Tag Archives: Exams

The Artificial Boundaries Between ‘Arts’ and ‘STEM’

It has been a while since I have blogged (on this site at least), as I have been knee-deep in the first few months of my PhD. However, a mini-Twitter storm over these comments by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has prompted me to chip in my tuppence worth.

The timing of Ms Morgan’s comments are a little strange, long after A-level choices for the current Year 12 have been decided, and the points seem similar to the annual media frenzy over ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects. The argument goes along the expected lines – future earnings, what ’employers want’ – and advocates for each side rush in to defend their chosen subject areas…But all of this is missing the point – it is artificial, and rather unhelpful, to polarise the Arts/Humanities and STEM.

Let me lay my cards on the table, although my GCSE subjects were relatively broad: languages, chemistry, maths, history etc., I studied arts and humanities subjects at A-level (I considered the embryonic Computer Science A-level, but at the time a GCSE in Physics was a pre-requisite) and at degree level – Ancient History and English. However, I am not about to jump into a rant about how Arts subjects are x and STEM subjects are y.

Realistically, the boundaries of subjects are blurred – increasingly so the further you go in education. Media Studies (a popular whipping boy) for example, can include the use of complex editing and image manipulation software – surely this is technology? An experimental physicist with brilliant ideas will not get very far if they cannot express themselves coherently in the written and spoken word.

With the school leaving age increasing to 17, and 18 from Summer 2015, personally I think that all students should take Maths or Statistics as well as a more English based subject (i.e. one with a strong literacy content) up to this age – not necessarily as A-levels. It would also be prudent for them to learn to code in at least one programming language.

Now, as a PhD student studying 19th Century literature and Digital Humanities, this blurring is even more apparent. Many of the articles I read include complex statistics, I am learning to code using R in order to carry out my analysis – is this Literature, or Statistics, or Technology? Or perhaps all three? Digital preservation and presentation of artefacts, GIS, and the ability to manipulate data are becoming increasingly evident in many fields. Perhaps it is about time that we stop trying to divide the subjects,  stop propagating the myth that you are only good at Arts OR STEM, Maths OR English, that boys are good at x and girls are good at y?

The best interests of our students will be served by them taking a broad range of subjects, rather than focusing entirely on one small area, and this means that school timetables need to make this varied choice of subjects a possibility, which may mean increased government funding.  This would more effectively prepare them for further education and employment than a current system which seeks to narrow the choices to Arts or STEM. We are not helping our students to propagate the myth that ‘Arts’ and ‘STEM’ live in separate boxes, experience in industry and higher education will soon show how artificial these boundaries really are.

What did my first job teach me?

As any teacher will tell you, your PGCE (or other training route) is only the start of you learning to be a teacher. Most trainee teachers heave a huge sigh of relief at finishing their course and securing their first job – and rightly so, but the way ahead is steep and difficult. I would be lying if I didn’t say that your first teaching job makes your PGCE seem, relatively, easy.

I attended three interviews before I secured my first job. It was in an 11-16 school in my home county of Somerset, a rural school, totally different from the inner city I trained in. I was so pleased to be offered the job I almost cried – most unlike me. Then it was back to finish the course and graduate.

September 2001 arrived and I started my first term as an English teacher and form tutor. Luckily, I had a Year 7 tutor group who were as nervous and wide eyed as I was, which meant that, for the first day I didn’t really have time to worry. My timetable was a mixture of groups including Year 10 and Year 11 GCSE groups, some ‘nice’ and some ‘challenging’. Having this mix is important. Sometimes, new teachers are kept away from exam groups and difficult classes – this isn’t helpful as they have to learn to teach these groups at some point. All it does is put more pressure on those who end up with large numbers of exam/difficult groups and creates a situation where these groups are taught by a select few due to the fear of a dip in results.

The department was small, a head of department who started at the same time as me, three part timers and two NQTs. There were filing cabinets full of ‘resources’, many of them printed on Banda machines (one to Google if you have never heard of it) and newspaper articles from the early 80s. Schemes of work were almost non-existent. This was a blessing and a curse as it forced me to produce my own resources and schemes – tough work but I believe it set me up for my teaching career. My planning and lesson delivery improved (to see the gaping chasm between these two read @tstarkey1212‘s blog post on planning).

