Last week I argued that the English language exam, which constitutes 60% of pupils’ final grade in GCSE English, is fundamentally flawed. I believe this is the case for two reasons: firstly, the exam is dependent on a skills-based curriculum. As I argued in the post, the irony of this approach is that pupils rarely acquire skills this way. Instead, the structure of the questions in the exam encourages us to teach pupils a process. After spending 60% (or more) of their time preparing for such an exam, pupils are unlikely to come away with enduring knowledge and in depth understanding of the power and beauty of the English language. They will know very little other than how to construct a PQE paragraph or find the main idea in a text. I call this ‘ironic’ because learning how to write a PQE isn’t a skill in itself. So not only do pupils come away from their GCSE English language course knowing hardly anything about the English language, they don’t even learn the skills the course set out to teach them.
Secondly, I argued that the poor quality of texts chosen by the exam boards means that children are wasting time studying transient, supposedly relevant media texts instead of being shown the power that words have to inspire people and initiate change in the world. After all, isn’t that what non-fiction texts do? When used well, they influence, they inspire, and they alter mindsets. Figures like Mandela, King, Churchill, and Elizabeth I: all of these people did this using non-fiction as their medium. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children could get to grips with the art of non-fiction writing and speaking? Wouldn’t it be great if they not only saw the potential power of language, but the impact of its various uses in centuries past? In order to allow them to see the English language in all its glory, they need to see it at its best. I’m not sure a leaflet about a water charity can really do that, but I’m convinced that Gandhi, King and co. can. And yet, the status quo advocates the analysis of advertisements and the production of posters: I really struggle to understand why anyone thinks this is okay.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. On my last post, a commenter helpfully pointed me in the direction of this document, which outlines the objectives for the new English Language course, where it is stated that ‘texts that are essentially transient…must not be included.’
The new curriculum is promising. The government have clearly identified the issues I outline above and are acting on it by stamping out such nonsense from the curriculum entirely. But I don’t think this is enough. Even with the best texts there is a chance that the skills-based approach of teaching mundane and ostensibly transferable processes will seep its way back in. Although it would be far better than what we currently have, this is still not what we really want.
In order to rid the curriculum of these over-rated, ineffective practices, and to improve it so that children learn what we want them to learn about the English language, we need to change the way we assess it. As I said last time, teaching to the test is inevitable. The test becomes the curriculum in every school- few teachers look to the national curriculum when planning schemes of work, and academies and free schools don’t have to refer to it at all, but every school, no matter how innovative, needs to enter their kids for an exam. Of course, the exam boards look to the national curriculum and choose content accordingly, but they still have some authority in designing their own question types and assessment rubrics.
One of the claims of the AQA specification is that its ‘skills-based approach… offers flexibility’. In practice, this means that teachers choose the content they teach: some might choose Queen Elizabeth I; others might choose Nigella Lawson. But the flexibility of the specification is such that the choice of text is irrelevant: the mark scheme can be used to assess understanding of either of these texts. So even if the government does tighten up its control over the content we teach, the way it is assessed is still at the mercy of an exam board that has promoted a skills curriculum for several years. Is this going to change in 2015? We shall have to wait and see.
Teaching to the test is inevitable, so it is vitally important that we get the test right.
What do we test and how?
It seems that there are two key things that we want to assess at GCSE (aside from grammatical accuracy, which I will tackle in another post): knowledge and application. The ultimate objective is for pupils to be able to write coherent, accurate essays on the texts they have studied. We want to be able to see the depth of their knowledge and the extent to which they have internalised it. So instead of focusing purely on the skills (as the current assessment rubrics do), we also want to see what the pupils know. Therefore, before we can set kids off on a writing task, it only seems fair to test what they know in a clear and precise fashion. If we want them to write an essay on Oliver Twist, we need to make sure they know the plot, characters and context before doing so; otherwise, we are setting them up to fail.
Several bloggers have been doing some thinking on how we can accurately assess this knowledge. I am a fan of the mastery model, explained at length here. The rationale for a mastery model is already out there so I shan’t repeat it here, but in a nutshell, the benefits of this model are threefold: it contributes to knowledge schemata; it builds enduring memory of the content; and the frequency of questions aids recall. It is a powerful tool for formative feedback for teachers, but it is also an extremely robust form of summative feedback. If exams tested using this model, teachers would be compelled to teach the knowledge that we actually want our pupils to learn.
Many believe that a severe limitation of this model is the lack of challenge and access to higher order thinking skills, but as noted here, multiple choice questions can be extremely challenging if constructed carefully. Besides, as shown in this post, knowledge is essential for higher order skills: it simply cannot be overlooked and therefore must be tested using foolproof methods.
Some of the world’s leading education systems use a mastery assessment model, and it is fascinating to see what this looks like in practice. After reading Amanda Ripley’s ‘Smartest Kids in the World’ I became slightly obsessed with the South Korean ‘Sooneung’ exam, and pestered a Korean friend of mine to source some papers from the Internet and translate the questions into English. There is much to say about these papers, so I intend to blog about them in more detail at a later date. For now, all you need to know is that the Sooneung offers a fascinating insight into the successes (and failings) of the South Korean education system.
The British Columbia exams use a similar model, cleverly pairing mastery assessment with extended writing tasks. The mechanics of these two exam systems are fascinating, and next week I will describe in more detail what we can learn from them.
Improving the Curriculum
In order to improve the curriculum, we must improve the exam. Improving the curriculum content alone is not enough. If we are to avoid the trap of teaching mindless processes to our pupils, we must ensure that the test requires teachers to focus on content in lessons. The skills-based approach that our current curricula are built on gives flexibility over content, but the pay off is a feeble accompanying assessment rubric, which encourages teachers to teach processes rather than content.
The underlying principles of a better English curriculum are simple: introduce good quality content that builds cultural knowledge; ensure assessments test what we want pupils to know and the depth of their understanding.
We must ensure that teachers are not forced to teach a process for answering questions in an exam. Exams should test the extent to which the curriculum content has been mastered and internalised by the pupils, rather than vague notions of the alleged ‘transferable’ skills they may have acquired.
Next week I will post my thoughts on a few international assessment systems and will suggest what we could learn from them.