Eleven Plus

The British magazine Private Eye calls it educashun, to highlight the misfortunes of our school and university systems.

After the Portuguese revolution in 1974, exams were deemed a fascist concept. As such, they were either abolished, or became as lengthy as Fidel Castro’s speeches—students could bring in all their textbooks and consult at will.

There’s a general misconception that book-supported exams make things easier, but that’s not the case, except (very possibly) under unlimited time conditions (which defeats the whole purpose of an exam). This is particularly true in math and science, because for any question that uses a formula, you need to know both what to use and how to use it.

The British and American education systems privilege independent thought, whereas the Latin countries often emphasize rote learning. The obvious consequence of this is that kids in Brazil or Italy have less chances to be creative.

Here’s an example. In an exam, the teacher might ask an elementary geometry question: What do the angles of a pentagon add up to?

That’s a lazy question, and it deserves a lazy answer: 540 degrees. Kids often have that kind of stuff written on some part of their body, or on a piece of paper secreted about their person.

A better question, which would force a child to reason, it to ask them to use their knowledge about three- and four-sided figures to work out the answer—it’s easy, and it’s fun.

From the top, you start with the blue pentagon, and then you work your way clockwise. Of course, you need to know what clockwise actually is, and since most kids tell time on their cellphones, you’d need to back up a little.

Making kids think. What is the sum of the internal angles of a pentagon?

Making kids think. Work out the sum of the internal angles of a pentagon?

If you know the sum of angles of a triangle (any triangle), and the same for a quadrilateral (any quad), then it’s a piece of cake—go for the orange pentagon and you’re all set. If you’re not sure of the quad, but do know the sides of a rectangle add to 360 (after all, they are right angles), then the pink job will work: three triangles and a square, but you’ll need to knock off a couple of right angles (how many?)

If you just like triangles, go for yellow—how cool is that?

Finally, if you like to think a little more, go for red. In that one, you’ve got a pentagon inside a rectangle. You can use the four triangles left out of the pentagon to work out the answer, but you need a spot of trig and a smidge of algebra.

No matter which way you do it, you have to think. You won’t find the answer in a book, and you’re on a schedule. Exams must test your capacity for analyzing a problem (rather than regurgitating material dredged out of the tiny letters inscribed on your forearms)—but they must also test your self-reliance, your capacity to solve something on your own, and against the clock.

These are metrics of intellectual capacity and productivity. They reflect preparation and lead to achievement. ‘The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.’

It’s worth contrasting this with sports. Practically all team sports run against the clock (baseball and cricket go against the grain), while individual sports, from gladiators to tennis, have no time limit.

This week, the new government of Portugal—an extraordinary mishmash of socialists supported by communists and the far-left—abolished  an exam kids took to monitor progress through school. The debate resonated with ‘evidence’ of children suffering from depression, together with a number of other social tragedies stemming from this hideous practice of child abuse.

Later in the week, the question of college fees arose. One far-left parliamentarian glibly claimed that throughout Europe, only the U.K. has higher university fees than Portugal.

Unfortunately, Portugal doesn’t hand out pinnochios, so you’ll have to take my word for it—the claim is a load of bollocks. Actually, don’t. Try this, this, and this—the last link is poorly written but fairly accurate.

The UK is significantly more expensive than other EU countries, since Tony Blair introduced top-up fees some years ago. Among other things, this led to Scotland charging fees for English students who go to college north of the border, but not for other EU citizens.

That comparison to Portugal? Tuition is potentially more expensive in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland, and undoubtedly so in the Netherlands, Sweden, and of course the UK.

But if you contextualize for purchasing power parity (PPP but not the Blair kind) then fees in Portugal (of the order of 1000 € per year) are high in relative terms.

Twenty years ago, before fees were introduced, universities were full of ‘professional’ students, who did nothing and stayed in the system for up to ten years. In addition, students couldn’t object much to poor teaching—it was free, so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

My final note today is about plagiarism, which has rocketed as more material becomes available on the net. Universities in the US and UK use systems such as Turnitin, where students verify their work on the ‘plagiometer’ before handing it in.

Why do they worry? Because in the UK a threshold of twenty percent is admissible, but any score above that means the work was copied. Equivalent software exists in many languages, and they all work in an identical way—they trawl or index the web for text similarities, and then apply a proximity algorithm to determine the grade.

When a tool like that is unavailable, more classical methods are used. One is to require students to deliver handwritten assignments.

It doesn’t stop them copying, but at least they have skin in the game.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

 

 

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