Being part of a small department, and a small school meant that I got the opportunity to take on extra responsibility. This included being the first in the department to get an interactive whiteboard in my second year. A classroom was built from a section of corridor and part of a toilet block (I kid you not) and the board was installed. As is often the case, it didn’t occur to anyone that I might actually need a traditional board as well – especially with a relatively new, untried piece of equipment (this was eventually sorted out). I had to teach myself how to use the board and its software, as well as having back up lessons for when it broke down. I learnt to wing it, when necessary, and rely on my subject knowledge and my teaching ability.

I eventually moved to another school, for promotion, after three years and was genuinely sad to leave.

So, what did my first job teach me?

  • There is no substitute for doing it yourself. Although there was support and guidance, most of the schemes I taught were created by me. This made me a much better teacher and improved my subject knowledge. I am all for sharing resources, but I think there is a danger of going too far, with whole schemes produced on powerpoint, lesson by lesson. Teachers need to make the lesson their own and the danger with this is that they don’t. I have observed a lesson power point, which I had produced and shared, being taught by someone who thought all they had to do was show the slides to their class – they hadn’t even read the text fully – needless to say, the lesson was a disaster. Yes it takes longer to create new resources or tweak existing ones, but that is what a good teacher does.
  • ‘Bad’ groups have sometimes been short changed. My first GCSE group was one which was a terrifying prospect. Year 11, lots of SEN, challenging behaviour – you know the type. I was given them, I suspect, because if I didn’t manage to get results out of them it wasn’t the end of the world. The class had had three teachers in Year 10, one of whom had walked out mid-lesson never to return. When I looked at their ‘coursework’ I was horrified – none of it was acceptable and mostly there were just a series of posters made after watching films. The group had been failed – by their teachers and by the previous head of department. Over the course of a year we worked hard to complete the missing work and prepare for the exam. It was not plain sailing. I had to convince the group that I was going to stay and that they were capable of GCSE work. There were tantrums and upturned tables (a pupil, not me), but eventually it was done – all but one achieved a pass, and two got a C grade. Those C grades mean the world to me as I know just how hard the pupils worked for them. From that point on, I was careful not to judge a class by their data and reputation and knew the importance of high expectations.
  • Sometimes you have to go with your instincts. The more observant of you will have noticed that my first teaching position coincided with a tragic time in world history, 9/11. My new Year 8 class were doing a scheme of work on the media. We had covered the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet, looked at the layout of a front page and the questions an article aims to answer. Homework was to bring in a tabloid or a broadsheet newspaper for analysis in the next lesson. I went home that night to see the news full of the horrible events in New York. The next day, I met my Year 8 class again – almost every child had brought in a newspaper, some had brought in two. At the start of the lesson I had had a vague plan of getting the group to write a newspaper article on a completely unrelated topic, or to pull out the textbooks. However, the group wanted to explore the front pages, naturally they were shocked and frightened by what had happened but also curious. Nervously, I decided to go ahead with the planned lesson. We looked at the front pages and the way the headlines were written, the choice of images and the difference between the tabloid and broadsheet coverage. The class were brilliant – fantastic, probing questions; thoughtful comments and a solid understanding of how newspapers cover a major international event. When I spoke to other members of the department about the lesson some were shocked and suggested that parents would complain – not a single one did. It was a tough lesson emotionally for all of us, but I’m glad I went with my instinct.
  • Life sometimes gets in the way. The danger with teaching is that it can be all encompassing. However, sometimes you need to prioritise ‘real’ life: your family and friends. During my first teaching position, this was reinforced by three events – my father having a (thankfully non-fatal) heart attack, my grandmother dying while I was on an overnight school trip and a friend being shot and killed in the local pub. What I learnt from these three incidents was that you need to let someone in school know (however private a person you are), and that ‘good enough’ teaching, whether it be use of worksheets, textbooks or whatever, is good enough until you are in a position to get back to your normal standard of teaching. No one, will criticise or blame you (and if they do then, frankly it is not a school you want to work in) if your lessons are less than brilliant and the books not marked for a while. Concentrate on what is important and let HoDs and SLT deal with the rest, after all, that is what they are paid extra for.
  • School politics can be bizarre. Schools can be a hotbed for all sorts of odd behaviour – you probably have all kinds of stories (real and exaggerated) from your own school days. My first job reinforced that: the ‘reserved’ seats in the staffroom, mugs and the all too common rivalry between the Maths, Science and English departments. However, I also experienced the minefield that can be departmental politics. My new HoD was in the unenviable position of having to work with his predecessor, a lady nearing retirement who had given up the head of department job to teach part time (not entirely voluntarily, I suspect). They did not see eye to eye. She wanted to hoard the old resources (Banda sheets and all, many of which hadn’t been touched for years) and was reluctant to make any changes to ‘the way things have always been done’, even when a change was desperately needed. Pupils had been set in Year 7 and then remained in the same class throughout their school career, she never saw the problems this caused in the lower groups as she only taught the top ones. In departmental meetings, she was vocally against any suggestions that were not her own – it was clear that she had become totally disillusioned with teaching and did not enjoy what she did. Eventually she made the decision to resign (to the relief of the rest of the department, who were sick of the tension) and left after giving a speech to the whole staff about the awful state of education and that children should not have to attend school after 14 years of age. My advice, if you find yourself caught in a similarly bizarre situation, observe, listen but keep your own counsel (in public at least).

