The View From Here

For a 17-year-old to question what he is told, takes courage
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The Independent Online
Just as the academic year is folding and we university mandarins are looking forward to a summer of research and reflection uncluttered by teaching commitments, there remains one final job. As in many higher education institutions, we at Oxford now hold open days, where aspiring applicants can come and meet college tutors. It is not the time to probe into the strengths and weaknesses of each individual application from those sixth-formers cramming into one's teaching room: after all, given that not all the eventual applicants will have attended these informal group sessions, it would hardly be fair to conduct pre-interviews. Rather, the point is for the sixth-former to see whether we and the college and the course are appropriate for them. My introductory quip as they file in, is that this is when they get to interview me, whereas the opposite will apply in December.

So, they lead the questions. After the inevitable shuffling of feet, interest eventually focuses on the admissions procedure: what are we actually looking for? Here in Oxford, the success or otherwise of the interview has recently been thrown into even sharper focus by abolishing the entrance examination Gone is a universal yardstick for assessing the merits of hundreds of young people. Rather, as elsewhere in the UK, we now have 20 minutes to get it right.

Many candidates think that we will primarily be scrutinising their factual knowledge. Up to a point, this expectation is inevitably justified. A rudimentary background knowledge is, after all, required for all courses, the extent depending on whether they have already been begun at A-level. But a grasp of facts per se can be ascertained without meeting face to face. I was surprised to learn that in certain higher education institutes in Denmark, those scoring the top marks in a school examination were automatically admitted to the course. The idea behind this form of selection was to ensure against bias arising from personal interaction. So why do we persist with the time-consuming and exhausting exercise of up to 20 interviews in a day?

I am looking for people who can not only absorb facts, but also start to realise the significance of them in a wider context. There is nothing worse than a know-all who doesn't. If someone is already so insistent on a point that we miss the chance for discussion, I, for one, ask myself whether I can really imagine coming face to face with that particular individual at 9am on a Monday morning. Obviously, the other extreme is equally unappealing: the whispered monosyllable that makes development of a dialogue akin to walking in treacle. Yes, of course it is hard for a nervous interviewee to steer a middle course. But even more of a tall order, and one all the more impressive when it happens, is to come across a candidate who is comfortable with intellectual uncertainty. For a 17- year-old to be able to admit that an answer is far from obvious, and then proceed to think aloud, listen and modify their thoughts as they go along, to assess and query the views of some middle-aged potentate, all takes a lot of courage and confidence. Of course some might say that such desiderata are talents needed only for the quirky anachronism of the Oxford tutorial. I would argue, however, that it should be a cornerstone of education to equip someone, irrespective of the method of teaching, to think, as opposed to just know.

Most of all, I am after evidence of curiosity. As one James Thurber remarked, "It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers." In my experience, the brighter the students, the more questions they ask. One can only assume that this knack of asking questions also goes on with some kind of internal and continuous intellectual audit; hence true progress. Only by persistently asking questions of yourself, and by extension others, until you arrive at a satisfactory answer, will you ensure a true understanding far more powerful than rote learning.

But how might one foster curiosity? Especially, as in school, when faced with a daunting and arduous syllabus, the priority is surely to get the facts across as efficiently and effectively as possible. The problem is perhaps particularly acute in the sciences, where, in schools, the boundary of the subject, and hence the uncertainty and excitement, are all far away. When I spoke on the brain recently to a group of science sixth-formers, gathered from various schools, I was amazed that it was only one of the biology teachers who asked any questions. Were they nervous of appearing silly in public? Perhaps it might help to ferment certain cultural attitudes in the classroom: to explode the myth of the "stupid question", to allay the nervous and self-deprecating caveat that often forms a preamble to a question. As much as possible, surely, students should be reassured that it is not discourteous to ask questions, and that, for girls in particular, there is no inherent virtue in passive acquiescence.

Inevitably the lecture format must dominate over the dialogue with current staff-pupil ratios, so I'm not sure how these values might be incorporated into the life of the classroom or the culture of a school. But I am convinced that there is a need to try. Once someone's curiosity is fired, then they are on the pedagogic home straight, irrespective of the merits or otherwise of an Oxford interview.

The writer is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University