In the last year I have worked with eight secondary schools but one visit stands out in my mind. I was asked to give a talk to year 12/13 students (I still think of them as 'sixth formers') about the brain, about science in general, and about my experience of doing research. As usual I offered to do more than just one classroom visit, to make best use of the time and effort of getting to the school. Sometimes it isn't possible for the school to arrange two classes in one afternoon but I always make the offer. I was told that all of the more able students doing science had been gathered in to a single group and the only other group available in the right time-slot was a group of less able year 11s. It was implicit in the wording of the reply that this group were a handful, and that I should not expect an easy ride. I said 'Fine book me in'.
On my arrival at the school I went directly to the 'difficult' class and was further warned on the way by the member of staff accompanying me that I was in for a rough ride. She was right, the students were unruly and rude.
I didn't get any further than telling them I was working on a project called 'Brainsex' before they bombarded me with questions about sex and hermaphroditism (they didn't call it that). I had recently read a paper about gynandromorphism in birds originating in the brain, which fascinated me and it turned out it was interesting to them too. But they soon moved on to 'babies born with tails' and 'people with webbed feet'. We discussed atavism, and one or two looked the word up while others were still googling 'inter-sex finches' and the teacher was furiously taking notes. This was fine for ten minutes before the discussion morphed to people being descended from aliens. I explained the concept of panspermia (got a laugh) and talked about water and organic matter in comets, before this became a cue to move on to meteorite strikes and global extinction. I suggested that they might like to research the Tunguska event, and the eruption of Thera, after explaining that the dinosaurs were not wiped out by an explosion but by the resulting change in global conditions. And in any case the dinosaurs were not wiped out because birds are therapaods (a suborder of dinosaurs) and birds are still doing very well thank you. By this time some of the class had already found out about Tunguska on Wikipedia and started explaining this to their teacher, others thought that the 'birds are dinosaurs' comment was a joke and were trying to disprove it. The teacher was still working hard making notes and finding photographs from the Rosetta space mission, while some of the class were looking up 'Nuclear Winter'. I had to leave at this point.
Slightly exhausted I went to the more able group where I gave my talk, in silence. At the end I was asked only one question that I can remember - 'How much do you get paid?'
On the way out of the school I was caught up by the teacher of the first group carrying a card (complete with sketches of babies with tails, and aliens) that the group had spontaneously decided to make for me to thank me for coming. I mentioned the very different experience I had in the second classroom. The explanation was simple enough, the staff had explained, and the students were bright enough to realise, that nothing I said was going to be in their exams.
It is not the fault of students, or of teachers, or of schools, that we are losing the distinction between education itself and the boxes we tick along the way to track it. It is not only a question of 'teaching to the exam' although this is common enough (I have done it myself with A-Level computing science very successfully). It is the pervasive notion that if all the boxes are ticked then everything must be all right, and the false corollory that anything that doesn't tick a box doesn't count - one of the most distressing forms of this being the widespread disappearance of music and languages from primary schools.
Teachers and schools under constant pressure to do more will find ways of ticking the right boxes in the hope that it will get someone off their backs, or gets them a pay rise, or satisfy Ofsted, or whatever - it doesn't matter why they are doing it. Every ounce of effort they put in to working out how to tick the box is effort that is not being put in to educate students. Teaching to the exam is merely the tip of the iceberg, the most obvious symptom of the disease.
It is a fundamental principle of experimental science that if you cannot measure what is important then you attach importance to something that you can measure. This is good practice for a science experiment but it is a terrifying and dangerous idea to let loose out of the lab! It is true that our schools and colleges are a sort of ongoing experiment, but to manage this by ignoring the point of the process (ie education) in favour of the operational variable (counting tick boxes) is a dereliction of our responsibilities. We can sit and watch the number of boxes ticked climb year-on-year (which we have been doing) and pat ourselves on the back that we are getting better at something - better at ticking boxes.
The situation reminds me of the painting of a pipe by Magritte which he labelled 'This is not a pipe'. Of course it isn't a pipe, it is a painting of a pipe. In the same way, results, or numbers, or grades, are not an education. It is not clear (at least not to me) if education leads society or the other way round. At the moment we live in an age where ticking boxes is a preoccupation. This is a failure of our society and education simply reflects this.