Your first teaching job, good or bad, is something that helps shape you as a teacher. It will be hard (realistically it should be) and it may convince some that teaching is not for them, but for those who stay in the job it is unforgettable.

Summary of SOLO Posts

As one of the searches that seems to bring people to my site is for SOLO taxonomy, here is a post which provides links to each of the posts I have written about SOLO. I am not saying that SOLO is a magic bullet or universal panacea, however, my research suggests that it may have a positive impact.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is: read about it, try it for yourself if you want to and make up your own mind whether it is useful for you and your students.

MA Research Project

All of these posts are based on my final MA dissertation, as a result they tend to be more theoretical.

Teaching with SOLO

These posts are about my own experiences using SOLO in lessons.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

SOLO Research Project – Findings Part 2

Exam Data

In addition to the other data collection methods, I chose to analyse the modular examination results for a group of Year 10 students, one group (n=29) taught using SOLO methods, and a larger group (n=82) who were not.

To try to ensure that, as much as possible, the groups were comparable, I chose students who had started school with either a level 4 or 5 from their Key Stage 2 English tests. The students were all from one of the two parallel top sets. Students who did not have a Key Stage 2 level were excluded from the analysis.

All students in the groups selected took GCSE English Literature exam module A663 (Prose from Different Cultures) in the summer of Year 10 and studied the same text – Of Mice and Men. The results were analysed using descriptive statistics to gain an overview and identify areas where the data warranted a closer look. In areas which appeared to show a difference, a chi-square test was applied to test significance; a significance threshold level of p<0.5 was set to ensure that any significance was meaningful.

Although every attempt was made to make the analysis as unbiased as possible, for example choosing to focus on a module which was externally marked, it is important to remember that looking:

At results before and after a new intervention is rolled out…can be very misleading, as other factors may have changed at the same time. (Goldacre, 2013:9)

 

In addition, as the group selection was not randomized, or carried out over a longer period of time, the results may not be replicable, although I feel that they may provide some indications for areas which would be worth investigating further.

Analysis

The non-SOLO group shows normal distribution with a modal grade of a B. The SOLO group also shows a relatively normal distribution, which is less steep than the non-SOLO group. Ev ex 1 The tail at the higher end of the SOLO group does not drop off to the extreme of the non-SOLO group. The modal grade for the SOLO group is one grade higher, an A grade.

Comparing the results of the combined level 4 and 5 students between the SOLO and Non-SOLO groups, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 4%; a significant result. These results suggest that, based on this limited study, SOLO may have a positive impact on exam achievement.

To identify whether this impact can be pinpointed, the data was explored in subsets according to level and gender.

Exploring the subset data, it is apparent that, in this sample, the SOLO group females did not achieve significantly different grades to the non-SOLO group. 

When comparing the difference between the level 4 students, the difference is significant. Ev ex 3

However, it is when comparing the achievement of students starting school on a level 5  and male groups that a very highly significant difference is evident.

