Debate prejudice in class, but not under exam conditions

By Maureen Kendler, June 6, 2012

As a former secondary school religious studies teacher, I would certainly not have liked to have answered - or marked - the recent GCSE paper which asked 16-year-olds to "explain briefly, why some people are prejudiced against the Jews."

Reading about the paper, it struck me that almost every word in the question was problematic. "Explain", it asked, with the implication that prejudice can be explained, that one can always produce cause and consequence for an issue as complex as this. Would the examiner have awarded marks for proposing that antisemitism was at its heart irrational, unreasonable - in other words, inexplicable?

Answer "briefly," pupils were told, as if this subject could be properly tackled in a couple of lines. And "some people?" Who might those people be? The student? The examiner? The racist?

While in agreement with my esteemed colleague Clive Lawton about the legitimacy of this as a question to ask, it's a very different matter to ask it on an exam paper. If I do not go so far as to find it "bizarre", as Michael Gove labelled the question, I consider its inclusion to be deeply and worryingly inappropriate.

Certainly it is legitimate to ask such a question, and so it follows that the discussion of the subject belongs in the classroom. During my time as a school teacher, all sorts of sensitive, emotive and potentially explosive issues were raised and welcomed in my classroom, from religion and homosexuality to euthanasia. I felt it was absolutely my place to facilitate no-holds-barred exploration of such topics and would approach those classes with adrenaline and, I hope, a sense of responsibility. My aim was to allow anything to be said in this forum; for students to air all prejudices, however uninformed and offensive I might have found them.

Teaching ethics to teenagers is a minefield

But my hope was that with a healthy classroom debate, even the most ignorant or bigoted student would have had a chance to modify their views and be challenged on them, to leave the lesson thinking differently - or at least thinking, period.

A sixth form discussion that I once facilitated about eugenics went spiralling off into a very unexpected direction, with a student genuinely proposing it as an excellent idea. Did our discussion change her mind? Perhaps, perhaps not. At the very least, the aim was that even if she still held firm to her opinion by the end of the lesson, she left the room aware that there were different ways of looking at the topic and that she was in a minority of one.

Teaching ethics to teenagers, including the specifics of prejudice and hatred, is a complete minefield, as it should be. Once, on a teacher training day to help us to mark ethics A Level coursework, we were shown a disturbing piece of writing that nobody quite knew what to do with. It was an essay about abortion and its views - a fundamentalist perspective on why "abortion is murder" - were offensive and unpalatable. Yet they were expressed very beautifully indeed; troubling conclusions matched with a well-constructed argument.

In short, the answer ticked all the boxes for a top mark paper, and a top grade was duly awarded. The fact that such abhorrent opinions should be rewarded in this way seemed very wrong, and I remember wishing for the briefest of moments that I was a maths teacher, tasked with absolutely right or wrong answers.

But while it is right, necessary even, to keep our classrooms full of debate and let teachers be shocked by what they hear, GCSE exam questions, at eight marks a go, are not the place to explore sensitive and really challenging issues. They are not the place for nuanced consideration, but for efficiently amassing facts and providing competent and balanced arguments.

The lead examiner for the GCSE religious studies paper argued that a "quick glance" at the finished exam scripts showed that students had "understood the question in the sense that was intended." Yet is it really possible - under pressured exam conditions - to contextualise or confront the inevitable stereotypes of money-lending and Christ-killing that I imagine the examiner "intended" to be challenged?

This question should not have been included, especially for this age group, who are busy condensing and simplifying ten subjects into revision-sized packages.

Maureen Kendler is head of Educational Programming at the London School of Jewish Studies

Last updated: 4:27pm, June 6 2012