Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Going dangerously off-message

Holding a session with prospective PhD students today on how to prepare a research proposal, I was emphasising that, rather than proposing simply filling in gaps in our knowledge, they should promise a radical new perspective on the subject.

And so I found myself saying that, instead of just another brick in the wall, they should offer a view of the dark side of the moon.

My schoolfriend Tristan Burn would have been honoured. The trouble was, I found myself wondering, how many more Pink Floyd album titles could I drop into the discussion? 'The Final Cut' would have been easy enough, when we're talking about editing. 'A Momentary Lapse of Reason' not much more difficult. 'Animals' - trickier, but a single word is usually easy. 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn', well, maybe not. Sadly, of course, the moment slipped by. But I think I did successfully date myself in front of a group of students.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A-level revolution?

On Friday last week, I did possibly the most worthwhile day's work I've ever done. Pearson, the publishing empire which (amongst many other things) run the UK examining board Edexcel, asked me to be one of 12 academics in Theology / Religious Studies to advise them on the outlines of the new RS A-level, the school-leaving exam for English 18-year-olds. (Why me, I have no idea, but it didn't seem worth arguing.)

I trogged along with a certain ho-hum sense, and found myself instead in an almost revolutionary conversation.

Of course academics have been grousing about A-levels for years. We've been complaining that they leave students incredibly highly trained to perform very tightly defined tasks to an extremely high standard, but that as soon as they're asked to deal with something unexpected, to show any independence or intellectual initiative, or to tackle primary texts which aren't pre-digested for them, they flounder. And we also complain that they can't write coherent or correct English, and when they do they can't communicate effectively or construct any kind of sustained argument.

In short, we want A-levels to train students to think; to read; and to write. None of which are in any sense easy skills, it should be said.

So we unleashed a wave of pent-up complaints at the poor folks from Pearson. And they took it. They told us that virtually every other subject area had told them the same thing (apparently Maths aren't so fussed about good English usage). And they gave every possible indication that the new, reformed A-levels would very seriously incorporate these concerns. I came away with a spring in my step, believing that we had made progress into a brave new world - and putting some real intellectual heft into an exam that 30,000 kids sit every year seems like a good day's work to me.

Plus I banged out 5000 words of stuff about Calvinism on the train. Don't get days like that very often.