Ev ex 2

Comparing the results of the students entering school with a level 5, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 0%; a very highly significant result.Ev ex 4

As suggested by the graph there is a significant difference between the achievements of the two male groups. Looking at this distribution, using a chi-square test suggests that this distribution (p=0.0000) is very highly significant.

Although there are limitations to this particular aspect of the study, the results suggest that SOLO techniques may have a measurable impact on student exam results. Therefore, it would certainly be worth further, structured research.

Knowledge vs Skills

Something strange seems to be happening in the world of education. Over the past few months, it seems that, for many commentators, issues in education have become either black or white. You are either for Gove’s ideas or against; for PBL or against; want more challenging exams or feel accusations of dumbing down are completely wrong.

To be honest, this does not make sense – when dealing with the complexities of education surely there are more shades of grey?

One of the more recent arguments on Twitter is between proponents of teaching ‘knowledge’ or teaching ‘skills’, which has led to some rather heated debates. This got me thinking…why are knowledge and skills being presented as a dichotomy? Is there a ‘right’ answer?

When I was at school and university, I studied a number of essay based subjects; as a result, I am pretty good at writing essays. As seemed to be the style of  teaching in the 1980s, we were not specifically ‘taught’ how to write an essay. There were no essay plans or scaffolding provided, no PEE paragraph structures and no exemplars of high-grade essays. Generally, we studied a text, were given a topic and a title and off we went. This doesn’t seem to have damaged my ability to write an essay, although a little guidance here and there may have helped and avoided me relying entirely on trial and error.

I specifically remember two essays I wrote: the ‘best essay ever’ and the ‘most disastrous essay’. They were written in the same year, my first year at university and,  I am still somewhat scarred by the latter.

The ‘most disastrous essay’ was written during an exam, the topic was the Fenian Cycle of Irish prose and poetry. My essay had paragraphs, it was structured in a logical manner but (and this is a big but) I had only given the material a cursory glance. In reality, I had no idea what I was writing about and resorted to hashing together half remembered bits and pieces and making up the rest. Not surprisingly, I got a, totally deserved, rubbish mark. (As an aside, that also seems to be a change in education – it never seems to be the student’s fault if they fail).

The ‘best essay ever’ did not have a particularly auspicious start. It was a module assignment on Old English poetry, due the next day at 10am. The English department had a policy of reducing your grade by a percentage if it was late, increasing the later the essay was handed in. Typically for me, I had left it to the last minute – I ended up writing it between midnight and 5am. However, I had read and annotated the texts involved, I had detailed lecture notes and I had read widely about the topic and had a good range of relevant quotations. The essay took time to write, but it was handed in on time and I got the best mark of my university career.

So, what was the difference? Clearly, I had the skills of essay writing – I knew how to use quotations and expand upon them, I could structure an essay, spell, use punctuation correctly. The difference was in my knowledge. The key was having both the skills to write an essay (the functional knowledge, if you will) and the detailed knowledge and understanding of the topic (the declarative knowledge).

As a teacher, I have seen this tension over and over again.  Several examples spring to mind: the top set Y11 student who ‘suddenly’ realized (after only a year of me telling him) that it was easier to write an essay if he had actually read the book. The A-level student who attempted to write an essay on ‘The Glass Menagerie‘ without reading the final act (in her version they all lived happily ever after!). The bottom set students who know the text in detail but struggle with the literacy skills needed to express those ideas in writing.

I feel that the constant focus on improving exam results does not help. The fear of any student failing (even though some thoroughly deserve to, due to their total lack of work or effort) can lead to over scaffolding. If every essay written in Year 10 and 11 is supported by too much guidance, we create students who have learned to be helpless – how can they then complete an exam essay when the guidance is gone? Students need to learn the topic, but they also need to learn how to use and present the information effectively.

This is why I am confused by the vitriol the knowledge v. skills debate seems to engender, because surely you need both types of knowledge to demonstrate your learning?

Why Data Use By Teachers is Key

I am a data geek, I make no apologies for the fact that I love a good spreadsheet and tinkering with charts. However, it seems that this is not the case for the majority of teachers. Yes data can be time consuming, it can be confusing and, in some schools, it is jealously guarded by members of SLT who pass out morsels to the waiting staff.

