October 25th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd's desperate gamble

EDITORIAL: Can Australia weather the storm?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Defending Australia's independence

CHINA: Milk contamination scandal: tip of the iceberg

NEW ZEALAND: November 8 election: Helen Clark's last hurrah?

FAMILY: Will paid maternity leave help mothers?

VICTORIA: Behind Victoria's radical new abortion law

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Can the US adjust to changing world realities?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Barbarossa II / Our friends

EDUCATION: When the wrong answer is 'right'

SCHOOLS: Minister Gillard backs faulty ranking system

SRI LANKA: Plight of persecuted Tamils worsens

TAIWAN: Ball in Beijing's court for Taiwan's WHO entry

EUROPE: Germany backs Russia against Georgia, Ukraine

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Health and safety obsessions stifle childhood

BOOKS: BLUE PLANET IN GREEN SHACKLES: What is Endangered: Climate or Freedom? by Vaclav Klaus

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When the wrong answer is 'right'

by Mark Lopez

News Weekly, October 25, 2008
The politically correct bias in schools is so prevalent, it is predictable and therefore exploitable as a path to straight "A" grades, advises Mark Lopez in this extract from The Little Black Schoolbook, published this month.

You can probably recall being told the following by a teacher: "It does not matter what you say as long as you argue well." This is rarely the case and if you follow that advice it is at your peril. The teachers who say this probably do not intend to deliberately mislead you. They may have simply never acquired the ability to distinguish between objective facts and subjective values.

Consequently, it pays if you adhere to the following dictum: Do not follow teachers' advice according to what they say about their attitude to assessment; rather observe their behaviour and learn what to do from what they actually respond to.

People can say almost anything, deceiving others and even themselves, so it is usually their actions that are revealing as to what their true underlying feelings are. Often they will say one thing, such as proclaim their fairness, but act another way, by rewarding all the essays that reflect their biases and penalising those essays that do not.

Never forget that the audience you are actually writing for is your teacher or examiner. Your essay has to appeal to the person who will grade your work. In many English essays, students are asked to specify in a preamble their target audience. In doing this, many students fall into a trap, for example by stating that their target audience was teenage males, believing that this gave them the liberty to write the slang and sexist comments that appeal to this particular audience, not appreciating that their actual audience was a middle-aged feminist teacher with an acute antagonism towards this form of material.

This was the experience of one of my students. He was a typical red-blooded teenage male who decorated his dormitory room with posters of fast cars and bikini-clad women. His English teacher had given his class an assignment to write a creative essay.

She had provided the class with copies of what she thought was a good essay. The class was expected to use it as a model. This essay expressed the desire for an ideal politically correct world. Each paragraph began with the phrase "I like..." and expressed the desire for the abolition of racism or war, etc.

The student did not appreciate the theme but he was inspired by the format. He decided to write an essay about what teenage boys really like. In his preamble he clearly stated that the target audience was teenage males. His "I like" essay celebrated the joys of action movies and beautiful women.

My student passed a draft of his essay around his dormitory. His peers rocked with appreciative laughter. It was obviously a hit with his target audience, which was a key official assessment criterion. My student handed in his draft to his teacher for comment.

Because it was stylishly written, entertaining and perfectly crafted to appeal to its target audience, he expected praise. Her response was far less. She said that it could offend some examiners. What? She was the only examiner. It was internally assessed class work.

What the teacher's response really indicated was that she could not give an "A" to an essay that contravened her fundamental beliefs. Her conscience would not permit it. It would be like expressing approval of ideas to which she was opposed. She hid her true sentiments behind the notion that the student's essay would offend some other examiners.

An essay of this kind could never receive an "A" from this examiner, no matter how well written. To receive an "A" from her the student would have to write a different essay, one that reflected the teacher's politically correct Left values.

I advised the student to write another essay for his teacher. Interestingly, he chose to submit the original essay. He was proud of it. He claimed that it was the best thing he had ever written. He knew it was first-rate, but he accepted that he would have to bear the cost of a grade that was unfairly lower than he deserved.

