Miltonic Vision Part I: Trivium 21C, Threshold concepts and the power of ‘powerful knowledge’

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A few years ago, at my previous school, I taught Milton’s Paradise Lost for the first time. Whilst I had read some of the early books in my first year at university, I never managed to complete the poem and I certainly didn’t think I knew it. The thought of teaching such as challenging text to my A2 class was a little to daunting to the say the least. Faced with this vulnerability and my commitment to teach the best of my ability, I did what I always do to prepare: I hit the books.

As you can see from the picture below, getting the time to read what I should have learnt at university was not easy. Somehow, despite the clammerings of a small person, I managed to find the time to learn a lot about the poem – about Milton, his incredible life and his fascinating, yet extremely complex, religious beliefs. The more I read of and about Paradise Lost the more I understood the complexity of the poem, and the more I could enjoy and appreciate its beauty.

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Teacher subject knowledge

Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my experiencing of teaching Paradise Lost. I suppose the hours I put in to learning the poem are an expression of my belief in the primacy of strong teacher subject knowledge as the key to great teaching – the deep understanding that helps a teacher to guide students to exam success and, perhaps more importantly, fosters a love of learning that remains after exams have been sat and results received. For me, strong teacher subject knowledge operates as both means and ends: ‘means’ as a way to inspire, challenge, provoke, articulate and clarify; ‘ends’ as promotion of the ideal that beauty and complexity are goals in and of themselves.

A lot has been written of late about the importance of strong subject knowledge. I have certainly seen it side-lined in teacher education and training programmes, which too often favour the generic at the expense of the domain specific. I have also seen the marginalisation of teacher subject knowledge in the national curriculum (and hence in the classroom), which has focused more on all encompassing themes and developing skills and less on exploring the intricate networks of knowledge that exist within and across disciplines. The dominant mood has seemed to be that teaching comes first, and knowledge of the subject comes second. It is encouraging to see this imbalance being readdressed, with excellent suggestions here, here, here and here on how to improve initial and ongoing teacher training, as well as curriculum design.

Powerful knowledge

So far I have been focusing on the knowledge of the teacher and how the relative strength of that knowledge can impact the relative strength of the learning within the classroom. Of course, the end point is obviously the learners themselves – and our job is surely to ensure that all students have the opportunity to access, engage and wrestle with the knowledge that is organised and accumulated within disciplines. I am particularly drawn to Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ in this regard. Unlike my use of the term ‘strong subject knowledge’ – though important, is ultimately more orientated towards the teacher rather than the student – the term ‘powerful knowledge’ distinguishes between ‘knowledge of the powerful’, the knowers of knowledge, and ‘powerful knowledge’ which is concerned with the intrinsic power of knowledge in itself. The entitlement for every young person in education.

Future School 3

‘Powerful knowledge’ lies at the heart of what Young and others describe in their excellent book Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. The Future School 3 curriculum model is one of three possible curriculum models open to us in the years to come. Young et al argue that Future School 3 is the best way to achieve a fair and equitable knowledge entitlement for all learners, regardless of background and context. Their model runs counter to what they see as the two curriculum ideologies that have dominated the educational system of the past – Future School 1 and Future School 2.

Future School 1 treats knowledge as largely fixed and the role of the teacher as the deliverer of static bodies of learning to future generations. Its model is ‘compliance’ and ‘transmission’ and is characterised by adherents of the Arnoldian belief in the ‘best which has been thought and said.’ Future School 2 reacts against this thesis on the basis that it is elitist and removed from the lives of young people today, particularly in the digital age. It believes knowledge is changeable and the curriculum should be constructed from and for the experiences of learners in the real world. This is the curriculum model, to a lesser or greater extent, that I have seen dominate my time in education.

Future School 3, however, rejects both these positions and for me offers an exciting way of aligning the way that teachers make use of strong subject knowledge within their subjects to the idea of powerful knowledge accumulating for students across their experience of the whole curriculum. The Future School 3 model emphasises ‘powerful knowledge’ – not as a ‘given’, as with Future 1 – but as ‘fallible and ‘always open to change through the debates and research of particular specialist groups.’ In the Future School 3 framework disciplines collaborate with their learned communities (university departments, subject associations, etc) to create ‘curriculum based on engagement’ not adherence. This model helps learners develop powerful knowledge by deliberately taking them away from their own experiences – defamiliarising their worlds in order to represent them with alternative realities filled with possibility and scope.

