Working with distinction: why As still matter

  • students-taking-an-exam
Every year, the number of students walking away with five or six As (if not a full house of distinctions) seems to grow. In the past, however, matriculants who emerged with two or three were considered talented.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jan 16, 2020

If numerous distinctions are the norm today, does it mean that matric has become less challenging? Are today’s matrics more hardworking than those of 10 or 15 years ago, or is less expected of them?

To begin with, the comparison is a difficult one to make. “Frankly, it is absolutely impossible to make comparisons between the schooling of 20 years ago and the present,” says Sheryl Benjamin, a former high school maths teacher who taught for 40 years and continues to tutor students today. “We live in a different world altogether. The rapid advancement in technology alone has played a huge part in the way students are taught, learn, and do research. The influence is both negative and positive.”

She says that rote learning of facts, even in subjects like history, is a thing of the past. “Today, the emphasis is on research, interpretation, and problem solving. Curricula in many subjects have undergone radical change, some more than once.”

Like Benjamin, Joseph Gerassi, the executive head of Redhill School, maintains that students today are required to use a critical thinking ability exercised less in the past. “Ten years ago, students learned content off by heart and regurgitated it back to the examiner,” he says. “This required using little creativity or problem-solving skills.”

John Luis, the head of academics at ADvTECH, agrees. The group is a leading private education provider responsible for managing 109 schools across the country, including Crawford Schools, Trinityhouse, and others: “Assessment has to align with changing teaching outcomes. There is a high level of unpredictability which is often mistaken for a higher degree of difficulty, but this isn’t necessarily the case. A problem solving or critical thinking question can fall along any part of the level of difficulty spectrum from easy to very difficult.”

Educators in English and maths agree, saying that in spite of changes to the syllabus material, students continue to be challenged in matric according to a new set of priorities which didn’t exist in the past.

Digby Ricci, an English teacher for more than three decades and the present head of English at Roedean School, says that where English is concerned, today’s system aims to ensure that pupils communicate with clarity. It requires students to understand how their language works, and they are given a balance of material which is relevant and concerned with a broader world-view.

“Students of my generation were more conscious of, and informed about, the literary excellence of the works they studied,” says Ricci. “In the past, there was more emphasis on the devices and techniques that make a poem, novel or play great within its genre. These days, instruction and assessment are often too issue-centred – life orientation disguised as literary study. That, for me, is a displeasing change.”

However, he finds that other changes to the English syllabus are commendable. “The emphasis placed on ‘positioning’ by language and on manipulation in advertising and the mass media is useful and thought-provoking. An over-emphasis on putative ‘relevance’ is an error in education, but I don’t think that the private system falls into that trap. The IEB (Independent Examinations Board) strives, with some success, to give pupils the best of both worlds.”

“On the whole, I don’t think that the English matric syllabus, while it is different from the syllabus of thirty years ago, has been disturbingly dumbed down,” he says.

Celeste Bortz, a maths teacher at Yeshiva Maharsha and the Mitzvah School with 36 years of experience, says that the levels of understanding required to do well in the matric exams have changed. While the national level of maths exams dipped for a time, the IEB’s maths exams have been maintained at a very high level over the years.

“This is mainly because of the facets of a good private-school education, and because there were no external forces [in play] after the changing of the national education departments,” she says. “Gradually, however, even in the national system, the level of the matric maths exam has become harder. Each year, I can see an improvement in the quality of the exams.”

Like Ricci, however, she points out certain shortcomings of the current syllabus which require attention. These include the scrapping of higher grade and standard grade maths (causing most teachers to aim at the middle, rather than stimulate those who need the extra work and help those who are struggling) and a prescriptive approach to education, making the maths syllabus too broad and not deep enough.

Various reasons are cited for why students are emerging with more distinctions. According to Ricci, one possibility is that the variety of subjects offered to matriculants today was unheard of in the past, affording greater opportunity for students with specific talents to excel. Bortz and Benjamin feel that the competitive reality in which we live today motivates matriculants to push themselves more than their parents did, working harder and more obsessively along the way.

Gerassi and Luis concur, stressing that the reality of the “real world” places students under greater pressure than ever before. “The world is more competitive with far more students vying for the limited amount of spaces at universities locally and internationally. The pressure put on students from their school and parents to succeed is much greater than in the past,” says Gerassi.

Luis therefore argues that distinctions are most definitely still worth their weight, and a strong correlation exists between strong matric performance and performance at university.

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