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Friday 29 April 2011

Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve Got Past Papers?

Taking a meandering stroll through my local branch of a significantly large book store last week, I couldn’t help noticing that there were several concerned parents with several panicky looking children headed for the Education section. Aha.  It’s exam time. The time when parents begin to take an interest in their children’s prospects of success and when students begin to come to the terrifying realisation that, gulp, perhaps they should have worked a little bit harder; the time when battle weary teachers begin to develop that glint in the eye at the upcoming farewell to that difficult fourth year class. The sun is out; Bank holidays aplenty; Royals are getting married; the hard work has been done. Let’s hit the past papers.

I don’t know if you are aware – although if you are a teacher I’m sure you will be – but sales of past papers have become a growth industry in Scotland. They’ve always been around, of course, but the mountains of these things you have to navigate your way around in the book store nowadays beg closer inspection. If Mrs. Middle Class is buying past papers for all the subjects her children are studying, does it not suggest that something has gone wrong at some point here? I always feel the urge to whisper to the frantic parent that if you have to spend fifty pounds at Easter then it’s already too late. It symbolises to me exactly what is wrong with our Education system.

A few years back as part of a Chartered Teacher project, I conducted a little research into the use of Past Papers as a Teaching Tool in English. I, as all of us do at some point, especially early in our careers, would turn to these papers at times in the year, believing it to be a genuine measure of progress. Bearing in mind that I am an English Teacher and can only speak from that point of view, I found that unless we can recreate the true experience of an exam situation there is very little benefit gained. Yes, they do become accustomed to layout and type of questions but would it not be better to construct these questions around current reading or even topical newspaper articles? In English, which I consider to be a skills based subject, having students complete past papers in class or, even worse, for homework, merely confirms what they do not know rather than what they do know. And it is this negative experience which makes them groan every time they see them being churned out at the beginning of lessons.

Getting back to the large book store, the bottom line is that someone is making a fortune from the exam anxiety our Education system has created. You will also find, along with past papers, at least six books to help your child with Higher English. More still to help you with Curriculum for Excellence. They are not cheap. Add that to the endless photocopying sometimes required in the lead up to exams you can begin to see what a massive waste it all is. I think the over-dependence on past papers is lazy and, ultimately, not particularly beneficial. Nothing replaces regular challenging reading as the optimum way to become a better reader in any subject. No text book will help you with that.

When we, as educators, buy into the belief that past papers are some form of panacea, or we recommend them as revision tools, we are being lazy and confirming the myth that the exam is everything.  It may well seem to be at that moment but there are better, more productive ways to revise. Otherwise, why do they need you when they’ve got past papers?

 Incidentally, the next time you’re in your local large book store and feel the temptation to purchase past papers, ask them if they are available on Kindle. When the colour has drained from their faces, tell them that was for John Smiths and all of the other small booksellers they drove off the High Street. Then they will know how it feels.

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