It seems to me that one of the most profound possibilities of a Future 3 curriculum is that students are likely to better equipped to ask meaningful questions about the worlds in which they inhabit both now and in the future. I think this is empowering and moral, and in many respects sits nicely alongside what I take to be the main thrust of Martin Robinson’s concept of Trivium 21C: that schools should teach students the facts or knowledge of a subject from the past (grammar), but also give them the necessary tools (rhetoric and dialectic) to be able to interrogate the validity of these truth claims so they can shape their futures. A synthesis of past and present – not from outside in, but from inside out.

Young’s delineation of ‘powerful knowledge’, which I have barely even sketched, also dovetails with another theoretical model I have been mulling over for some time now, Meyer and Land’s notion of Threshold Concepts. I particularly like the way that Powerful Knowledge and Threshold Concepts are both concerned with the underpinnings of disciplines, and how they focus on what is true to subjects in their purest form, not interpretations of them by exam boards, which have become increasingly detached from their learned communities. The way I see it ‘powerful knowledge’ effectively lays out the ideal of what we want our young people to be taught; the Trivium’s grammar, rhetoric and dialectic offer a means of making this simultaneously coherent whilst also open to the possibility of change through a combination of debate and synthesis. Threshold concepts can here become the overarching framework that recognises and identities the nature of progression within each of the disciplines as students inhabit the tension between knowledge of the past and experience of the present.

Paradise Regained

And this is where I return to Paradise Lost, and in particular to my experience of preparing to teach it for the first time. Whilst it would certainly have helped if I had learnt more about the poem during my time at university, the reality was that I was a first year undergraduate reading a incredibly complex text that I was not really equipped to read: my previous studies (which yielded an E at A level literature and a C and D in English language and Literature respectively in the age of 100% coursework!) had left me woefully unprepared for degree level study. I simply did not posses the requisite knowledge of Milton, of poetry, of Literature itself, to properly make sense of one of the finest works in the English Literary Heritage. I did not possess ‘powerful knowledge’.

Some years later as a teacher, through a combination of hard work and the support and kindness of number of inspiring, knowledgeable tutors, I returned to the poem again. By this time I had completed my degree as well as masters in literature. I could understand the poem much better – I understood much more how it worked, what Milton was up to and some of the ways in which he achieved his aims. Above all, I could appreciate the beauty of Paradise Lost, and why I thought it sill had considerable relevance to my life today. I had experienced the way that ‘powerful knowledge’ begets further ‘powerful knowledge’ – the oft quoted, and rather fittingly given the Christian context of the poem, Matthew Effect.

In the second part of this post I intend to look at the poem itself. In particular I want to look closely at Milton’s use of the epic simile as a way of exploring the inherent power of ‘powerful knowledge’ in a little more depth. In this post I wanted to tie together my thoughts about how I think schools can create the conditions where strong teacher subject knowledge meet powerful student knowledge. I hope I have at least partially achieved this aim. Maybe.

The Elements of Language: what we are using in place of levels

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In my last post I blogged about our department’s plans for a new KS3 English curriculum, which we are looking to phase in gradually starting this coming September.

This curriculum change is part of a wider set of reforms, in part a response to the shifting national picture, but in the main the result of a desire to transform the reading and writing competences of the students at our school. Changing the texts and sequence in which they are studied is a necessary first step, but this alone will not lead to significant rises in attainment if that content is not well taught or if there are not robust methods of assessment to purposefully guide instruction or to meaningfully evaluate its impact.

And so to the subject of this post: the nature of the model of assessment that we will be using to drive our ambitious plans forwards. It is not perfect, but what I am convinced about is that despite its inevitable shortcomings, it will prove to be a much better method of assessment than the ambiguous and imprecise system of levels that we are currently using. It will support learning, rather than distort it.

Formative and Summative

There are essentially two strands to this assessment model. One is concerned with measuring the progress of students’ over time (summative) the other, the more important, is a tool to support the class teacher in their ongoing understanding of student learning (formative). Michael Tidd is excellent on this distinction. The first supports the reporting process; the second supports the learners. Under this new assessment framework there will be one extended reading and writing assessment at the end of each year, which will take the form of an examination.

