Tuesday 9 October 2012

A Moral Dilemma: Teach Them Less So They Learn More?

At a *theoretical* school last *theoretical* Monday in a *theoretical* sixth form teaching meeting, somebody *could have* mentioned an idea for raising achievement in A level students. *Theoretically*, this could have caused some disagreement between staff.

This is all theoretical, of course.

The idea was (I mean, might have been) this: if you have a group of students who are unlikely to achieve a high grade in their AS or A level, and are aiming to scrape a pass, why not teach them less of the subject matter, and instead focus on just a few topics? So in A level maths, for example, teach them the calculus chapters, but nothing else. If the students got most of the marks allocated to those sections, they should get an E.

This idea caused a lot of debate. Once we'd got past the cries of "that wouldn't work in this subject!" we got to  some more interesting discussions: if it were possible, would it be morally right to do it?

Let me present some arguments for and against (I'm going to stay neutral, in case any theoretical colleagues are reading this):


We do it at GCSE

In GCSE maths, you will probably have a few groups who are all sitting the higher tier paper. Let's say sets 1, 2, and 3. Well set 1 are obviously going to have to learn everything. With set two, you might choose to leave some of the circle theorem proofs out, and focus mainly on the grade A topics instead. With set 3, whose target grades might be a C or B, you would probably leave out all the A* topics completely, and only look at a few of the A topics. You would want to use your teaching time to make sure they fully understand the grade C and B stuff.

This makes a lot of sense, and few people would disagree with this. On a larger scale, you wouldn't teach your bottom set kids the A* stuff. That's why we have tiers in maths!

It benefits the students

Getting the grade E in their AS or A level would make a big difference to the student. OK, maybe their understanding of maths will be insufficient to actually help them in any way in the future, but at least they have something else to put on their CV. And these students obviously wouldn't be planning on studying maths at Uni anyway, so who cares? Who uses infinite series in real life anyway?

Besides, if pupils fully understand two topics, isn't that better than not really understanding six topics?

It decreases the school's number of fail grades

Enough said.


It's not fair on the students

Telling a student: "you're not going to learn that, there's no point because you won't get it", is a pretty demoralising thing to tell a student. Especially if the rest of the class are being taught it.

Also, limiting their knowledge in this way automatically stops them from progressing in the subject. If you teach them a limited number of topics at AS level, there is absolutely no way that student could progress to A2, even if they end up with a grade D in the end. Putting a cap on student progress will surely be a self-fulfilling prophecy? And who are we to assume that this student who appears to be on track for a U won't turn it around in the last month by working their socks off?

It's not fair on universities

How do you think secondary school teachers would feel if their year 7 pupils came to them with level 4s in their KS2 maths SATs, but had never learnt about, say, decimals. These students would be placed in a middle ability set with "true" level 4 students, and will have absolutely no idea when it comes to anything involving decimals. This is the problem that universities are having. They call it grade inflation. Students are coming in with the same grades every year, but the students' knowledge is getting weaker and weaker year after year. We do not want to be the cause of this! This applies even if the subject they are studying at university is completely unrelated to maths.

It's "teaching to the test" which everyone knows is a BAD thing

Learning A level maths should not be about the grade you receive. It should be about the journey of discovery, of honing your skills, and developing your way of thinking mathematically. It is not a means to an end.

And I might as well say it: OfSTED do not like this sort of thing. They explicitly criticise teaching in a way that allows students to pass exams without sufficient understanding. You do not want OfSTED to catch you doing this.

What do you think about this idea? Do you think it's morally wrong to restrict the amount of content you teach certain students, in order to teach them a select few topics really really well?

Do you have any more arguments for me to add to my lists above? Please leave a comment!

Emma x x x

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