The title for this blog comes from a discussion I had with two girls (twins) who I teach in year 11. Despite being on track to achieve brilliantly in their English GCSEs, they don’t consider themselves to be fluent speakers of English. They are, however, fluent speakers of Italian and Portuguese. They joined the school about midway through year 10, and since then have improved more rapidly than any student or students that I’ve ever encountered before. They work harder, do more homework, organise revision materials better, and their work is more beautifully presented.
On Friday after school, these two students and a couple of others attended a revision session on Romeo & Juliet that I was running. I really like these sessions, especially with smaller groups of students. They seem much more relaxed and informal than classroom revision, and offer much more opportunity to discuss with students their own learning and preferences for revision.
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Part way through the session, I mentioned the word ‘Celestial’, discussing the language Romeo often uses to describe Juliet. After listening to one of the twins pronounce the word in Spanish (same spelling) they were quickly able, switching back and forth between different languages, to provide me with a good definition of the word. What followed was an interesting digression into their linguistic and educational history.
Half way through this digression, I jokingly commented on how much more demanding and challenging my lessons must be in comparison to those they had experienced in Italy – it was a playful attempt at fishing for a compliment. The resounding answer was a ‘no’ and the pair could hardly contain their laughter. You see, things were different in Italy – they were much tougher.
I have no idea if their experiences are representative of all Italian schools, whether they were publicly or privately educated, but these were the main reasons that English education was so much easier:
Firstly, in Italy you had to remember things. Really remember them. Everyone knew that failure to remember the content of your lessons was likely to result in failure in the subject. The students worked much harder in lessons because of this reason. If they didn’t remember the content they’ll be at risk of failure.
Secondly, they had to do homework. Apparently the homework they get at the moment is nothing in comparison. Again, this linked back to the expectation that they have to remember more of what they covered in lessons. Without more homework, how were you suppose to achieve this?
Annoyingly, I thought that all year I’d been really strict on giving plenty of homework and being a real stick in the mud for deadlines. And I thought I forced my students to remember stuff. But then, I was doing a revision session on a play that I hadn’t even got my students to read all the way through. Sigh.
I’m not sure what conclusions can be gleaned from this. I know it’s just one example, I know I’m lacking in any real knowledge of their previous education, and I know that I’m posting in lieu of any empirical evidence that students in England don’t have much homework and aren’t expected to remember that much. But, the question still nags. What is it about education in England that these two find so laughably easy?