From these assessments students will be given an overall percentage for their performance over the two parts, which will then be compared against their starting point and their target for the end of the year. Regrettably, we think a baseline test is necessary. Whilst I sympathise with the valid arguments about retesting students at the beginning of year 7, we want to fully understand exactly what is behind the normalised numbers we will be receiving from our feeder schools. I appreciate this is not ideal, but for us, as I hope you will see, it is necessary: we want to know what our students can and cannot do so we can adapt our subsequent instruction accordingly.

The Elements of Language

The Elements of Language (see below) is the terminology that will allow us to articulate what we actually mean when we talk about effective reading and writing. Divided into 10 elements – five for reading and five for writing with corresponding assessment objectives – each element is embodied by a single word. So, for example, for writing there is A02 Control and A03 Style, whilst for reading A06 Knowledge and AO7 Interpretation. Together The Elements of Language define our notion of literacy and provide a genuine vehicle for a cross curricular focus on developing reading and writing – a shared language for talking about literacy and a practical means for understanding what it looks like.

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The Elements of Reading and Writing

The Elements of Language are divided into The Elements of Reading and The Elements of Writing. Each element has a corresponding Assessment Objective and has four stages of progression (see below). Within these four stages there are three clearly defined statements about the knowledge and understanding required to master. As much as possible we have tried to avoid vague skills definitions, which are unhelpfully imprecise, particularly as a means for helping students to understand next steps and to guide future instruction. This was more difficult to achieve with The Elements of Reading, which use some evaluative terminology in order to avoid an overwhelming number of specific statements.

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Assessment that drives learning

The creation of these three distinct objectives within each stage of progression is deliberate. It is designed to enable every unit we teach to work on one specific aspect from each overarching objective (or element) and to carry out this coverage in a coherent, systematic and rigorous manner. Across each term (we will run termly units) teachers will be focusing on teaching ten specific areas for improvement, along with responding to the learners’ needs as required. A simple tracker like the one below will help the teacher to maintain a firm grasp of whether students are learning the different objectives or not. Students will receive a 1 if they partially meet the objective criteria, a 2 if they fully meet it and a 0 if they fail to meet the criteria at all. These judgements will be made at the discretion of the individual teacher; they will not be tied to a specific piece of work.

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Because there are ten Elements of Language, and an on-going monitoring system that makes a 0-2 judgement, students’ progress can be easily transferred into percentages, both individually and per objective. We believe this highly visual and transparent terminology will give the teacher a clearer and more specific set of information they can act upon to inform their planning and to respond to the needs of their learners. It will also allow the co-ordinator to see if there are patterns of underachievement and if intervention is required. The specificity of our statements makes the understanding of English and how to get better at it much clearer: the students either demonstrate an understanding and application of a particular element or they don’t. This information will be available to teachers across the curriculum, particularly in the essay-based subjects as part of a shared planning model.

Interim and end of year assessment

Each term our students will complete one extended reading and one extending writing task, as well as a contextualised speaking assignment. Both extended writing tasks will be redrafted multiple times using the gallery critique model in an effort to establish a culture of excellence. Students’ work will receive regular, specific feedback; it will improve accordingly, along with their levels of motivation and self-perception. This work will not be graded. We are completely doing away with the notion of a half term assessment or APP task, believing instead that there are better ways to assess on-going knowledge and skill acquisition (see below) and that real progress takes a longer period of time to manifest– namely a year or perhaps even longer.

The Use of Multiple Choice Questions

I have already blogged here and here about the benefits of the multiple choice format, primarily as a means of informing teaching, but also as an effective method of managing the demands of marking – a real problem for so many, many teachers. As I have already outlined, the only extended pieces of writing that will be subject to specific assessment will be the end of year examination. Termly pieces will be produced but not be judged in isolation. Rather they will be used to evaluate whether a particular strand of an assessment objective has been met and if re-teaching or consolidation is required. Learning will need to be shown as secure as opposed to being performed in a one off piece.

Across a term, multiple-choice assessment will test the extent to which the focused elements have been learnt, or are on their way to be being learnt. Some aspects of reading and writing are easier to test using this format than others. The Elements of Language that perhaps lend themselves the best to multiple choice are Vocabulary (A01), Control (A02), Style (A03), Knowledge (A06) and Interpretation (A07).  Just to be clear, I am not suggesting these tests in and of themselves prove learning has occurred. They don’t. They provide an indication of the learning process and, most importantly, they provide a reliable guide for future instruction. Every class will sit these assessments and results will be used by individual teachers, as well as across the department to inform joint planning.

