Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Easy Exams Update

It seems to be about time for an update. My email seems to have provoked at least a bit of discussion. Everyone who commented or responded got 5 points out of 5. these have ranged from someone teaching students history at a university to people who have never studied history and were not taught in a European country.

Points raised so far seem to be:

1) Exams may be easier through the experience gained over time.
2) A single question is not a representative sample.
3) To be fair I should also try a set of questions from the 50s for comparison.


In the case of this particular history question 1 turns out not to be relevant as most of the people getting full marks were under the impression that we were discussing a different war to the one referred to in the questions. I certainly was one of the people who made that mistake, so any knowledge I had was irrelevant and potentially misleading. 2 is quite true in the abstract, though I did choose this question as representative of what I had seen.

Number 3 seems a very good idea. I would like to try some 1950s papers, and am now looking for suggestions as to the best ways to obtain these as well as volunteers to help with exam conditions.

In a similar vein, I have compared a maths paper left over from when I studied for my O levels with one from today and the difference is clear. I have only done this on maths as I consider myself sufficiently educated in maths that this will not affect my result. In some sense, maths is the control for one end of the spectrum. The foundation paper appears to be designed to ensure that everyone can get a GCSE.

This may seem a little harsh, but I was appalled to discover that one of the questions awarded a mark for the ability to count to 10. I am serious, one question had the first part (for one mark) that you had to examine four pictures and say how many blocks they showed. Each block was illustrated by a rectangle. The highest number of blocks illustrated was 10. You also needed to be able to count to 7, 3 and 1 but if you can do ten then they must be childs play.

The 'higher' paper was a little better, and could have weeded out the lowest performers. It still did not compare in difficulty to the papers from my examinations. I have heard the suggestion that as the level drops, so more papers are required to differentiate between candidates, this being why we see so many more people with 10-12 highers. I do not really accept this. If the level is sufficiently easy all the number of highers will measure is the amount of time spent in the examination hall.

Another suggestion that has come up is that I should tackle the coursework from scratch. I will look into this. I am guessing a fair way to do it would be to allow myself 30 minutes per item. If this comes to a sufficiently small amount of time when I know how many items are required I will do it.

In summary, so far nothing has dispelled my belief that the difficulty has gone down. On the contrary, I am now becoming convinced it has fallen far enough to remove the effectiveness of the exams all together. I feel sorry for everyone who has to use this system as a yardstick to measure himself or herself.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Quality Food!

Today I am going to talk about something close to my heart: Food. This is nearly an unashamed advertorial. The only thing stopping it being pure advert is that I have no vested interest in any of the companies I am going to mention and the first two do not even know that I exist. I am going to start with a couple of restaurants I have recently encountered, at the end I shall mention another of my favourite restaurants that I have know since it was a start up, but which is doing so well I expect it to be a chain soon. I am looking forward to seeing if Kelvin can maintain the quality levels when that happens.

First off, my qualifications to talk about quality in restaurants:

1) I eat.

2) I once spent a whole year with only one meal cooked at home, the rest were eaten out (I do not count Christmas dinner, while that was technically eaten out too, I helped cook). I have eaten in more restaurants than most people and more often, so I know a good thing when I see it.

3) I have been involved in starting several companies, so I know what is involved from the other side too.

Recently I have been particularly impressed with two restaurants. That does not just mean with the decor, though that was nice, nor with the service, though in both cases they went above and beyond the call of duty. What really impressed me though was the food. Quite different in each case, but both were filled with quality and care as well as taste and good looks.

The two places I went were NinComSoup in London (inside Old Street Tube shopping mall, near exit three) and Cotto in Cambridge (183 East Road just on the corner of the Tram Depot mews). Both of these restaurants are owned by people who care about food and staffed by the same, unlike a chain or a franchise. Having said that, both have all the good points of a chain with none of the bad. Being in a chain pretty much ensures that things like hygiene and health and safety have been covered fairly thoroughly, as is certainly the case in each of these places.

Taking Cotto first it is a stylish open place with a clean fresh atmosphere and a real culture of quality. When they ask you whether you enjoyed your food they then go straight to the person who cooked it and pass on your comments. When we arrived the waiter was sat outside going through a recipe book, and we still didn't have a moments waiting.

If you smile nicely you can get the recipe for the delicious chocolate cake or the citrus cake but believe me you will never make it better than they do. The first looks like a cake but is made like a torte, with no flour at all. What makes the place special is that the waiter knows this kind of fact and cares about it. He volunteered the details of how and why this was different from a chocolate sponge. When we commented on the nice plates he told us that they were Cedar and were dishwasher proof. The fact that they also looked lovely and fitted with the entire restaurant design was a given.

