Archive for the Education Category

English SATs Questions for Year 6 – Could you answer them?

Posted in Education, Pedantry with tags , , on May 16, 2019 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to a bit of pedantry now and again and, in contrast to many of my colleagues, I actually find grammar quite interesting. I was however quite shocked to see these questions (shared on Facebook by a concerned parent). They appear on the Standard Attainment Test (SAT) for taken by her son, who is in Year 6.

I think they’re ridiculous. I wonder how many of you could answer these five sample questions correctly without looking things up on the web? I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do them all at age 11! More to the point, who* decided that the names of grammatical structures should be deemed so important?

Far better, in my opinion, to concentrate on cultivating a love of reading.

*It was Michael Gove.

QUESTION 1:

Circle the relative pronoun in the sentence below.

“It’s too rainy for the picnic today, which is a shame.”

QUESTION 2:

Circle all the determiners in the sentence below.

“The man’s hair was very long, so my uncle cut it using a pair of the clippers he owns.”

QUESTION 3:

Underline the subordinate clause in this sentence.

“I don’t need a school dinner today because I have brought sandwiches.”

QUESTION 4:

Circle the modal verb in this sentence:

“If I can leave early, I would like to meet Anna at the park, as she said she might be there.”

QUESTION 5:

Tick one box to show whether the word ‘before’ is used as a preposition or a subordinating conjunction:

“We left the cinema before the film had ended.”

“Simon finished before Paul in the race.”

“Train tickets are often cheaper before 9am.”

 

 

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The New IOP Physics Technician Award

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 8, 2019 by telescoper

Picture Credit: Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy

I remember a few years ago one of my colleagues when I worked in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, Steven Baker, won an award for being the best STEM Technician in the category of Physical Sciences in the whole country! At the time this was a new award set up by the Higher Education Academy, so Steven was the inaugural winner of it.

Now there’s another new award, this time from the Institute of Physics and dedicated to Physics technicians (not necessarily in universities). I quote:

The IOP Technician Award enables the community to recognise and celebrate the skills and experience of technicians and their contribution to physics.

You can find full details of how to nominate an awardee here. The deadline is 14th June 2019. The prize is worth £1000, but more importantly it serves to encourage Physics departments to reflect on the vital role played by technicians. I feel very strongly that the contribution made by support staff in university departments is drastically undervalued.  No Physics department can run without a dedicated technical support team who apply their skills and expertise in both teaching and research laboratories. Even a department like mine dedicated purely to Theoretical Physics needs computing support, and there are many more people – including clerical staff, library staff, etc – without whom many of our activities would grind to a halt. None of these support staff gets the recognition they deserve; they are often poorly paid and lack an appropriate career structure that reflects the importance of the work they do.

As well as being a nice award this is an opportunity to remind us academics that we couldn’t do what we do without others doing all the difficult stuff!

So please get your nominations in!

Is there a role for rote learning?

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on May 7, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are, then, back to work here in Maynooth for the last week of teaching. Or, to be precise, the last four days – yesterday was a Bank Holiday. With university and school examinations looming, it is no surprise to find an article griping about the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations and the fact that teachers seem to encourage students to approach them by by rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen – especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right. I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text. I’m sure this applies to many other subjects. No doubt a good memory is a great benefit to a budding lawyer, for example,  but the ability to reason logically must surely be necessary too.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in  a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

But while rote learning has a role, it should not be all there is and my worry is that the teaching-to-the-test approach is diminishing the ability of educators to develop other aspects of intelligence. There has to be a better way to encourage the development of the creative imagination, especially in the context of problem-solving. Future generations are going to have to face many extremely serious problems in the very near future, and they won’t be able to solve them simply by remembering the past.

Blog Feedback Questionnaire

Posted in Education with tags , on May 2, 2019 by telescoper

It’s that time of year – near the end of teaching term – when we start to get feedback on our lecturing from students in the form of completed module questionnaires. I always get very nervous when these evaluation questionnaires come back, especially when they’re for a module I’m doing for the first time. I do work quite hard on my teaching and I do care about it a lot, but that’s not enough to guarantee that the students respond positively.

This time I’m not only relieved but delighted with the returns from my Engineering Maths returns. The students have been very kind – and some of the write-in comments are actually rather lovely. Of course there are criticisms too but it’s all useful feedback, so I’m grateful for the students who bothered to fill them in and especially to those who wrote detailed textual comments.

Anyway, in the light of the students’ response to the quality of my lecturing I thought I’d try to gather similar feedback on the quality of my blogging. Please complete the following survey. Textual comments may be provided in the form of textual comments through the textual comment box below.

University News

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2019 by telescoper

As we stagger towards Week 11 of this twice-interrupted Semester I’m back in the office preparing stuff for another set of lectures. This term seems to have gone on forever, largely because of the two breaks (one at half-term around St Patrick’s Day, and other other for Easter). Now, though, the end is in sight. Or at least the examination period is: there are just two more weeks of lectures, ending on 10th May then a short break, then examinations start (on 17th May). Then, of course, there is marking, checking, conflating exam grades with coursework marks, examination boards, and all the other stuff that go on behind the scenes.

I noticed that this weekend’s edition of the Irish Times included a hard copy of a report called Delivering for Ireland: The Impact of Irish Universities which was produced by the Irish Universities Association. In fact the thing given away with the paper is just a summary report (you can download it in PDF format here). The full report (all 86 pages of it) can be downloaded here.