Limited, inconsistent, secure and exceptional

The end of year assessments (along with the year 7 baseline test) will be marked using our new KS3 mark scheme (see example for reading below). This mark scheme is broken into five different standards of performance, which we have termed ‘limited’, ‘inconsistent’, ‘competent’, ‘good’ and ‘exceptional’. These different standards – as much as humanly possible – match the four incremental phases of development within the separate Elements of Reading and Writing. I am aware that this system runs the risk of the ‘adverb problem’ as highlighted by Daisy Christodoulou here. I have wrestled with this conundrum for a while now: what is the best way to effectively judge a holistic piece of extended writing where different aspects (or elements) of English are synthesised? This mark scheme is my attempt at a response.

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Whilst I am not completely sure that it fully resolves the dilemma, I hope the way the standards are articulated at each level, and the relative specificity of the individual objectives, will make the marking clearer and more reliable. Obviously, robust standardisation and moderation procedures will also be necessary, as will exemplification at each standard. And this is exactly what we intend to do: exemplify what we mean by ‘exceptional’, ‘good’ and so on. To do this we plan to take the most accomplished student in the year above and use their exam response to set the standard for what is excellent’, which we can then rework downwards for ‘good’, ‘competent’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘limited’. When a better response is produced this will become the new ‘exceptional’, thus ensuring the bar for what we expect from our students is always rising.

As with the termly tracker, at each of the five stages there are 2 marks available, 0 for not met, 1 for partially met and 2 for fully met. Again, like with the ongoing monitoring, the end of year assessments will be converted into percentages by combining the raw reading and writing marks. These final percentages will produce a transparent measure that will show the extent to which progress has been made or not been made. At this stage we are not fully decided upon what would represent a realistic, yet challenging, percentage target for the year. I expect it will be something like 10-15%, though this will most probably become clearer once we have implemented the assessment model and refined its workings.

A note on starting points

‘Exceptional’ is, of course, what we would like all of our students to be by the end of KS3. If they achieved the criteria that we have laid out then we truly would have instigated step change. Yet, we are realistic enough to know that this will not be possible for all, at least in the short term, perhaps even ever. To this end we want to make it clear that the minimum we expect our students to be is ‘good’ readers and writers, particularly those that come in at or around the normalised mark of 100 – what is deemed to constitute ‘secondary ready’. In our eyes this pretty much equates to our scale of ‘competent’. And this is why all those who come into our school at secondary ready will follow the second assessment pathway marked ‘competent’. Those below this will follow the greyed out area labelled ‘inconsistent’. There are no criteria for ‘limited’, since by its very definition ‘limited’ implies a considerable lack of requisite knowledge and understanding. We don’t need to define this.

And that is pretty much our new assessment model. It is still in draft format, so I’m sure there will be some glaring errors, typos, omissions and the like. We will also be making amendments and tweaks over the coming months.

We feel that we have come up with a model of assessment that is right for the students of our school and one that will actually help drive improvement, not get in the way of it.

I hope it is of use in some way elsewhere.

Now is the time for English curriculum redesign

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This post is about the draft of our new KS3 English curriculum and the rationale behind its construction. My next post will explain how this curriculum fits in with the method of assessment we have devised to replace the largely ineffectual SATS levels. It will effectively form the third part of my series about the use of multiple-choice questions in English, and will describe how we intend to use the format within a holistic system of assessment.

Like others, for a long while I have wanted to make a step change to KS3, knowing that this represents the best way to raise attainment. Intervention work, early entry or the deployment of the most experienced teachers with exam classes are all very well and are often necessary means of helping students achieve, but they also often lead to artificial, short-term gains and in many cases are effectively papering over the underlying issues. Too often the continual and disproportionate demand of examination success leaves little resource to focus on the root cause of student underachievement. Until now, that is, where national changes to exam structure and assessment measures have made it wise for us to make the time to make our key stage three curricula fit for purpose.

Despite what sometimes feels like an overwhelming amount of change and uncertainty, now really does feel like an exciting and perhaps even defining moment for the future direction of the subject: a chance to shape, particularly at KS3, what we teach our students along with the freedom to assess that learning in the manner that we best see fit. In this regard, we can acts as professionals who understand our subject and the students that we teach. I intend to take advantage of this opportunity-cum-imperative to create an ambitious curriculum, one that will inspire our students and provide them with the knowledge, skills and cultural understanding necessary to achieve success in their lives – up to and beyond their examinations.