Quality is about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, which only happens when you can visualise the whole so that nothing jars the experience. I have mentioned the waiter, but the impression of ownership and commitment he gave out made me think he must be the guy starting it up. He isn't, someone I have not met called Alice owns it, but everyone there acts as if anything related the restaurant is as important as it would be if it were their baby. All the food is made on the spot from local ingredients in a well designed kitchen. The change of use has been flawless, and anyone coming to Cambridge should go there even if only for coffee and cakes.

On the subject of coffee and cakes, when the decaffeinated filter coffee ran low, Coralie, who did not want caffeine, was brought a free half cup of strong decaf (all that could be made from what was left) and a little jug of hot water to dilute it as far as she was comfortable with.

Oddly enough, free coffee could almost link the two restaurants. Nincomsoup, or

Nin
Com
Soup

as they put it, is a completely different kind of restaurant.

It is a soup version of Starbucks, and before I ate there I had assumed it was a chain. It was the quality of the food and the attention to detail that made me suspect otherwise. The obvious care of everyone working there convinced me, and was what decided me to write this. If you want a smoothie in Starbucks, you buy an Innocent Smoothie (tm), or whatever else they are selling. Don't get me wrong, this can be a nice drink. If you want a smoothie in Nincomsoup you look through the different bags of fruit, vegetable or both and pick the one you think looks nicest and freshest. They will then liquidise it for you in the sort of liquidiser that was probably used to turn the dinosaurs into oil back in the prehistoric times before the Internet was created. The result? Probably the best fruit drink you have ever tasted.

Quality runs through the whole offering, but more than that, it is clear that the owners (Tom and Ben I understand) also care about how healthy their customers are. The food is deliberately healthy and delicious. If you want to pig out you can have a hand made chocolate brownie with an expensive proportion of nuts for a reasonably cheap price. If you actually find out what goes into it you realise that eating ten of these would be about a unhealthy as eating one of most commercial brownies. If instead you want the really healthy option you can get a flat tub of Natural (and I suspect organic, but I did not check) yoghurt with some fruit pulp over one side of it. I do not even like natural yoghurt and I found it delicious.

Beyond that, this restaurant, which has won several design awards, is also disabled friendly. Disabled friendly for a chain means it meets a few accessibility regulations. For Nincomsoup it means that staff are given deaf-awareness and sign-language training, that the staff are proactively helpful and that, of course, all the regulations are met too.

As for that free coffee, when I ordered my Americano, a different customer accidentally wandered off with it. They made me another, and him a fresh one of the type he had ordered, so that he ended up with two. It wasn't their fault he had mis-identified the coffee, but they had made it their problem and solved it so everyone was happy even before some of us had noticed there was a problem.

Finally a word about Bankside: Bankside is a huge restaurant in the centre of London, which does great food in large quantities at cheap prices. No, that is not right, it is now a set of two great restaurants doing great food at cheap prices in the expensive centre of London. In the second restaurant the elevator to allow disabled access cost more than the rest of the start-up costs put together, and nearly prevented the whole thing. So far almost no disabled people have been to the restaurant, so if you have mobility problems please go and enjoy a d*mn good meal, and help justify the cost.

I met Kelvin (the owner) shortly before he started the first of these restaurants, and he told me all about his plans. Frankly I was slightly dubious as he was talking about keeping the food cheap and the quality high. It is the sort of thing everyone wants but very few people can actually do. Kelvin managed it. He gets his house wine by the barrel so that he can save money on good wine, and it is good wine; he then passes on his savings to the customers. This is the ethic behind everything in the restaurant. He designed the seating himself, had it hand made for him and imported it, so that he could get what he needed to make the place beautiful and functional at a price that worked. Everywhere you look in either Bankside (one by the bank of the Thames the other by the Bank of England) the quality is superb and the price is cheap.

The best steak I have ever had was at Bankside and did not cost an arm and a leg. Gaucho do good steaks, Ecuador and the US do better steaks, but the best was in Bankside. I only ordered it because I smelt the steak of the person opposite me and had to have one as well. I had already eaten but could not resist. The menu at Bankside changes based on what the best food Kelvin can get is at any given time. There are currently only the two Banksides, but I am hoping the next one will be on the bank of the river Cam so I can eat there regularly.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Easy Exams?