Familiar experience

He was confident that he could make up the grades he needed elsewhere. Besides, he was in year 11, not year 12 where every mark counts towards university entrance. Does this kind of experience sound familiar to you? Here is another.

A student of mine, who was doing year 12, was determined to achieve the highest grades. I was tutoring him in a modern history subject that featured the Russian Revolution. He was keen to score high results in a research essay on Lenin's New Economic Policy, the topic the class had been assigned.

To get him started I put him in touch with an expert specialist librarian at a leading university who showed him through the library's substantial holdings on the subject. Brimming with enthusiasm, the student read widely and deeply, taking far more effort than would be expected from a high school student. His formidable effort paid off. His first draft was an intelligent, well-structured, well-documented and well-argued essay that was more like university than high school standard. I was very impressed.

He submitted the draft to his teacher for comment. He was astonished by the result - only "C+". All his previous essays had received "A"s. What was happening? My student was concerned and bewildered. He had put more effort into this essay than the others combined.

I looked at his work again. It was superb, I thought to myself. Then I realised that was the problem. Unfortunately, it was beyond the intellectual capacity of his teacher to appreciate. What he had to do was "dumb it down".

We went back to the notes that my student had taken in class. They revealed that his teacher had a very confused and erroneous understanding of the topic. The teacher, of course, did not realise this. Unfortunately, the teacher was unwilling to entertain any interpretation of the subject matter that differed from his own.

I advised my student to omit everything from his draft that significantly differed from the teacher's opinions, while the teacher's own thoughts were imputed into the essay, in some cases in the teacher's exact words, no matter how inane some of these thoughts were. My student retained his clear structure and expression, but not much remained of the impressive content of the first draft.

My student was willing to do what was necessary to succeed and he did. He received an "A+" for the essay. That year he achieved a perfect score for History, 100 per cent, and took out the school's History prize. If he wanted to know what the nature of Lenin's New Economic Policy was really like, he could always consult his first draft.

What can we learn from this student's experience? We could start with the following: Although improvements in quality generally do bring improvements in grades, contrary to widespread assumptions there are circumstances in which improvements in quality can be counter-productive in achieving high grades if the examiner is ignorant, incompetent and narrow-minded. On these occasions you may have to temper the quality of your work that is submitted for assessment.

There is more we can learn from this example. With some examiners, the achievement of an "A" does not necessarily involve submitting what you know to be the right answer, but rather what you believe the examiner thinks is the right answer, even if it is the wrong answer.

Unfairly penalised

If you have ever suspected that you have previously been unfairly penalised for having the right answer, you are probably correct. But now you know what you can do about it. If you suspect that your understanding of the topic is too sophisticated for the teacher to appreciate, then you may have to dumb it down by mimicking the teacher's understanding to receive your "A".

While helping students as a private tutor, I have observed that these kinds of situations are more common than most people realise. They are invisible to the many students who slavishly follow their teacher's instructions and do not take responsibility for their own education.

Consequently, they do not have the additional knowledge to serve as reference points for comparison, and consequently they do not realise that their teacher is in error and they have learnt incorrect facts or analysis. These students labour under the false assumption that their educator is more competent than he actually is, even though on occasions they may experience the discomforting feeling that what the teacher is saying does not quite add up.

Teacher bias is one of the issues most complained about by students. I suggest that you look at the issue in a new way, so instead of it being a problem it becomes an opportunity. Make your teacher's bias your friend, because if you do not it will be a formidable enemy.

Once you recognise the subjectivity of assessment, the role of bias and the possibility of teacher error, it follows that your campaign for straight "A"s must begin by establishing a psychological profile of your examiner. This will enable you to include in your essay everything that you calculate will press the right psychological buttons of your examiner to pay a dividend in grades. You can tailor your essays to suit the idiosyncrasies of each of your examiners. The more obvious their biases the easier your task will be.

Once you can read and exploit teacher bias you will be able to play your examiners like a violin.

- Dr Mark Lopez is a private tutor. The Little Black Schoolbook is available through News Weekly Books.

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