This is not simply about choosing a bunch of hard books – though as you will see below the texts chosen are considerably challenging – but more a matter of doing what is right for our students, raising expectations through the roof and, as much as humanly possible, creating a level playing field with those who enjoy more privilege. As I suspect is the case elsewhere, at our school the best English students – the ones who have a ‘natural’ ability to write fluently and who appreciate the underlying concepts and intentions in texts – are the ones who read most widely and deeply. Our most able students are thus the ones who have often got there in spite of their schooling, not because of it, and for who reading challenging books for pleasure is normalised within the home environment. This has to be the case for all our students.

I am clearly not alone in believing that now really is an exciting opportunity for curriculum redesign. Only this morning Alex Quigley brilliantly explained why 2014 holds many reasons to be educationally cheerful. Indeed, in recent weeks and months I have read and been inspired by number of posts exploring different organising principles for new English KS3 curricula, including Alex Quigley’s ‘universal language’ of the story, Joe Kirby’s model of interleaving and revisiting cultural texts, and David Didau’s thematic and sequential curriculum that stretches back and forward across time.  All of these (and more) have helped me to devise what I believe is an inspiring and rigorous curriculum.

Here, then, is the draft version of our new KS3 curriculum.

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Of course, designing a new curriculum is only part of what is needed to raise attainment. Making sure that the texts chosen are taught in an effective way, and that colleagues are well supported and feel confident enough to teach them well is equally, if not more, important. It would be naïve not to expect some considerable anxiety around teaching works like The Odyssey or with spending a term on sonnets with year 7. This is why we intend to invest heavily in providing supportive wider reading material and creating opportunities for joint planning sessions in a similar vein to the lesson study model. 

We have not arrived at this curriculum overnight. Neither do we expect to begin teaching all of these texts from next September. Over the coming weeks we will agree upon the best way forward, making sure that what we implement is manageable and that it really does lead to a step change. I should perhaps make it clear that a lot of the structures and systems that will facilitate the delivery of our curriculum are already in place from previous initiatives. It is also worth noting that we have a supportive headteacher and work in a school where creative and bold solutions to problems are encouraged. I realise that this is not the case for all.

To help make some of the nuances of the draft a little clearer, I have summarised some of the thinking behind the choices taken and provided further explanations of the supporting structures in place.

The Reading lounge

One of the main resources our department has at its disposal is a Reading Lounge, a bright, funky space solely for the purposes of English lessons.  Whilst we would prefer a vibrant library (space it at a premium), having the Reading Lounge at the bottom of the English corridor enables us to ensure time is dedicated to reading for pleasure. Once a cycle year 7 and year 8 pupils will read modern stories that are in some way in dialogue with the texts in the taught curriculum. This approach will enable our students to get the best of both worlds: exposure to important, brilliantly written texts of cultural value and access to exciting contemporary fiction from authors they will already be familiar with. The Reading Lounge texts are in bold italics, and these choices give way to books to take home to read in year 9.

Unitisation

It has become increasingly clear to me that the idea of having a new topic or focus each half term is flawed. For many years this had been our approach. We would try and cram a lot into each six or seven week block and then rush through an assessment in the last couple of days of term, the very time when students were not able to produce their best work. We would then dutifully mark and level these assessments and enter the results on a spreadsheet, where they would remain until report time. A monumental waste of time!

Since September we have been experimenting with termly units at year 7 and 8. Although in its infancy, this less is more approach appears to be helping deepen our students’ understanding, as well as providing teachers with the flexibility to respond to their students’ needs. Without the pressure of constantly having to move on to the next unit or getting the assessment done in time, teachers are better able to respond to the learning needs of their classes and reteach material if necessary.

This past year we have also placed a much heavier emphasis on the process of redrafting. Influenced by some of the ideas in Ron Berger’s excellent ‘Ethic of Excellence’ our curriculum will give our students the time and space necessary to produce their very best work and to be inspired by their own excellence. How redrafting fits in to our wider system of assessment will be addressed in my next post.

Setting

This year for the first time we have started to set from year 7. Whilst I understand the arguments around mixed ability and, in principle, subscribe to the idealism of its intentions, in practice it is no longer tenable with the growing chasm in the ability profile of our incoming year 6. We were finding that at KS3 the most able were not consistently being stretched and the least able were not being sufficiently supported. On the curriculum draft the different numbers in brackets signify our four new sets, which are spread across three bands. As you can see, in some cases we feel that is appropriate for students to study different texts, though we believe that all will be challenged by what we have chosen.