School Use of Data

The use of data in schools can be a contentious issue. Data is generally collected for two main purposes – for internal tracking, monitoring and diagnostic purposes, and for external purposes. Over the past 20 years, data for external consumption has become a focus, not the sole focus, but certainly it has moved into the realm of non-teaching professionals; a shift that makes many teachers uncomfortable. Kelly, et al (2010:4) found that: “staff think it is collected for external accountability purposes, but that it should be collected for internal improvement purposes.”

Parental Choice

One of the key arguments towards schools presenting their data is that it allows parents to make informed decisions about their choice of school. This view has its problems, firstly, ‘choice’ only truly exists in some areas, largely cities where there are a selection of schools with available places. Secondly, as shown by Allen and Burgess (2012), information about how a school has performed in the past is not an accurate indicator of how the school will perform in six years time, and therefore there is still a high amount of guesswork.

DfE School Performance Tables

The increased level of detail and data in the DfE school performance tables means that, more than ever, staff and managers need to be aware of the data we have in school and how it will be presented in public. This increased focus does not necessarily mean that we need to do things differently as English teachers, but being aware of the additional focus on English and Maths, for pupils of all attainment levels is key.

Although I have issues with league tables and reporting data that might not be fully understood by the consumer, I feel that, in an imperfect world, this measure helps to focus our resources not solely on those who are on the C/D borderline, and if necessary, justifies the inclusion of pupils who would not normally be targeted – not that such justification should be needed, but in these high stake days of A*-C including English and Maths the focus has been skewed – one of Goldstein and Leckie’s (2008:69) “perverse measures”. The continued tracking of these groups means we can check that all pupils are being offered support and that we are doing the best for all groups.

Data, Data Everywhere

One of the difficulties faced by teachers is the fact that the information needed for the department and the individual comes from a variety of different sources, in particular: school systems like SIMs, SISRA, FFT, school, department and individual spreadsheets. It is not surprising that for many this is ovewhealming. This disparate range of sources, and the fact that department spreadsheets often need to be created, is not uncommon in schools. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that data use in schools is not as effective as it might be, as Heads of Subject rarely have sufficient time to source and collate the information, and it takes a well trained administrator, with sufficient time, to be able to keep on top of it. As van Barneveld (2008:2) states: “large –scale assessment data were neither current enough nor aligned adequately with daily instruction”.

It is this gap between the data produced and staff need that makes many teachers reluctant to use or rely upon the available data. “Use of pupil attainment and progress data is widespread across the profession, but least so among classroom teachers” (Kelly, et al. 2010:3).

Why data is important to you

It is easy, as a subject leader, to see the importance of data, in particular lag data, when fulfilling the information needed for SLT meetings and SEFs, it is harder to see it if you are a classroom teacher. But, I want to convince you that knowing how to use data effectively is vital for all teachers.

Firstly, let’s talk pragmatically, what’s in it for you? Staff must feel confident in using data, as the new DfE Standards for Teachers, from September 2012, states that teachers must:

2 – Promote good progress and outcomes by pupils…be accountable for pupils’ attainment, progress and outcomes.

6 – Make accurate and productive use of assessment…use relevant data to monitor progress, set targets, and plan subsequent lessons.

So, based on this, it is the job of all teachers to use and understand data. It will also be very helpful to keep track of the various groups of students you teach. Being able to go into meetings knowing, for example, who your low attainers are, what progress they are making and what you are doing to ensure their progression, will make you feel more confident. What I am not saying is that you need to memorise all of this, that is where having a clear data storage system – be it a mark book or an electronic system – is key.

But, let’s be honest here, yes the standards are important to us as teachers, it forms part of our assessment and ultimately guides the PM process, but, being hit with the big stick of Ofsted is rarely what motivates teachers, and this is not the main reason we should use data. The real reason data is so important to us as teachers is as a tool to diagnose what students need to progress. This is so important, how can a student know where to go with their learning if we can’t give them some specific guidance. There are tool there to help – although APP isn’t statutory and can be a little unwieldy, it does provide a framework for assessing the students current position and guiding them towards improvement. Knowing specifically what your students need to do to improve means that meaningful feedback can be given.

Hattie (2012:16) states that:

The act of teaching requires deliberate interventions to ensure that there is cognitive change in the student; thus the key ingredients are being aware of the learning intentions, knowing when a student is successful in attaining those intentions, having sufficient understanding of the student’s prior understanding as he or she comes to the task and knowing enough about the content to provide meaningful and challenging experiences so that there is some sort of progressive development.

