Gibberish sprinkled with question marks: in nonsense is strength

Early on in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, the narration turns to the setting of the story: the United States of America. Vonnegut transcribes the first verse of the national anthem and concludes of America:

“There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but [America] was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.”

Vonnegut goes on to say (of the national anthem as well as various other symbols of the country):

“Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength.‘”

In nonsense is strength. It’s a motto that can be applied to some of the casual commentaries on education that spring up every now and again in the national press. By casual commentaries, I mean those statements of address on the state (or future) of education from those outside of the education sector. Such commentaries are often from writers who have a weekly column to fill, but are sometimes from business leaders or entrepreneurs who have chosen to enlighten us with their unevidenced assumptions (see: TED talks).

One such example of the former is George Monbiot’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘In the age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant’, which opens with this rhetorical flush:

“In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

Children learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity. So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?

We succeed in adulthood through collaboration. So why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

Governments claim to want to reduce the number of children being excluded from school. So why are their curriculums and tests so narrow that they alienate any child whose mind does not work in a particular way?”

To borrow from Vonnegut, this is “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”. People have been making claims that jobs in the future are going to be so radically different to today for decades. If we’d have listened to the futurists of 1900, we’d have stopped training people to cut and style hair as, according to those futurists, hairdressers wouldn’t be needed by the year 2000:

Indeed, Monbiot is adding himself to the list of futurists claiming that the 21st century job is somehow peculiar to jobs of the past and present in needing “creative, critical and socially skilled” people. Even when I worked in fast food restaurants, I worked with people who needed and used those skills. (They also needed to be literate and numerate, despite what many people might think.) Quite why Monbiot thinks being creative, critical and socially skilled belongs exclusively to the future is beyond me.

Monbiot goes on to make other claims which simply don’t stand up under scrutiny, repeating the same old unsubstantiated assertions that commentators have been throwing out since the Romantic period: allusion to factory models, teachers ‘stuffing’ kids with facts, children learn in different ways, etc. These complaints are all answered with the same ideas that have echoed through time: let kids choose what they should learn, children’s brains are different so they shouldn’t have to learn the same things as each other, and that old classic: why can’t they just Google it?

Today, Caitlin Moran gave us her own cover version of this old standard in a Times column titled, ‘Why I should run our schools’ (£). For Moran, “jobs of the future require flexibility and self-motivation”. Again, how does that differ from jobs today? She iterates “two facts: (1) the 21st century job market requires basically nothing of what is taught in schools, and (2) everyone has a smartphone.” Of course, (1) is nonsense and (2) is another claim that we can just Google it. Monbiot and Moran both overlook the evidence that, as E.D. Hirsch says in summarising cognitive psychologist George Miller’s research, “to be able to use [Google] information – to absorb it, to add to our knowledge – we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge.” Daisy Christodoulou explains in detail why just you can’t just Google it, here.

Monbiot and Moran are both hugely intelligent people (I’ve enjoyed much of their writing on a myriad of topics), but they fall into the same trap as many amateur commentators on education in repeating the same old “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”, gibberish that appeals to and seduces casual observers of education. They certainly aren’t the first to do so, and they definitely won’t be the last. Because in nonsense is strength.

Assessment Objectives: An Ofqual concern for Ofqual people; there is nothing for you here!

I’d turned over on my ankle and it had already ballooned up by the time I’d reached the doctor’s office. After a bit of prodding and nodding, he spoke. “Yes, looks nasty. Bit swollen. But it’ll be pretty straightforward to make you feel better.”

“Great. Give it to me. Er, please.” I replied.

“As I say, it’s straightforward. You need to stop your cells from producing prostaglandins.”


“Prostaglandins. They are a group of lipids. When your cells are damaged they release them. You need to stop your cells from producing these prostaglandins.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve still no…”

“Listen, Mr Theo, you want to feel better don’t you?”

“Yes, I…”

“Well then, you need to stop producing prostaglandins. That’s why you are in pain. The nerve endings are picking up on them and transmitting the pain to your brain. You stop them, you stop the pain.”

“Right, so… how do I…”

“Well, to stop these prostaglandins, you just need to, er…”

The doctor paused, looking around him as if he’d lost something.

“Quick, this is really hurting. Please.”

“As I was saying, you just need to…” A look of realisation came over the doctor’s face and he immediately spun around to face his desk. He opened his drawer, pulled out a notepad and started scribbling away. After he’d scratched a few hieroglyphs on the page, he ripped it off the notepad and handed it over to me. “…take two of these every four hours, no more than three times in a 24 hour period. That should sort you out until the swelling goes down.”

I took the sheet of paper and read it. “But this just says ‘Ibuprofen’? Is that it? You could have just told me this straight away. I have some Ibuprofen in my pocket. What was all the stuff about pronto… procti…”

“Prostaglandins. Yes, it’s important that you know the objective of the treatment.”

Of course, it didn’t go like that at all. The doctor just told me that it was nothing serious, just a little tissue damage, and that I should go home and take some painkillers. He said that Ibuprofen would take away the pain until the injury settles down. I didn’t need to know the stuff about prostaglandins. I just needed to know specifically what to do to make me feel better.

This is how I feel when I see resources that explicitly discuss Assessment Objectives with pupils. I have no idea why pupils need to know about Assessment Objectives. They aren’t meant for pupils. Heck, they are barely of use to teachers.

Assessment Objectives (AOs) are produced by Ofqual so that exam boards can be held to account when putting together their qualifications. They are just an accountability tool for exam boards:

“Assessment objectives are part of the assessment arrangements for these qualifications. We adopt the assessment objectives set out in the attached document into our regulatory framework through the subject-specific conditions that exam boards must comply with when designing their specifications.” (Ofqual, 2014)

Because they are an overview of the conditions that exam boards need to comply with, they are vague: they mean very little as they are and it is up to exam boards to interpret them and use these interpretations to determine more distinct requirements for pupils.

Take a look at the AOs for the new English Language and English Literature GCSEs:

Current Assessment Objectives for GCSE English Language (Published by DfE, 2013)
Current Assessment Objectives for GCSE English Literature (Published by DfE, 2013)

As you can see, these don’t tell pupils anything they need to know other than a vague catch-all concepts: ‘select and synthesise evidence from different texts’ is such an imprecise phrase that one could successfully meet this ‘objective’ as it is written here with either one sentence or a ten-page essay.

To know what success would look like under each of the AOs, one might find it more useful to look at the mark schemes written by the exam boards. Level descriptors are exam boards’ interpretations of the assessment objectives, and are at least produced to detail what constitutes success in pupils’ writing.

Yet even these exam boards’ interpretations of the AOs into level descriptors are problematic. As Daisy Christodoulou has written in blogs and in her must-read book on assessment, even descriptors are inaccurate. She will tell us that they are far from ‘precise and detailed’:

So if the performance descriptors are imprecise, what hope is there for Assessment Objectives? Pupils have enough things to remember in preparing for their exams without having to contend with vague statements such as these. Much better to spend time teaching pupils how to respond rather than listing for them Ofqual’s requirements for exam boards.

Assessment Objectives are an Ofqual concern for Ofqual people*. There is nothing for pupils here.

*Ofqual, exam boards, examiners.