Cultural capital

Whilst this term is bandied around a lot, for me it perfectly captures what I have experienced in my time as a teacher. I really believe that a lack of cultural capital is one of the most significant reasons why our students do not excel in English, but they do more in Maths and Science. I also firmly believe that cultural capital has a value outside of economic terms (see the comments at the end of Joe Kirby’s recent post on how to plan a knowledge unit for a debate around this issue).

The texts and periods we have chosen will provide a solid understanding of the journey of English literature and the development of our present identity. It is far from exhaustive and we are painfully aware that in order to achieve other aims, such as redrafting and an emphasis on explicit grammar teaching, we have had to sacrifice a great deal. Some of this will resurface in year 10, like Frankenstein and American fiction. We have also tried to provide some balance in terms of race and gender. I’m sure for some it will still seem too elitist.

Whilst our students achieve very good English results, they are far from being expert writers and readers and they could do much better. They are well supported in year 10 and particularly year 11 and make very good progress because they work hard and the exam is relatively formulaic. Many would flounder if the exam asked the question in a different format, or if it relied upon responses to more challenging material. Many of our students also struggle to make the transition to A level and almost all find it incredibly difficult to deal with unseen material. Even our brightest students – those who apply for Oxford, Cambridge or medical degrees – are often let down in their applications by their inability to express themselves coherently in the written form.

Our new curriculum is therefore the first step towards developing more articulate, genuinely independent writers and thinkers. We want our students to not be disadvantaged by background and to enjoy as much chance of success as those who attend the very best schools in the country.

This will not happen overnight.

There is a place for multiple choice in English – Part II

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In my last blog I laid out the background to my thinking around the use of multiple choice as an assessment tool in English. My focus is on its use as a formative vehicle, in particular its application to the teaching of reading. To this end I have been experimenting with setting regular multiple choice assessments with my GCSE English class, preparing them for an examination of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men next summer.

This post will outline the nitty gritty of my approach, explaining how I have been using these short assessments to inform my weekly planning. Whilst I will concentrate a great deal on the methodology, I will also look at the results and the manner in which I have been interpreting them in order to inform my subsequent instruction. What I am realising more than anything, is that this is still very much a work in progress – but one that I think has considerable scope for future development.

So, to the practicalities. My year 11 class are a challenging set 3 out of 5. All the students are predicted ether a B or a C, though many still have a great deal of ground to do to obtain these grades. And this is where I planned to take advantage of the multiple choice format: to help me target areas to focus on in order to maximise learning and the impact on progress. I have taught Of Mice and Men many times before, so I am familiar with what to expect from students and how to approach the teaching. This familiarity has proven to be very useful when it comes to designing the assessments, which are not only time consuming to produce, but also reliant on a thorough understanding of the text.

I decided to break up the unit into six weekly teaching cycles. Using the mark scheme I identified everything the students would need to know about the novel in order to obtain at least a grade B. This included a detailed knowledge of the characters, their relationships, the plot, the settings, the different contexts, a wide range of authorial methods and the overarching themes. Each week I set out to address a different focus, with the book’s six chapters nicely matching my intentions. I wanted the focus to build in complexity and consist of a cycle of learning that included reading and discussing, analysing one or two key passages and then writing in a structured way. I wanted the multiple choice questions to check the level of understanding for each focus and give me feedback that would inform my teaching for the following week.

The first week focused on chapter one, in particular the initial presentation of George and Lennie, and the role of the setting in establishing their friendship. Whilst students would obviously learn more as the book progressed, I wanted them to know the following after reading the first chapter:

–       what happens in chapter one and what we learn about past events

–       where and when the story is set

–       who George and Lennie are and the differences between them

–       the nature of their friendship and their shared dream

–       how Steinbeck uses adjectives and verbs to portray their characters

–       how Steinbeck uses animals to construct Lennie’s character

–       the symbolic importance of the setting

In the first three lessons we read and discussed chapter one, and the students completed activities designed to help them identify and explain the language used to construct the characters and how to write about these details analytically. At the beginning of the fourth lesson the students completed the first multiple choice assessment, which focused on testing their understanding of some of the areas identified above.

