The Past Is Another Country

A few weeks ago I received the following e-mail via the contact form on my website:

I just stumbled upon this website while looking for a base 2 abacus to demonstrate some concepts to my children (8 yo and 4 yo). Clicking on the links to the side, I tumbled into a world of magic. I want to express my most sincere appreciation and gratitude for the way in which you have distilled, organized and animated incredibly foundational topics.

Mendeleev's quest to organize content for his students was key to his discovery of periodic trends among the elements. What your content has achieved is an emergent contribution beyond the sum of its parts.

I knew straight away that this message was from abroad. I replied to enquire, and it turned out that the sender was from the US.

How did I know it was from abroad? There was a possible clue in the spelling, but I've received positive e-mails before, and they've all been from abroad, including the one I use on some social media profiles.

Threads Profile

I'm not the sort of person to send complimentary messages myself, so I assumed that this is largely due to the famous British reserve. But it's not just e-mails.

Twitter Comment

While there are links to the website from a few schools and tutoring sites in this country, the top linking site is the Illinois CS Teacher Toolkit and some of the first links were from the Victorian government in Australia. That seems less likely to be a result of "reserve”.

Then, more recently, I came across the video below. It was made by a US non-teacher who moved here to study and found the experience quite different.

The most interesting observation is that US schools teach you the subject and UK schools teach you how to pass the exam. As my website tries to focus on explanations without really worrying about what will be in the exam - in fact I often go beyond the specification - then, if this comparison is accurate, it makes sense that all of the positive comments come from the US.

We're now into the second half of the school year and requests for revision resources have started to appear on social media.

Requests for revision sites and tips are all about practice exam questions and exam techniques and not revising actual content. Whilst I was making games to help students understand the sorting process, others were advising:

Popular sites seem to focus on assessment rather than teaching, and while "retrieval practice” is important ("teach once, test three times” supposedly being more effective that "teach three times, test once”), you do actually need quality knowledge to retrieve.

I see a lot of talk about misconceptions in Computing, but I rarely find that my students have them - could that be because I focus more on explanation? [If you're interested to see how I use the resources on my site to teach the GCSE, I've added a page to map them to points from the OCR J277 specification.]

Spending less time on exam questions also allows me to cover a lot more - to go wider in order to give students a better appreciation of the subject. Isn't that the real role of the teacher, rather than to get everyone to jump through hoops to get a higher grade?

I've always gone a lot farther than the requirements of the course, and twenty years ago it wasn't considered a problem. I remember being visited by some ex-students of A level ICT who told me that they were in the second year of studying databases for their degree course and still hadn't come across anything that I hadn't taught them at school.

People often suggest that marking exams is a good experience for a teacher, but I'm slightly hesitant to do so. If knowing what examiners are looking for changes what I teach in my lessons, isn't that a bad thing?

Are exams narrowing the curriculum by encouraging teachers to "teach to the test”? Are MATs, with their reliance on commercial resources provided by a small number of providers (for "consistency”, apparently), and the same small number of people we see at conferences, etc., also narrowing the curriculum by manipulating our view of what Computing is?

Portfolio-based examinations were the perfect example of this. Schools liked qualifications such as DiDA and OCR Nationals because of their high pass rate. However, I would regularly encounter students who would say "I've already completed the spreadsheet unit and I got a Distinction!” but then couldn't even create a formula to add two numbers together. Many teachers denied that this was the case, but how many schools gave the students a viva to see whether they could explain the contents of their portfolio?

When completing the course becomes the goal, the portfolio becomes the course rather than the summative assessment, and students learn nothing because there's no repetition, no "retrieval practice” and no opportunity for mastery. The students just "parrot” the tasks and immediately forget how they were done.

Every summer there's discussion of "grade inflation” and whether exams are getting easier, but what I rarely hear anyone mention, and probably what bothers me more, is the changing distribution of exam grades. Nearly 80% of A level grades are now C and above, and in Maths around half of students get an A or A* - which means that a B in the 1980s could easily be an A* now. Is drilling students on exam technique compressing the range of marks?

When I first started teaching I worked in a school where the reports indicated a student's performance relative to that of the class as a whole. Every year I had to explain to a particular colleague that it wasn't possible for her entire class to be above the class average, but isn't that pretty-much where we're at with A level Maths?

Is this all just a symptom of my age? Aside from a bit of advice from the teachers to answer the question and be explicit ("Assume that the examiner knows nothing!”), I remember very little in the way of exam preparation when I was at school. Here's a question from my 4th year (now year 10) exam - "write some notes about” one of the topics. No guidance and no suggestions.

Write some notes

It wasn't just Computer Studies, either - I remember an O level English paper that had an extract from UB40's "One in Ten" and the question was just something like "Discuss".

There was no National Curriculum in those days, of course, so no lessons on grammar for SATs, no "writing to persuade".

We practised exam questions, of course, but it was about drilling the content, not about how to answer the questions.

Another symptom of my age is that I've been teaching for 27 years, and I've never bought a resource, and only rarely have I used anything that I haven't made myself… with the exception of past paper questions from sites such as ExamBuilder. Why? Because not only does creating your own scheme of work force you to think about your course as a whole, and its purpose, but it doesn't constrain you to teaching someone else's idea of what Computing is.

So, are most of the positive e-mails from the USA because education there is still like it was when I was at school and when I first started teaching? Are they stuck in the past while we've moved on? Or are they still on track while we have we lost our way?

Why did you become a teacher? What's your metric for successful teaching? Did you want to teach children how to pass exams, or did you want to pass on your love of the subject?

This blog was originally written in April 2024.