Tim Birkhead

November 23, 2007

In 1973 Konrad Lorenz won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his pioneering studies of animal behaviour. His contribution was the study of "imprinting", epitomised by images of himself closely followed by a gaggle of goslings. Lorenz examined the phenomenon well known to poultry breeders that young animals, such as geese, latch on to the first thing they see as they come into the world. In the case of the goslings he hatched, it was Lorenz; and the goslings promptly assumed him to be their mother. Even more striking, these goslings, in later life, assumed that Lorenz would make an appropriate sexual partner. As Lorenz saw it, imprinting irrevocably set the course for their future life.

The Jesuit maxim "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man" is based on a similar observation that events in early childhood dictate much of what happens later in life. It is true, and particularly obvious when we compare what children have been taught in school and what we try to teach them once they come to university.

The difference between what is expected at university and what pupils have had drilled into them during the ten previous years at school is alarming. The assessment-driven, target-oriented school system creates a rather limited set of expectations in pupils. They expect to be told what to memorise and how to craft an examination answer and are rarely, if ever, expected to think outside the syllabus, because there are no rewards - at least in terms of examinations - for doing so. The result is students who are typically - but mercifully not always - highly dependent and extremely efficient. In any other circumstance, this "efficiency" would be seen as a bonus, but here it means nothing more than minimising the effort required to achieve a certain goal. The spoon-feeding culture at school, driven by well-meaning teachers bullied into meeting government targets, means that most pupils expect to and are able to achieve their goals with less effort than in the past.

Let's face it, in terms of real education (by which I do not mean GCSE or A-level scores) the school experiment of the past 20 years or so has been a disaster. There's little evidence that targets and constant assessment have produced better-educated school-leavers and plenty of evidence that it has not. Some of the most compelling evidence comes from our observation that most students coming to university seem ill-prepared for what higher education has to offer. I can hear defenders of schools complaining that the universities are out of touch and haven't adjusted to the "new education", but this is naive. If universities do not strive to maintain standards, who will?

One of the most unsettling discoveries in recent years has been the assessment-driven corruption of science teaching in schools or, to put it another way, the failure to instil the idea of integrity. Much of the assessment in university science departments relies on project work in which students undertake a research project, collect their own data and analyse it. It has become increasingly obvious that much of the data in these reports is fabricated, made up, faked. Remarkably, in discussion about this students are often extremely sanguine, pointing out that this is what they did in school. In the desperate race to meet assessment targets teachers happily give credit when their pupils obtain the "right" results, because without them, they won't get the right marks and teachers won't get the right marks either when they are assessed. A striking and pathetic example of this involves the "outlier" - the name for a rogue data point that fails to conform to an expected pattern - in GCSE and A- level science exams. In the box-ticking education system, students get extra marks for mentioning outliers, and so - not surprisingly - they simply create their own, identify them and go home clutching their extra credits.

Not knowing right from wrong in science (and much else) leaves society vulnerable to many different ills. But it is not easy for university teachers to persuade students to unlearn the tricks they've learnt at school. The problem is exacerbated because universities have little power to impose the correct procedures since they too are increasingly trapped within an assessment-driven system, fearful of not being seen to be generous enough with their degrees.

Konrad Lorenz believed that once a young goose had imprinted itself on him, its sexual preferences were set for life. Lorenz's own views were set for life, but it was eventually discovered that imprinting is not necessarily "for ever" - under the right circumstances imprinted animals are able to change their behaviour and make the right choice. Let's hope that university can do that for our school-leavers too.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology, Sheffield University.

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