After reading a number of blog posts and research papers about the effective design of multiple choice questions, I realised that my questions would need to bear in mind the following if they were going to be successful:

–       they would need to assess understanding of a teaching sequence

–       they would need to be phrased in a clear and unambiguous way

–       they would need to have all options as plausible answers

 and most importantly: 

–       there would need to be clear cognitive reasoning behind each option, which would enable me to use the results diagnostically 

Here is a link to my first assessment on chapter one: http://tinyurl.com/pb9u5y3 

On the whole students did quite well, with the average class mark just under 7 out of 10. Considering that I had made the questions quite challenging and had deliberately stayed away from explicitly discussing the chosen passages in advance, I felt this was a decent reflection of their learning. After looking through the results, a few things started to become apparent. Firstly, it was clear that I had phrased one or two questions rather poorly. In question two, for instance, it was clear that the word ‘morosely’ caused a problem. This reminded me of the importance of unpicking unfamiliar vocabulary and the need to be more mindful with my question phrasing.

Of much more interest, however, was the students’ poor showing on question three, which I had not considered to be terribly difficult. This question asked students to select the most fitting explanation for the ‘verb ‘exploded’ and the adverb ‘triumphantly’ in the quotation: “They run us outa Weed,” Lennie exploded triumphantly. Only a handful of students got what I had set as the right answer, which initially left me puzzled. Even though I thought had carefully rationaled the logic of each possible option, I realised that the conclusion I hoped students would reach – that Lennie did not fully understand the consequences of his actions and was therefore dangerous – required a far deeper level of deduction than I had initially anticipated. I had taken it for granted that students would arrive at the full, ominous significance of Lennie’s naïve explosion of joy.

The more I thought about it the more it became clear the level of deductive reasoning and inference that would be required to reach this depth of understanding, the kind of understanding I wanted the class to be able to demonstrate. I came up with the following chain of reasoning:

  1. Lennie remembers that they were run out of Weed.
  2. Lennie is excited that he has remembered.
  3. Lennie cannot control his excitement at remembering.
  4. Lennie likes to please George – they are friends.
  5. Lennie must have a childish nature if he is pleased by all this.
  6. Lennie has clearly forgotten the main reason why they were run out of Weed: his inappropriate actions.
  7. He does not recall, because he does not understand that he’s done anything wrong.

This therefore makes him potentially dangerous, as he does not understand what he did wrong, even though it had terrible consequences.

Despite having taught this novel for many years and helped students to gain very good grades for it in exams, I had never really thought about aspects of their understanding in this degree of detail. The multiple choice assessment, or rather the students’ responses to it, had forced me to reflect on the way that I taught the text and challenged some of my approach to the teaching of reading.

The next lesson I went through this example with the class, explaining to the students the sequence of inference and deduction that I thought they needed to go through in order to arrive at the most sophisticated response. Whilst I am fully aware that part of the joy of literature is the multiplicity of interpretation, I genuinely want my students to be able to read and understand to this level of sophistication. All the responses that I set may well be plausible and in that sense correct, but I believe the option that suggests it shows Lennie’s potential danger is ultimately the most sophisticated, requiring the greatest insight and evaluative skill and therefore worthy of the highest standards of academic excellence.

I have since conducted two more assessments, with three further tests to follow. In my third, and final, blog on this subject, I will analyse the salient points from my students’ responses to these questions, and start to arrive at some tentative conclusions for how I intend to use multiple choice in the future. I will also offer some reflections on broader applications of the format.

For now, I am still learning what it can do for me.

Is there a place for multiple-choice in English? Part I

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This is a blog about my experience of using multiple-choice questions as a form of formative assessment in English. It will be split into three parts. This initial post lays out my present thinking around the format and how I think it could be of use to teachers. In the next few days I well post on explaining exactly how I implemented the assessments within a cycle of teaching, before I finally conclude with my reflections about its impact and suggestions for further development.

Whilst the focus of my experimentation has been in English – using multiple choice to guide my instruction of teaching Of Mice and Men to a middle set year 11 class I hope that some of the insights that I will be sharing will be of use to other curriculum areas, particularly those essay based subjects where there is lots of reading to do and lots of knowledge to acquire, and which may not initially appear to lend themselves to the multiple choice format.

