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A petty matter: Why it’s OK that teens don’t know what ‘trivial’ means

News that the word ‘trivial’ had stumped students taking an NCEA history exam has prompted worldwide ridicule and much handwringing about the state of New Zealand education. But is that really the right reaction, asks high school teacher and author Bernard Beckett.

Trawling through the comments section of news sites, like driving on this country’s roads, provides a reliable and dispiriting reminder of the level of misdirected anger bubbling beneath our collective skin. Last week’s news that students were signing a petition in protest at the use of the word ‘trivial’ in their level three history exam provided happy fodder for the perpetually dissatisfied. You will be able to anticipate the responses for yourselves. That young people should struggle with such a simple word was a sure sign of the anaemic state of the modern vocabulary, an indictment of the modern education system, yet another example of the inability of our youth to suck it up and take responsibility, and certain proof that teachers everywhere should never ever receive a pay rise of any description: smugness and questionable grammar snuggling up close, getting nostalgic for a world that never was.

And yet the incidence of an apparently innocuous word causing such consternation amongst exam candidates speaks to a number of interesting issues. The first is how quickly language changes, and how difficult it is to pick up these changes when they are intergenerational. The people setting the exam have no doubt been surprised that the word ‘trivial’ is not widely recognised by the young. So was I. I had no idea it had slipped out of common usage. But then I teach mathematics and have an interest in philosophy and trivial has an important meaning in both those fields. Even if I didn’t, I grew up in a world where the word was often used. I also grew up in the countryside and so as a child knew the difference between a cow, a heifer and a steer. None of these things speak to the general state of my vocabulary, just the context in which it was acquired.

Speaking to a history teacher following the exam, I was interested to hear that the problem with ‘trivial’ was not confined to struggling students, but affected candidates of all abilities. Top students were caught out because the examiners did not realise a word was no longer widely understood. Students were able to make guesses based on the usages they were familiar with, specifically trivia quizzes of various kinds. So some students assumed that trivial meant highly detailed and specific. And fair enough too – the questions in Trivial Pursuit are rarely trivial in the way implied by the quote in the exam. So it might be less a case that students don’t know what trivial means, and more a case that the meaning of the word trivial is changing.

Back in comments world, the response to this is predictably unsympathetic. If students can’t decipher a simple word like trivial, then they don’t deserve to pass the exam, sayeth the trolls, and yet this completely misunderstands what assessment is trying to do. One student, writing on the petition website, spoke of sitting for forty five minutes feeling stupid because she didn’t know what the word meant. Quite possibly she was a very well prepared candidate who went into the exam with an awful lot to say about the complex relationship between cause and effect and, had she been able to understand the question, might have written eloquently on the way history unfolds. We’ll never know, because the question didn’t afford her an opportunity to present her skills for assessment. That’s the very definition of a bad question, not a bad candidate.

This has long been a problem with assessments in education. Too often they have been a mechanism for identifying a student’s background rather than their skill set or knowledge base. Examiners, drawn as they are from a narrow range of circumstances, often unwittingly rely upon shibboleths as a means of identifying those worthy of reward.

There is a degree of irony in the fact that NCEA, which was designed in part to minimise this problem, may instead have made it worse. In its attempts to clearly identify the skill being tested, parsing subjects into artificially constituent parts, and provide clear evidence of the skill being applied, it has become increasingly wordy. Mathematics papers, once the place of number, symbol and algebra, are increasingly gift wrapped in complex, scene setting language. Creative students, producing photographs, theatre, pieces of furniture or musical compositions, are asked to produce written explanations of their processes and intentions. The net result has been one of reliably identifying and rewarding only two skill sets, literacy and organisation. Both are important, for sure, but they are not the only skills in play, and too often a student who is superb at one thing, can find no way of that being recognised simply because they can not make their way through the thicket of deadlines, criteria and pompous language that defends the assessment from its would-be conquerors.

A student can have an excellent grasp of complex numbers, but still fail because they could not understand the ridiculous contextual preamble to the question facing them. And yet their result sheet will not make any claim to pass judgement on their literacy. It will instead make a statement about their capacity to deal with polar forms and conjugates, and it will be wrong.

In secondary schools it can be a little tricky to get a certain type of adolescent to get organised to meet deadlines, just as it can be sometimes challenging to get them to care much about the minutiae of assessment tasks. So much that we ask of them appears, well, trivial and it is their instinct to treat it as such. On the other hand, there is another type far more prone to needless anxiety, for whom every last detail, requirement and word is pored over, lest they should fail to gain the approval they have been taught to crave. Increasingly high schools are characterised by populations of students that are essentially unmotivated, and populations that are far too motivated, to the point of illness. In both cases a non-trivial cause is the nature of assessments we’re inflicting upon them, and the spectacularly foolish emphasis we place upon their results. Meanwhile the important, difficult to measure skills, things like the ability to listen to others, to display kindness or feel hope and gratitude, are paid little more than lip service.

So, which word in a 2018 exam caused students to start a petition because they thought it unfair? That’s going to make an excellent trivia question one day.

Bernard Beckett is an author and teacher. He has worked in NZ secondary schools for almost three decades and currently teaches mathematics and drama.

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