Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Youth of Today eh!

    This week, UK teenagers have received their A-level results. These are the exams that mark the end of secondary school, usually used as a basis for university admission. As always there has been a debate about whether educational standards have slipped, with the more traditional media saying how easy kids have it today and the kids complaining that hey, they worked for those results!
    This year's record pass rates have intensified the argument, boosted by a new top grade, A*, a step above A. An A, we are told, is too easy to get these days, so rather than discourage the kids by making it harder we simply redefine it as what used to be a B.
    I hate having to make the argument that educational standards have slipped, mainly because of the bedfellows I gain by making it. But a couple of things in the last couple of days have made me think about it.
    C is still in touch with one or two of our lecturers from our university days. Makes sense, he's still an electronic engineer by trade while my hold on that profession is tenuous. One of them shared a tale with him recently of a student with a good A level maths result who had never heard of long division. Now engineering maths is difficult, I for one was crap at it. But long division? That's primary school stuff!
    The other incident happened yesterday. I had to explain latitude and longitude to my young colleague for a Google Maps mashup we are working on. I also had to explain the trivially simple algorithm for selecting the points which lie within a bounding box. You define the box as anything between X1 and X2, and between Y1 and Y2, then step through your points and discard those that don't meet those criteria. He's not in any way thick and he holds a recent computer science degree from a respected institution. He'd just never been taught any of this, something I would imagine to be pretty basic stuff, general knowledge even.

    Back in my day of course it was different... :)

    Well, yes, it was different. We weren't short changed to the same extent in the way we were educated, and then we didn't have to suffer the ritual denunciation of our efforts when they didn't meet an imagined standard over which we had no control.
    I always thought being a teenager in the 1980s was a spectacularly awful experience. I can't believe it, I've just found a reason to value my Eighties youth!


  1. My niece just got AAB and is off to the University of London to study French and English. She's a bright, sassy girl who could talk the hind legs off a donkey. It is a wonder how she got through the silence of the exams.

    To tell the truth although I value my A-levels and my degree in Chemical Engineering they pale into insignificance over my 20 years of experience. I think the youth of today have much the same level of education as in my day. A few incidents cannot extrapolated to a fundamental trend.

    I love engineering maths, it's my job. However the one thing I value most in my new graduates is not the things that they may or may not know. What I want is enthusiasm! A willingness to muck in, take interest and learn.

    Looking back I am so happy I was a teenager in the 80's although that is probably nostalgia calling. I wouldn't want to be one today for sure.

    Rachel XXX

  2. I had an 80s education too and, while I'm not brilliant at maths or science, I can still do long division. It really is hard to fathom that an A-level student with a good maths result hadn't heard of it.

    Cookie-cutter 'education', bureaucrats setting targets measured by endless tests ... where's the value in that?

    I explain latitude and longitude to myself in terms of co-ordinates, which I guess would have to be 3D co-ordinates based on working with a spherical object such as Earth.

  3. A distant relation retired in disgust from one of our tech colleges jumped up to a university, yes small u.

    She was not allowed to teach the same maths course to "university" students that she had taught for years to vocational students, it was too hard for them!!!!!!!!!!!

    The new "A" level exams give marks for the answers and pass accordingly so theoretically everyone could get an "A".

    In the past there were pass quotas and the "pass" mark was adjusted, only so many could pass no matter how good they all were.

    Goa lposts really do move!

    Caroline xxx

  4. long division . . . i don't think i was ever taught it, and i was top of maths classes from primary school until year 10 (when i chucked it for literature instead!). different country, sure, but maybe also a different time and educational emphasis (i graduated in 1999)?

  5. The sort of examples you have fall into the category of 'how does it work' in math these days. With a calculator, you don't really need to know long division, but there are times when you need fractions, not decimals in the answer, and calculators can handle it, but they really aren't good at it. "I have three and a half pizzas left over and want to send them home with four friends. How much should each get?" Your calculator won't tell you to cut the pizzas into eighths and give each person seven pieces, will it. Of course you don't need long division either, but being able to think really helps.

    Anyhow, my point is that learning how to think and do stuff should be the point of education, and hopefully in some context that is still going on in our schools.

    Latitude and Longitude really falls into the useful category, so working with it should be part of that education too.

    Maybe the real point is that a good education should help people to enjoy learning, because that is something most of us need to do all our lives!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post Jenny.


  6. The other day I came across my degree finals exams, complete with cryptic scribbles and bits heavily underlined. So I must have had a fair crack at answering them, thirty years ago.

    Might as well have been in Martian.

    Cat XX

  7. Finally, a chance to sit down and answer comments unencumbered by sleep issues, agricultural labour or motorcycling! It's been a busy weekend.

    @Rachel: it's so true, all I earn a living with is that I've gained from a couple of decades in the workplace. Mostly skills in living by my wits, my industry being somewhat turbulent. I hope I had the required enthusiasm.

    I guess you're closer to the coalface than I am in dealing with more new graduates, it's good for once to hear someone praising their standards.

    @Josie: I remember being told when I was at school that continuous exam stress was nothing to the stresses in the workplace as an adult. Something the last twenty years has taught me to be rubbish, I think my teenage years were probably the most stressful of my life, and all those tests - mock exams, termly exams etc, I went to an academic-focused school - really didn't help.

    I have to admit approximating lat-long to a square as well. For a small tract of Southern England the customer will never know! :)

    @Nix: the Youth of Today eh! :) I'm guessing the Australian educators make up for sparing kids the hell of long division in other ways.

    TBH I don't see long division as a Gold Standard. I'm more upset that kids no longer rote-learn the times table than I am about long division, because instinctively knowing common multiplications has been amazingly useful to me. I guess like C I was more surprised that something I see as an essential underpinning to more advanced maths has gone.

    @Halle: Mrs. J was educated the Canadian bilingual way and doesn't have a very high opinion of the way we do it here, so it's possible your schools make a better job of making kids think.

    @Cathy: I think my problem was that my papers might as well have been in Martian back when I sat them!