Much of my thinking here has been inspired by the chapter on assessment in Leadership Leverage, and by recent blog posts on the subject by Daisy Christodoulou http://bit.ly/17y37nP and Harry Fletcher-Wood http://bit.ly/HnELmq  Through these readings and my own subsequent reflections, I have become increasingly convinced that multiple choice can offer teachers an important and, perhaps even, necessary method for providing ongoing formative data that can reliably inform short and medium term planning.

As I have already suggested English is not usually associated with the use of multiple choice as a means of assessing understanding, at least in this country where I have not certainly not seen it employed in any meaningful way. I suppose I can recall instances where I have seen the format used to crudely test basic understanding, such as in a short quiz at the beginning of a lesson to re-cap events in a novel or the names of key characters and settings. But this blog is not interested in that kind of use of multiple-choice approach; instead, it’s about something far more complex and nuanced than that, something that I am only beginning to really understand and appreciate for myself.

In America, students who study English have far more exposure to the format than students in this country, where state schools regularly use multiple choice questions as part of their standardised reading assessments. Students in this country, however, tend to have their reading assessed through extended written responses – a situation that is only going to increase in light of the recent national curriculum developments. Now, I am certainly not in any way proposing that one model of assessment is inherently better than the other, or that I favour a move away from extended writing. I don’t. As it happens, I think students should be encouraged to write at length and be given every opportunity to do so in a meaningful way across the curriculum.

What I am interested in exploring and learning from the American system is the way that the multiple-choice assessment model can provide teachers in this country with a robust formative vehicle to ensure that when students do come to their extended writing they are more likely to flourish because they have the requisite deep knowledge and understanding that the skill of writing relies upon. Ultimately, you have to know a great deal about a book, a poem, a text or a topic in order to truly be able to synthesise, evaluate and analyse in your writing, criteria which are usually found in the highest bands of reading assessment mark schemes.

Now, if you had asked me last year what I thought about the use of multiple choice assessment in general, let alone in English, I would probably have baulked, thinking either that the format was too simplistic to be any way useful, or that it simply was not compatible with the demands of gauging ability or progress in English. After all, both the English GCSE and A level exams test reading via the extended essay, so what possible benefit could the format hold for English teachers outside of this. This model of assessment – one that sees knowledge and understanding expressed through the medium of the written word – lies at the heart of the ethos of many an English curriculum. It explains why most schools run some kind of half termly key assessment task: an extended essay that assess reading or writing, which is then leveled with the results duly entered onto a spreadsheet.

But this model of assessment seems to me to have a number of significant flaws. Firstly, and most importantly, it is a lag measure. In other words, it gives summative information about student achievement and progress after instruction has ended, when it is simply too late to do anything about it. The class has moved onto to the next text or unit of work, with their scores or levels firmly in the rear view mirror, disappearing into nothingness. No doubt, some schools – those not overly bogged down in the mire of propping up year 11 outcomes –probably do use this data more wisely, either to adapt medium and long term planning or to intervene for whole classes, groups or individuals. I’m guessing that this is probably not the norm, though.

Yet, I think that even this kind of reflective and pragmatic approach is in itself problematic, particularly with the vagaries of levels factored into the equation. Either the data itself used to inform intervention is erroneous – from my experience it is hard to ensure the consistent application of levels, particularly in large departments – or because the skills descriptors themselves are too generic and cloudy to offer meaningful information that can inform further instruction. The intervention ends up addressing everything by repeating what didn’t work the first time, or it focuses on the wrong thing. Rarely is the result of this kind of remedial action retested, particularly at KS3 where there is rarely the time or the will. I am surely not alone in thinking that these half term key assessments are often more for us and our accountability systems than they are for the students who will have to live with the results of our teaching for the rest of their lives – for better or for worse.

And here is where I am starting to think that multiple choice might provide a much-needed helping hand, providing us English teachers with the means of increasing the chances that when our students do come to do extended written responses they write much better because they know what they are writing about: that they have the necessary knowledge and understanding to access those higher band reading criteria. Whilst I seem to have been exclusively focusing here on using multiple choice questions for developing reading, in truth because there is such an intrinsic relationship between knowledge about something (the reading) and the ability to express that understanding clearly and effectively (the writing), the format is ultimately likely to develop both skills simultaneously – Joe Kirby’s metaphor of the double helix remains pertinent: http://bit.ly/148KSRd

My next blog will explore the set up and practicalities of how I have been trying to implement the use of multiple-choice questions in my teaching and offer some of my initial findings.