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When Memorising is Everything But Not Enough

The new linear A-level results will soon be announced; starting with linear GCSE English & Mathematics examinations the move towards students memorising large volumes of information, for public examinations, seems inexorable. 

The system to filter the future life chances, of hundreds of thousands of young people, will make memorising king and those who can do it best the winners.  Our system is confused.

The importance of memorising information is primarily associated with learning.  The ability to further increase our knowledge and understanding is predicated on having secure prior learning. The rapidity of recalling basic facts, developing an automaticity, is important as we seek to link them together to develop our conceptual understanding.  Our “residue of thought” about key concepts allows us to understand our World and the great works within subjects.  Memory is essential if we are going to learn.

However, the realities of the substantial changes to a terminal examination system are becoming clear.  Students sitting huge numbers of examinations; the requirement to memorised huge volumes of information; the limited knowledge dimensions assessed and therefore valued in our examination system.  The ability to remember subject content is one important aspect of eleven years of compulsory education but it should not be everything.  There is so much more to value that we could and should assess.

Volatility this year at a school and student level will be significant.  At a system level, comparable outcomes will keep things in checkIn schools, teachers will have done their best to interpret the new examination specifications.  Some will have done it better than others this year; part good judgement, part good luck.  This departmental level volatility tends to work its way out of the system, over a few years, as teachers understand the examination boards’ requirements.

In addition to this, students have the volatility associated with the vagaries of their memory’s retention and recall systems.  What I remember varies by the hour and from day to day.  Some pupils’ memories will be enhanced by the adrenaline rush of a high stakes examination; other students’ memories will implode.  It’s surprising how much you remember as you walk out of an examination room that you’d wished you had remembered some thirty minute earlier.

Whether your Key Stage 2 test results are already in or you are awaiting GCSE/A-level results remember, if you remember little else, this year’s results have a greater element of chance associated with them than for many a year.  If the school does well; be a little pleased but not too much and vice versa if results dip.  Look after the young people.  It’s the students my concerns and sympathy lie with more than ever this year.  Good luck.



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