Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.
– William Shakespeare
At the end of last October I became an education blogger – by accident really. Swiftly, I set up a WordPress site, giving my blog the impressive tagline ‘simple and practical classroom solutions.’ Three months of reading, thinking, talking and writing about education later and my initial delusions of grandeur have become rather an embarrassment to me. I do not have all the answers; the longer time goes on, the less I seem to know. Thus my tagline has become: ‘In search of classroom answers’. I am sure this will be subject to change before long (especially if my blogging buddy, @BelmontTeach, gets his teeth into it!).
Let’s start with a confession. I find these blogs tough to write – I am not a natural. My 1996 hard won GCSE B-grades in English language and literature are a reflection of this, especially in contrast to the A-grades I achieved, effortlessly in comparison, in maths and science. Be that as it may, I loved English and reading, and, like a faithful yet badly mistreated dog, I kept coming back for more. Slowly and painfully I got a bit better. These blogposts take a veritable age to write; I agonise over every word, every sentence, every paragraph – I am never satisfied. The writing process is usually initiated on my evening dog-walks, when I rehearse my ideas in an obsessive internal monologue. Following this comes feverishly scribbled-up notes on whatever paper comes to hand; these are then typed up on Word; finally comes the copying-and-pasting onto the blog itself. Sentences are constantly reconfigured; a missed typo brings with it inordinate self-loathing. Below are my scribbled notes for this one:
The point is, I have always struggled to write quickly. And many of my students do too. My last blog-post on Michael Marland’s The Craft of the Classroom took hours to write – I wanted so much to get it right. Funnily enough, this post has been much faster – probably because I am writing from the heart this time, not the head.
When I began teaching English in 2006, 40% of our English Language AQA syllabus was assessed by coursework that could be redrafted and revised as often as we liked. Many students took it home to lovingly craft, while at the other extreme some stared blankly at it for a few weeks until I, in a fit of panic, talked them through every single sentence. Was it a fair way to assess writing? Probably not. Those with the luxury of home-help, proficient in the dark arts of internet plagiarism, or particularly hard-working could over-achieve in relation to their real ability. Each year the weight of accountability grew greater, each year the grades seemed to matter even more than whether the child could really do it.
Yet it is also true that many children found and honed their writing skills through this redrafting process – in much the same way as Ron Berger has argued in his wonderful An Ethic of Excellence. Fears of plagiarism and an unequal playing field led, three years ago, to the more formal ‘controlled assessment’ system, a system much vilified on the blogosphere. Making up 40% of the final grade – with the remaining 20% allotted to the now-binned speaking-and-listening, and 40% to the final exam – this was billed as a fairer alternative to coursework. Unfortunately, once again, in our hyper-accountable world, abuse of the system – or the allegation of it – is understandably rife. Speaking-and-listening received its marching orders earlier this academic year, so that this year’s weighting, unless you have opted for the iGCSE, is 40% controlled assessment, 60% final exam. The new GCSE English, to be assessed in 2017, will scrap all in-class assessment in favour of one high-stakes exam.
An option that provides less opportunity for cheating must be fairer, you might say. The problem is that the old systems took into account that not all good writers are good writers in exam conditions. Yes, academia will always require students to write under pressurised conditions…yet real life rarely does. The current 2 hour, 15 minute AQA exam is brutal to say the least. I wonder if I would be doing what I do today if my English GCSE, A-levels and degree course (I made sure I took an assignment-based one) had hinged completely on exam technique.
Here are some questions that I feel need to be answered by the new GCSE exam:
- Will future GCSE English grades genuinely be more valid and reliable than they once were?
- How true is the concept that fast writing is better writing?
- How desirable is a nation of quick-thinkers over a nation of slow, careful thinkers?
- Might 100% final exam lead to the valorising of written quantity at the expense of written quality?
- How will questions and time be organised in the new exam to give every child an equal chance of attaining highly?
Take my year 11 student, Chloe, for example. Here is a beautiful paragraph of carefully and lovingly written prose taken from a controlled assessment piece she undertook slowly in class. (I can assure you, there was no cheating.)
In her pre-Christmas mock exam, Chloe, thankfully, just scraped a C. Her answers, however, were a shadow of the above, which I believe to be her genuine writing ability. I am now in the Kafkaesque situation where Chloe must be advised to replace her developing expertise with a faster, pragmatic and ultimately inferior writing style if she is to reach her target grade of a B.
Another student in the same class came to me last Thursday to discuss her disappointing mock grade. I had to explain to her that if she had achieved only 50% in the question she had missed out, her C would have miraculously become an A. Lessons are now too often spent reminding students to move on to the next question, even if the previous answer is not perfect. Conversely, since the AQA change from two shorter exams to one longer exam three years ago, I have also found that an increasing number of distinctly average yet fast writers are achieving A amd A*.
I appreciate that we must do more to help our current KS3 students become more proficient under timed conditions. Chris Curtis shared a great strategy in his blog last week (here): ‘blind’ assessments should be interspersed with ‘structured’ and scaffolded assessments. Another idea I am mulling over is a gradual acceleration approach: as the years go by, so the minimum expectation of quantity rises.
I feel for my fellow ‘slowbies’. Many great authors take years to write; let us hope that there is also a place in society for the sluggish-yet-sometimes-brilliant minds of the future.
Here are some of my earlier thoughts on why we should give students time to write.