I have heard a lot about how GCSEs are much easier than the exams used to be when I took them. I believe it. I also believe that they were much easier when I took them than they were previously (the only data point I have for this is that I am told by someone I trust that they were much harder in the 1950s than when he took them, and we are nearly contemporaries).

This has led me to a couple of interesting questions.

1) Are they now easy enough that you do not need to do the course work?
2) Is this slippage going to mean that less innovation comes out of the UK to add to benefit all mankind (great phrase, but as I mean it I might as well be clich├ęd)?

I doubt I will get around to the research required to properly answer question 2 though my feeling is that it already has had an impact. Any other views I am happy to be persuaded.

More interesting is question 1 as I propose to attempt to find out the answer. I intend to enter the examinations for a set of GCSEs from the following three categories:

1) Should know. These are subjects which I have studied for an exam at some point. Maybe it was 20 years ago, but even so, if I had total recall (PK Dick reference?) I would be able to do them.

2) Have Encountered. IE Spanish. I have never studied Spanish, but I have been to South America (where in 1 week I was electrocuted, shot at, dragged behind a bus and kidnapped, but that is another story), so I have come across Spanish spoken fluently, so I am not going from nothing.

3) No knowledge. This is things like architecture, where I have lived in houses all my life, but that should not qualify me for an exam by any stretch of the imagination.

I am as yet undecided which of the following I should allow:

A) A look at the syllabus for 20 minutes.
B) A day to research the subject.
C) No preparation at all.

Comments on which would be appreciated. Also I do not know how many I should take. This will be limited by two factors, first how much it costs to take the exams, and second how much time it takes up. Due to the time constraints I will not be doing course work, so I will project the exam results as if they were also typical of the coursework, though I understand there is normally a significant drop from coursework grade to exam grade. Still it means my results will be lower, not higher, so that is fair. Does anyone know of a GCSE where you do not need to do coursework to pass? Any offers to sponsor particular exams to allow me to test more subjects?

Hey, it is not a completely objective test, but it will provide a feel, which I will write up on here, and it should be a bit of fun.

One final thought: It is not fair to the people taking these exams to make them easy. If everyone does well and no one values the exams then those who have worked hard need not have bothered. This encourages not working, and makes things harder in later life. It took me years to become the workaholic I am today simply because I managed to coast through school without going much. I spent the year before my O-Level year writing the divorce papers for my parents. My report from that year says I missed more than 2/3rds of the school days. It is filled with comments like "I have not seen much of Rufus, but it does not seem to have affected his progress". What sort of message does that give to a child? And if the exams are even easier it will be worse for the people taking them today.

How will they feel to hear on the news that the exams they are taking are not worth taking? They cannot win, whether they do well or not they will get no credit, and they are not learning what they need for further education. Even if the exams are hard enough they are not percieved as hard enough, and if as I believe they are not hard enough how is that fair to the kids who have to take them?

Since posting this I have looked at a few things to help assess the exams, and sent a typical question around by email.

So far it seems that:
A) Everyone who has so far provided a score found the question easy (many responded to me directly).
B) Many of them have reasons that this may not be a bad thing or a problem with the exams.
C) No one I sent the question to admits they studied history.
It certainly seems that for this question, as well as for others i have seen which are not so easy to send around online as I did this, no knowledge of history per se is actually necessary. The proof of course may be in the real exams later, so watch this space.

There is a suggestion that age gives perspective as well as experience, and that these make a difference. This is certainly true, though I remember parents having a hard time with some of the work, so it cannot be sufficient to make the issue completely irrelevant.

For those who have not seen the question I sent here it is:

The question:
Here is a list of five events that helped the Allies to win the war, and five effects which were the result of these events. In this exercise you have to match up the event with the effect. Type the appropriate letter in the box.

Events

1. The British navy blockaded German ports.

2. The Italians defeated the Austrians at Vittorio Veneto.

3. Tanks were improved and became more reliable.

4. The sinking of American ships by the German U-Boats.

5. The initial success of Operation Michael.


Effects

This meant that they could be used in large numbers at Amiens.
This meant there were shortages of food in Germany.
This led to America declaring war against Germany.
This led to the Allies appointing a Supreme Commander.
This meant that the Austrians signed an armistice.

This can also be found at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/gigaflat/
history/winningthewar/winningthewar_quiz.shtml

and is posted here for review purposes only.


P.S. Suggestions on other things I can do to help evaluate the GCSEs are certainly welcome.