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Sinead Ryan: I can't believe our exam students are still learning by rote

The nerves are jangling, the valium sandwiches on stand-by and the brain cells are fit to burst ... and they're not even my exams!

As an exam-mammy though, I almost feel that they are. It's the first outing for the family -- a nervous junior Cert starting tomorrow. It's a relief to us all, to be honest -- anything's better than the piles of books cluttering every surface; the bits of scrawled notes you daren't throw out; the bottles of Tippex dripping all over the kitchen table, and enough pens and pencils to stock an Eason branch.

And for months we've been listening to the recitation of, well, a surprising amount, actually. There was me thinking the days of learning everything by rote ended sometime in the mid-1950s. Not so. It's not just poetry, theorems and quotations, either -- I'm struck by the entire essays, letters and 'creative' prose being learnt by heart, ready to slot into Question 2 (b), irrespective of topic, it seems. It's the fault of the exam structure. Marks are weighted toward the regurgitation and recitation of whole swathes of material rather than any analysis or context. In other words, the Junior Cert is, for many subjects it seems, a memory test.

"Will you hear my sceal about a timpiste again mum?" I'm asked. But what if you're not asked to write about an accident in the exam? Oh, it's fine, I'm assured. They give you enough topics to make it work somewhere. Teacher says it's the easiest way. And she recites, by heart, an entire essay.

Now, forgive me, but isn't the aim of a story a spontaneous, natural expression of a language on a given topic? Isn't testing the ability of a student's sentence structure, grammar and imaginative story-telling kind of the point?

I'm not blaming the teachers, or indeed, the curriculum at all. In our race for points, it's about maximising the outcome rather than celebrating individuality. It's like a chef buying in his ingredients only to cook the same recipe every day. Efficient, but boring.

Some rote learning is vital, of course. There's no interpretation with mathematical theorems; nobody wants you to rewrite Shakespeare more creatively or make up new capital cities in your head. Learning by heart is important for the basic stuff -- the grounding you need before you employ your analytical skills.







Inspiration

But in the wider arts subjects -- English, history and foreign languages -- surely the joy and inspiration of individual thought comes from interpretation, not recitation.

Learning off the five broad points any poem conveys about conflict, for instance, is not testing comprehension -- merely your ability to recall those sentences, learned after weeks of reciting them over and over. Three points about love; another four on nature -- hey presto, they can be used everywhere from Browning to Heaney.

The questions on English and other language papers seem very vague. I'm sure nobody wants to frighten off students by asking them taxing, deep specifics at 15, but whole classes are completely learning off a letter to a Spanish pen pal, say, because it 'always comes up', or 10 clever, complete French sentences that can be popped into any prose. It's as if they're simply waiting to write them down, irrespective of context, and this is encouraged because it maximises points rather than inducing a love of creative writing.

Tomorrow isn't the time or place to try and change the system, but perhaps, amid the years of talk of reforming our State exams, some thought should be given to how best to examine how a student really feels or interprets or even objects to a poem, novel or play that its author presumably wrote to arouse just those sentiments. Having said all that, my immediate job is clear at least: it's to feed, water and mind. It's to chauffeur, hug and console; and to listen to the essays as many times as are needed to learn it off. And despite its shortcomings, here's a giant good luck to everyone starting their Junior and Leaving Certs tomorrow.


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