time. There is a grain of truth to the fact that examinations and resit culture were consuming too great a proportion of school resources.

However, a man’s still a man for a’that, and my fear is that the Code Goveon will emerge with the indelible stamp of one person’s vagaries and peccadilloes running through it like cracks in a plate glass window. Undoubtedly, like the curate’s egg, it will be “good in parts”, but there are some tasks that it is quite simply hubristical for a single human being to attempt. Even a literate and well-educated human being who (possibly) means well and who has a panel of carefully chosen experts (perhaps too carefully chosen a panel in Gove’s case) to advise him.

I shall follow events as they unfold with interest, but – alas! – not with much optimism. And I would be willing to bet that at the end of it all the trains still won’t be running on time.

Post the first…yay!

So, you’ve decided to join the blogger bandwagon? Why yes, I most decidedly have. The TEACHER blogger bandwagon, if you please. I have been inspired by a number of educational blogs that I really enjoy to have a go myself. After all, how hard can it be? (As the free school committee said to the education secretary.)

So, I have decided to put finger (singular, I am a lousy typist) to virtual keyboard and write my profound thoughts on erm…well, stuff, basically. And stick some Physicsy guff in here at some point. And some ill-informed comment, gossip, innuendo and vapid intellectual posturing to boot!

Attentive readers will note that my blog title is a Physics-themed homage to the immortal “1066 And All That” by Sellar and Yeatman. I hope to do for Physics teaching what they did for History teaching.

So there. Plus I will be rude about Michael Gove from time to time.

John Mortimer once wrote that he joined the swinging sixties “just as the tube doors were closing”. I hope that one day a fellow teacher blogger who is insanely jealous of my reader stats and influence will be as cutting about my entrance on to the blogging scene.