At the core of Hattie’s statement lies the importance for teachers to effectively use a range of data. Teachers need to have a full understanding of the available data in order to plan, teach and assess effectively. Good teachers know their students.

Overall, what has become clear through my research is that it is essential to remember that:

data in itself is insufficient; that it is the interpretation and subsequent use of data that can impact positively on teaching and learning, rather than the data itself (Kirkup, et al. 2005:102).

References

Allen, R. & Burgess, S. (2012) ‘Why The New School League Tables Are Much Better…But Could Be Better Still’ CMPO Viewpoint. http://cmpo.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/why-the-new-school-league-tables-are-much-better-but-could-be-better-still/ [accessed 30/01/12]

Goldstein, H. & Leckie, G. (2008) ‘School League Tables: What Can They Really Tell Us?’ Significance. June 2008 pp. 67-69

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Abingdon: Routledge

Kelly, A., Downey, C., Rietdijk, W. (2010) ‘Data dictatorship and data democracy: understanding professional attitudes to the use of pupil performance data in English secondary schools’, CFBT. http://www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/pdf/5417_DataDictatorship_web.pdf [accessed 27/01/2012]

Kirkup, C., Sizmur, J., Sturman, L., Lewis, K. (2005) ‘Schools’ Use of Data in Teaching and Learning’ NFER, http://www.nfer.ac.uk/nfer/publications/SUD01/SUD01_home.cfm?publicationID=161&title=Schools%27%20use%20of%20data%20in%20teaching%20and%20learning [accessed 27/01/2012]

Smith, A. (2011) High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools. Camarthen: Crown House Publishing

Van Barneveld, C. (2008) ‘Using Data to Improve Student Achievement’ What Works? Research into Practice. Research Monograph 15. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/whatWorks.html [accessed 27/01/2012]

Fishy Revision

Revision. Argh! Love it or hate it this seems to be mostly what we end up doing at this time of year (in between filling in reams of exam paperwork). The challenge is to try to make it effective and interesting – a challenge if ever there was one. The internet has been invaluable for trawling for great ideas, but I have also been digging through my old resources to see if there are any gems.

Today was revision for Of Mice and Men for OCR A663 next week. The group know the text well but planning is a bit of an issue, especially in the tight time frame (45 minutes). The exam requires the students to analyse language and techniques as well as making links to context. I wanted to create a task that developed planning but also encouraged the group to hit the assessment objectives in the exam.

I started off by borrowing the excellent Nominative Determination task from Miss Ryan’s GCSE English Blog . This was a really effective opening task as it got the group thinking the characters and analysing the language, and they really enjoyed it. As they thought through the significance of the names and their connotations I could hear mental lightbulbs going on around the room – love it!

In our mock exam, quite a few students failed to write about the context of the text or link it to the question. To combat this I came up with the mnemonic CRAFTI (using the helpful anagram solver on the Internet Anagram Server).

A Crafti Mnemonic

I tried to make this something memorable but that also covered each key point.

The next step was to think about planning, how could I make sure that the planning was quick and easy, but also encouraged relational thinking?

My collection of random USB pens came to the rescue. Every so often, since I started teaching, I have saved all the useful resources on my school user space onto a USB. Some of them stay there forever, but I have a peek every now and then to see if there is something worthwhile. Last night I found it.

As I have been experimenting with SOLO HOT maps, I wanted something visual and simple that could encourage deeper thinking. My solution was a fish-bone analysis, or at least my variation on one. I decided that the horizontal line should contain the Idea – i.e. the key point in the passage and key words from the question. This would encourage the group to focus on the question throughout their planning. Each pair of ‘bones’ would include brief points on Context, References, Audience, Feelings and Techniques. I used a series of powerpoint slides to show the process, using the example from the mock (Lennie and the ketchup in chapter 1).

Fish-Bone Planning

The final task, and one I have advised them to do for revision, was to choose a section of the text at randon, or to invent a non-extract based question, and to produce their own Fish-bone plan:

Fish-Bone Planning Task

The class really seemed to get to grips with this as a planning method, and I liked the fact that it could be loosely linked back to the text (‘flopping like a fish’). Overall, I was really pleased with this, having tried it with my Y10s during their lesson. It was also used by another teacher in an afterschool revision session, and it reportedly worked well. So the next step is to try it with one of my more challenging groups.

