Well, what do you know?

By | 25 March 2018

Does everything have a right and wrong answer? Which subjects can’t be tied down to assessment objectives?

If spring is here, can exams be far behind? Of course not. The academic and calendar years tick by – a teacher told me last week that by week four of the spring term, they were exactly half way through the year. Where did the time go? How much did we do? Have we done enough? Is there time for revision?

‘Have we done enough?’ is likely to produce a very detailed answer. Teachers – and students – today know exactly what is expected in terms of ‘know, understand and can do’ for whatever syllabus of whatever exam they are about to take.  Indeed, I recently heard a science teacher declare that he did not really teach GCSE Chemistry any more. He taught OCR Chemistry. He taught a syllabus to a particular examination board, and he and his students knew exactly what he should be teaching and they should be learning in order to collect these marks on these papers – bingo. What is not to like?

You could say this is nothing new. I used to teach A-level English literature, but it was, of course, one syllabus set by one examination board. What a class studied boiled down to a novel, a poet, a play, and Shakespeare. And in my department, each of us made different choices about texts – often because there were not enough copies for two groups of students to study the same one. Same syllabus, different texts.

What I taught was very similar to what I had learned in my own A-level years.  I have to confess I thought ‘things are not what they used to be’ because all the books I was teaching seemed easier than the ones I had read in the sixth form. A complete tale from Chaucer, two books from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Conrad’s The Secret Agent were a real challenge when I was 16. By contrast, the poetry of Elizabeth Jennings and Ishiguru’s The Remains of the Day seemed easy meat.

But the difference between my ‘then’ and most recent ‘now’ in a classroom was more thorough-going than managing a choice of texts with the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates in mind. The exams themselves – at least in my country grammar school – were a completely mysterious land in which anything could happen.  A candidate’s only defence was to know the texts so well, that the examiner could ask what he liked and you would have the answer in there somewhere, even if you had to root around the memory banks to find it.

In the two-year course, our English teacher set not one single essay task for homework. He said he was spending time preparing lessons, there was no time also to mark essays. I remember him as mild rather than militant, but he may just have been ahead of the game. A primary specialist recently told me that marking eight essays a week from a class was as much as could be asked of a teacher, and the upside of this was that in three weeks each child in the class would have had a thorough marking of a piece of work.

In the classroom, I was an ‘essay-setting/hours-marking’ kind of teacher. I believed the practice of writing about a text helped you to do well in exam conditions. So perhaps I was teaching people to pass the exams, as well as teaching King Lear and, by extension, English literature.

Hoping to teach pupils how to pass exams even better, I became an examiner, for various boards and at various levels.  It was, at the time, the only way to get into an examiner’s mind, to find out what they would credit and what they would not. It was – and perhaps still is – an exhausting exercise, but the best INSET I ever received. I would scurry back to class with the lowdown on how to read a paper, how to get to the point, how to answer the question set, rather than the one you had been hoping for.

Requests for re-marks in my teaching time were few and far between and seldom successful. So I lent my voice to the clamour demanding that students have access to their exam papers after the event should they wish to appeal a mark or grade.

As a teacher, I thought those returned papers were gold dust for anyone about to teach the same syllabus in the coming year.  Where did candidates go wrong? What did examiners value? How did they think? And what mistakes were our candidates making which could lose them a grade, cost them a university place, lose them a career?

‘The exams themselves – at least in my country grammar school – were a completely mysterious land in which anything could happen.’

Not small potatoes, then. My conviction was strong enough to get me in print on the front page of The Guardian, and from there to the Newsnight studio to argue the case with the examination board’s top man. I am still struck by the irony of having our slot in the programme severely cut at the last minute – i.e. as we waited in the studio – because of a breaking news story: Clinton and Lewinsky. The exams man and I were on air for perhaps two minutes, long enough for me to say, “It’s only right candidates should get their papers back,” and him to reply, sagely, “You don’t know what you have started…”

And sometimes I think he was right.  Among other things, I think the openness I wanted to see has led to much greater accountability on the part of exam boards, and that ought to be a good thing – yes? But that also takes us in the direction of real accountability for each mark, as opposed to what you might call ‘impression marking’. And this way lies a mark scheme which gives credit for specifics – i.e. right answers – rather than for knowledge of a text and a capacity to weave an argument, which might agree or disagree with a proposition, in response to a question.

When the English department of which I was a member back in the day saw this coming, we joked there would be a time when a GCSE mark would be given for a multiple choice question asking if Macbeth was married to a) Banquo, b) a witch or c) Lady Macbeth. We giggled until we realised that really an A-grade student would cheerfully write for half an hour about the possibility that Lady Macbeth was also a witch, and in this new world would probably clock no marks at all.

English literature, history, the humanities – these are not the preserve of right or wrong answers. Indeed, for many sixth formers, that was their charm. As a head of sixth form, I came across many students who would embark on A-levels in physics or maths, and stop after a term because, quite literally, they could not get the right answers. These subjects, quite rightly, have no leeway for dispute, or argument, or alternative views of the universe. The humanities offer freedom to manoeuvre, to think, to argue, to propose, to speculate.  Those things should be encouraged even in the exams. To tie everything down with an assessment objective – tick, tick –  is like taking a hammer to a Fabergé egg. 

This post first appeared in IE-Today on 4 March 2018