Last year I wrote a series of posts about a ‘Critical Thinking’ programme I set up with Debbie for Year 12 students. This post revisits the progress of this programme but also, following some recent conversations with students, asks some broader questions about the quality of education that universities provide.
The aim of the programme was to prepare students for Oxbridge interviews by encouraging them to think in different ways and be better equipped to articulate their opinions. I didn’t revisit these posts, partly because I was a bit reluctant to share the success figures as I was hoping that I could bask in the glory of ‘ten out of eleven of the students being given offers’ or something similar.
So, I need to be honest on numbers. Three from our group of eleven ‘made it’ by getting their Oxbridge offers. One of those, ‘The Scientist’ as I referred to him in my posts was always a dead cert. He is one of the brightest students I have ever encountered, as well as being a very deep thinker and dedicated learner. He would’ve made it through without the programme because it was easy to see how much he needs to be amongst others of a similar calibre. He didn’t need the programme necessarily and sometimes I even think it worried him a little bit as to how exactly he could use what we’d been learning. I’m still so glad he did participate though, because I’d like to think he gained all sorts of other things from it. From the very start of the programme, when he had just ten minutes to prepare a verbal answer to the question ‘Can there ever be nothing?’ to the end, when he led a seminar, the challenge for this young man was being prepared for the unexpected. I felt absolute joy at watching the discussion between him and the one other person in the group (who absolutely was not me) who could get their head around the subject matter in his seminar and at him giggling when I told him I was completely lost.
The second ‘success story’ is another one who was already very well equipped to apply for Oxbridge. She was the other one in the room who got what The Scientist was talking about but as well as the intellect, she had a passion for questioning beliefs and arguing points that was inspirational. Maybe the sessions gave her a bit more, maybe she would have made it without them but I am so glad she was in the sessions, particularly The Scientist’s seminar!
The third ‘success story’ was a young lady who was always extremely hard working, mature and driven. She has an offer from Cambridge and I was delighted when I found out. The bit that delighted me the most though was when she said ‘It was the critical thinking programme that made me apply; I’d never even considered it before that but it made me feel like I could do it.’ That is all I need from this experience. My reason for doing this (I now realise) was to ensure that students feel entitled to apply for these places. It may be controversial that it isn’t actually important to me where they end up for university, all I need to know is that they feel they can apply to the top universities, that they have absolutely the same right as any other student in the country to do so and that they are good enough to go there.
What is it about those three students that makes them different? Well, for two of them I’d have to say they are simply the brightest. They have done all the other things we want students to do: seeking feedback and really listening to it and responding; asking deep, probing questions, reading around and beyond their subjects etc, but on top of that they are just that bit better than the rest. The third, yes is also a top-end student but might not quite be up there with the other two. Maybe I’m being unfair in this assessment (as I wasn’t a subject teacher to any of these students this year) but I think the third successful student is at a similar level as at least one of those who had an interview and didn’t make it. Maybe there is an element of chance to the process – applying for the right course, at the right college, being at the right point on a particular day and making a good connection with your particular interviewer. There are so many factors I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.
So what about the others? Some didn’t want to apply, or didn’t have predicted grades high enough. A couple of others had an interview and didn’t get the offer and it’s one of these students that led me to write this post. I had the privilege of teaching her both GCSE and A Level Biology and I believe that she would have been a fantastic student at Oxford. It was in the thank-you card that her class made me that she wrote a message that touched a nerve: ‘Thanks for critical thinking, sorry we let you down and didn’t get in.’ I took her aside and told her she hadn’t let me down in any way and that all that was important to me was that she ends up at the right university for her. I’m all for challenge and aiming as high as you can but this was a difficult outcome from the programme for me to deal with.
At the end of the first cycle of this programme (it ran for one cohort of Year 12 students who have just completed their A2 exams), would I run it again? Well, probably. I think the ideal situation would be for us to develop these important dispositions in all students across the curriculum but this is a big undertaking. Realistically, I’ll try more of it in my practice and then take it from there. If we do run the programme again, I’d push to start it much earlier – perhaps Year 9, with a short ‘refresher’ in Year 12.
The other comment that led me to write came from a student who popped in to school this week for a visit. He had applied to Cambridge last year and wasn’t offered a place despite his teachers feeling he was a strong potential Oxbridge candidate. I asked him how he was getting on at his university and he said it was great, he got a first at the end of his first year but it had been pretty easy really. This reminded me that many students come back after their first year at university and say something similar. Now I know university is about a lot more than just learning. For me it was also about finding out just how many clothes it was possible to fit into one washing machine load, how much lager I could drink and still be able to walk home and how surprisingly, it was actually harder to live with some ‘friends’ than it had been to live with my own brother and sister. However, my point is are universities actually providing appropriate value for money with the education they offer? Are universities differentiating in any way so that those students who know all this first year stuff already don’t completely switch off? Why is it that only a few universities are seen to be providing a suitably challenging environment for those ‘Gifted’ students? Do the other universities need to raise their game (particularly in the first year) so that we don’t waste a valuable (and increasingly expensive) year’s education? Is it really that much more challenging at Oxford or Cambridge? Even in the first year?
Please respond: tell me I’m wrong and students need a year to relax and learn other important lessons or that there are plenty of other universities that provide sufficient challenge right from the start. Maybe it’s just the brightest students that come back and say it was easy or maybe they’re mistaken or misguided. Opinions and experiences appreciated, so please share.