The Exam Season – A Plea

This is a bizarre time of the year. The majority of the controlled assessments are done, there is the usual scramble for those who arrived part way through Y11 or refused to complete work to have a finished folder. Students are demanding revision sessions where they expect their teacher to impart pearls of wisdom, while they sit passively, or don’t show up at all. Rivalries between departments reach breaking point as the key marginal groups are pulled in multiple directions at once. The whole thing seems to create a sense of sliding down a massive helter-skelter with nothing to stop you.

This is also the time of year that teachers become wild around the eyes with the pressure of too many tasks in a finite amount of time. The only thing keeping us going is the thought of a little gained time to tweak and improve for the next year.

However, this is also the time of year that two very different groups seem to go out of the way to make things as difficult as possible.

Exam Boards and Estimated Grades

At this busiest of times, and I know that those with a negative view of teachers will no doubt scoff, we have marking and annotation of coursework samples, preparation of in class and after school revision sessions. I just don’t understand why the requirements of the exam boards are quite so onerous.

I deal with KS4 English, currently made up of 3 different qualifications being taken by 240 students. I have to enter coursework marks, estimated grades for those marks, estimated exam grades for each module and for the qualification as a whole – this amounts to almost 3000 separate entries, either numbers entered onto a website or little boxes on an OMR sheet being coloured in.

Why? How much of this is actually necessary? If the students are taking the exams that is the grade that will count, not a ‘best guess’ from a teacher, why ask for estimated grade for coursework when I have already given you the actual mark I have given it? Surely my time as a teacher is best spent in the class or preparing excellent lessons?

The Press

However, the group I feel is most distructive at this time are the press; each year as the exam season looms, we see multiple stories about how easy the exams are, how they are dumbed down, how it is all teaching to the test (occasionally spiced up with an ‘aren’t teachers awful’ piece).

Now, I am not going to focus on the bracketed point – there are enough blog posts that have dealt with that issue, and I am sure there will be many more – my real concern here is the message we are presenting to those taking the exams. Those who rarely have a voice in the face of all of this criticism.

For the brighter, keen students, there is the pre-exam slap in the face: all your work is pointless, anyone can pass these exams as they are so easy, talk bandied about of ‘easy’ or ‘soft’ subjects…it is pretty demoralising to hear. Every year we loose one or two to ‘why bother then if they are so undervalued’, or those who fall into the trap of believing the hype and doing little work.

Yet the most destructive impact is on those at the other end of the scale; the students who don’t find school easy – whether it is because of home or social issues, low literacy levels, SEN. How much more distructive is it if you have worked your way to an E or a D grade, if you have tried your hardest, revised and then hear sneering news reports that say anyone can get a C grade or above? Or that vocational subjects are pointless? How hard is it to get those students motivated in the first place? To get them into school on a regular basis (any trawl through school data will show that lower ability groups have worse attendance, on average than those above)? To build their confidence that taking the exam is worth while, that there is a chance that they will achieve that magical C grade? How much more damaging are these stories and comments  to our most vulnerable students?

A Plea

So my message to the press, and politicians looking for a quick story or a memorable sound bite – please think of the impact your words have, exaggerating the negative and twisting the positive does not help the students you claim to be most concerned about. When we look at how other successful countries (and we are a successful country) organise their schools  and exam systems, we should also look at the press and Government messages in those countries, do they run down their own exam system, fill their papers with stories of how bad the teachers are and how easy the exams have become?

Teacher bashing has always been a popular media topic, and I am sure it will continue to be so, however, we chose this career, many of us choose to stay despite working in challenging schools and coming across soul destroying situations and choices – but ultimately we chose this career because we want to make a difference.

However, the students you denigrate with these stories have no choice. They have only one chance at being a Y11, they can’t control whether they attend a privileged private school, an outstanding school, an inner city school. This is their opportunity to do well, and having large parts of the population criticise and downplay the massive effort that most of our young people put in does not help. Unfortunately, many of our most vulnerable listen to that message and think what is the point.