The report is full of interesting information, including this (which I didn’t know before):

The report was produced with the aim of making the case for further investment in Ireland’s universities. It remains to be seen whether the current Irish government will be persuaded. I’m not holding my breath. right-wing governments never seem to be interested in investing in the future. I think the best we can hope for is that Ireland does not continue its policy of slavishly copying English Higher Education policy, especially with the introduction of student loans and high tuition fees.

And talking of the idiocies of the English University system, there is a story going around that the UK Government is planning to make EU students pay full `Overseas’ fees after Brexit. Actually, Higher Education policy is a devolved matter so this can only be directly enforced on English universities. It will, however, be hard for Scottish Welsh and Northern Irish institutions to resist the consequences.

In fact I’ve long felt that the existing system – in which Home and EU students have to be treated the same way as a matter of law but non-EU students can be charged different (i.e. higher) fees is completely immoral. Once at university students are all taught the same way so why should some be charged more than others because they happen to come from China? What would you think of a shop that tried to charge people different prices for the same goods depending on the nationality of the customer?

This decision is of course an inevitable consequence of Theresa May’s interpretation of the EU referendum result as a mandate for policies of extreme xenophobia, as is the withdrawal from Erasmus. It is just another symptom of the UK’s descent into narrow-minded insularity. The message this decision sends out is that Britain hates foreigners but it likes their money so the rich ones who can pay extortionate fees will be graciously allowed to come here to get fleeced. Does the government really think that EU citizens are daft enough to come to a country that identifies itself in such a way? I don’t think they are. They’ll just find somewhere else to go, and the consequence for UK universities will be severe. I am confident this will push more than one UK higher education institution into bankruptcy.

Anyway, even if the the Irish university continues to be under-resourced, it will at least continue to welcome students from the EU on the same basis as before. So if you’re a European student who was thinking about studying in England, why not come to Ireland instead? It’s far cheaper, and we even have the same weather…

Failing A-levels

Posted in Education with tags , , on April 17, 2019 by telescoper

As it is tangentially related to yesterday’s post I thought I’d comment on an article in The Times with the headline

University grades: firsts for quarter of students with lowest A levels

The piece (which you probably won’t read as it is behind a paywall) goes on to imply that the success at degree level of students who got poor A-levels results is the result of ‘grade inflation’.

My take on this is somewhat different. To me it just confirms what I’ve thought for years, namely that A-levels are virtually useless, either as a preparation for undergraduate study or as an indicator of academic potential. If they are are a guide to anything at all, it is to the quality of the school the student was lucky enough to attend.

It’s not only a shame that UK universities rely on A-levels so heavily for student recruitment but also a disgrace that institutions are punished in league tables whenever they take on students with low results. And if they do a good job educating such students to high levels of achievement they get attacked in churlish articles accusing them of lowering standards.

The assumption behind this is that there should be a near-perfect correlation between entry and exit qualifications. That is not the case at all, and why on earth should it be?

Look at this the other way round. Oxbridge only accepts students with the highest A-levels results, so why do these Universities not award more first-class degrees? Dare I suggest that perhaps not all the students they select have the aptitude their school qualifications suggest?

I noticed this the other day. It’s a list of skills needed for the job market in 2020.

Strangely, ‘rote learning’, ‘uncritical regurgitation of factoids’, and ‘ability to perform formulaic tasks’ are not on the list. They’re not much use as a preparation for university study either. So why does the UK school education system place such an emphasis on precisely these useless activities, to the exclusion of actually useful things?

Answers on a postcard please.

In Praise of Omnibus Science

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 16, 2019 by telescoper

I’m taking a few days off at the moment so this morning I had a bit of time to catch up on various things. One news item I stumbled across points out that first-choice applications to study at Maynooth University are the highest ever. Within the overall increase of about 7% there is a growth of 17% in Science subjects, which is very good news for the Department of Theoretical Physics as well as the other Departments in the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

Anyway, this spurred me to comment on what I think is one of the strengths of Maynooth University: the Omnibus Science programme.

Currently, most students doing Science subjects here enter on the Omnibus programme, a four-year science course that involves doing four subjects in the first year, but becoming increasingly specialised thereafter. That’s not unlike the Natural Sciences course I did at Cambridge, except that students at Maynooth can do both Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics in the first year as separate choices. Other possibilities include Chemistry, Computer Science, Biology, etc.

In Year 1 students do four subjects (one of which is Mathematics). That is narrowed down to three in Year 2 and two in Year 3. In their final year, students can stick with two subjects for a Joint Honours degree, or specialise in one, for Single Honours.

I like this programme because it does not force the students to choose a specialism before they have had a taste of the subject, and that it is flexible enough to accommodate Joint Honours qualifications in, e.g., Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. It also allows us to enrol students onto Physics degrees who have not done Physics as part of the Leaving Certificate.

I think it’s a strength that students take such a broad first year rather than locking themselves into one discipline from the start. Part of the reason is that I went to do my own degree at Cambridge expecting to end up specialising in Chemistry, but enjoyed the physics far more, eventually specialising in Theoretical Physics. I’m sure there were others who went the other way too!

One problem with the Omnibus Science programme is that the range of possible final qualifications is perhaps not as clearly advertised as it could be, so some clearer signposting would do no harm.