Parallel Worlds

There was a strange symmetry to today. I was sitting in a hall with about one hundred of our eighteen year old pupils taking their final English exam. Meanwhile, about twenty miles north of where I teach, my daughter was sitting down simultaneously to take the very same exam.

Such a parallel activity inevitably makes you stop and reconsider the pupils in front of you. They sit there ploughing their way through the selection of texts and trying to answer the questions that are designed to split the narrow gaps in possible interpretations. It’s an intensive business, especially on warm afternoon.

Today’s exam was two and a half hours long. Most of the other exams during this two and a bit weeks long test period are three hours long. The sheer length of the sessions all seems rather extreme.

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Still Life on corner of exam candidate’s table, May 2018

Many of the pupils present this afternoon are ones that I have taught in the past. And, if I’m honest, have had to work hard at times to keep them focused and motivated during a sixty-minute lesson.  It does kind of beg the question ‘what are we doing sitting them down for such a massive test of concentration?’ Yes, I know it is also a test of knowledge and insight, but make no mistake here, this is a level of concentration that is rarely, if at all, practiced for.

It is certainly not easy for a school to clear sufficient space in timetables to spend too much time giving them three-hour dry runs.  But these are young people who are used to having their days broken up into mostly forty-five or sixty-minute chunks.  Most people simply find sitting still for 180 minutes pretty challenging.

Imagine if you had a driving test that went on for three hours!  Its perhaps not any entirely fair comparison, but it does seem that footballers run into trouble as soon as a match goes beyond the regular ninety minutes that they train for and are used to.

Maybe I’m just seeing the world through my daughters eyes this year a bit too much. Could we not be constructing slightly shorter test? Could we simply cut them into two smaller pieces?  Maybe we should actually be looking at different ways of test altogether….I guess in my heart of hearts that’s really what I think.  But one thing that I feel sure about three-hour exam sessions and sometimes two in a day does seem rather like some form of punishment as a last experience in a child’s secondary school career.

 

 

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The loneliness (and rewards) of the long distance examiner

Around April and May each year I am reminded of a stressful few weeks I endured in my last year at school as a eighteen year old doing my final art exam. A three hour drawing paper and a twelve or fifteen hour painting paper that came on the back of two weeks preparation time if I remember correctly. The end result was C grade, it was OK, but it wasn’t the A or B that I hoped for.

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Now, quite some time later, I’m an examiner for the visual arts exam of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma program. I’ve done it for years (and they don’t mind my C grade a-level!). It used to mean that each April I would go and visit a couple of schools, interview eight or ten pupils per school, be wined and dined at the school’s expense when necessary. Each pupil mounted an exhibition of their work, presented their work books and I would interview them for thirty to forty minutes. It was all very interesting and enjoyable, and also, it has to be said, quite an experience for the candidates.

All this changed two years ago when the IB switched to a fully digital examination system. Nowadays, for each exam candidate I am supplied (online) with the following:

· A fifteen minute interview or a 1000 word statement

· A 300 word statement about their work

· 30 pages of documentary photos from their research workbooks

· Up to eighteen photographs of studio work.

That’s quite a few documents for each candidate……and I have 69 candidates to work my way through, mark and write a short report about. That is quite a few hours staring at the computer screen. But on the positive side, working as I do in a secondary school in Western Europe, it is incredibly interesting to see work made by pupils from all corners of the world. This year for me it England, Norway, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the US and China.

Although I don’t actually teach the IB Diploma course myself I am a pretty big fan of the possibilities it offers, in particular the way it interweaves the practical work of candidates with their art historical and contextual studies. It is interesting to see what the candidates have produced during the two years that the course takes, but it is almost as interesting to read a little between the lines and see how different teachers in a variety of countries approach the curriculum.

Yes there are definitely positives about doing this examine work, but it is something of a relief when you reach the end of your allotment of candidates, a point that I have just about reached.