Why I’m (mostly) enjoying teaching the new linear A level

I have taught an A level class of some kind every year since I was an NQT. I really enjoy the challenge of teaching the older students, and over the years I have been lucky enough to teach some incredible texts – Paradise Lost, Doctor Faustus and Larkin’s poetry are amongst my favourites. The background reading can be daunting, but I have always found that by improving my subject knowledge I have really helped my students to improve their learning.

A level English teaching is not easy, though. One of the main difficulties I’ve found teaching English in three different mixed comprehensives is that a great many students do not have the necessary grounding in literature and often their writing is not controlled enough to handle the demands of higher-level essay writing, even when grades achieved at GCSE would suggest otherwise. Whilst this may not be everyone’s experience, I have seen the result of curriculum narrowing and an imbalanced focus on English language at GCSE.

So, as much as I enjoy teaching A level, to a certain extent this enjoyment is tempered by the sometimes overwhelming demands of not only teaching the syllabus, but also in addressing the issues that remain as a consequence of a superficial emphasis on skill acquisition at GCSE. In my experience, these issues can get exacerbated, or rather perpetuated, by the AS and A2 examination format. Under this format, where year 12 students sit exams sometime in May, there is not really enough time to teach for learning rather than performance, with the result that nothing really changes.

Since September I have been teaching an AS class who are pursuing the linear course. I had arrived at the beginning of term expecting to teach a year 13 class the legacy specification with texts that I know well and have built up considerable resources and subject knowledge. For one reason or another, the class got cut and I found myself at the last minute faced with the prospect of teaching three texts I was not very familiar with and without time the time I would usually set aside to prepare. Despite feeling vulnerable about my lack of subject knowledge, I have greatly enjoyed teaching the new specification and feel liberated by the possibilities that the linear structure affords.

Time

Whilst I am sympathetic to concerns about linearity, more teaching time is available now the burden of preparing for exams in May has gone. Because the AS exams come so early, you are revising and preparing with past exam papers before you know it, sometimes before you have taught all the poems or finished reading the novel. Once you knock out study leave and the exams themselves, only a few weeks of learning remain when students return in June. In those remaining weeks of term, it doesn’t seem to matter how you try and structure the time to make it purposeful – and trust me I have tried everything from AS/A2 transition units to beginning coursework – it rarely seems to amount to much.

Spacing and interleaving

I think by now that most people, particularly those reading this post, know about the benefits of spacing and interleaving. Unfortunately, knowing and doing are often two completely different things, particularly when you don’t have the time or the opportunity to implement the structures you think will make a difference in the classroom. In my experience, putting spacing and interleaving into practice is hard: aside from practical internal and external constraints, as Robert Bjork himself acknowledges, ‘students don’t like it’.

For the last couple of years I have been trying to introduce these desirable difficulties into my classroom, but I think it has only really been since September and with my current year 12 class that I have got close to implementing them in a way that is reasonably true to the ideal. I spoke at a conference earlier in the year about interleaving and a delegate came up to me at the end and said she thought it sounded a good idea and would ‘try out some interleaving later in the week’. Either my explanation was terrible, which is quite possible, or there was a bit of misunderstanding on her part about what implementing interleaving actually entails.

The reason for this disconnect is, I think, quite simple: introducing desirable difficulty into the classroom is actually quite hard and, like all learning, requires a prolonged period of time to understand it conceptually and making it effective in its practical application. I think where I have been more successful with my attempts this year is because I have had the time and the freedom to do so: I have been able to weave between texts and to allow a decent amount of time for forgetting to take place. The table below provides a brief overview of how I have gone about this and divided up my teaching time between Hamlet and Rossetti over recent months.

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The testing effect

It is much easier to take advantage of the testing effect as a classroom teacher. Designing frequent low-level tests of quizzes is relatively straightforward and does not really require too much unnecessary time in design or execution. Starting a new syllabus from scratch allows the additional opportunity to build a coherent programme of quizzes and sequence them in such a way they are testing and encoding the learning in a planned and systematic way. With my A level class I am now ordering my quizzes, so that next year I can gather them together in a master resource for students, which will should make my teaching easier and allow students’ to become more independent in their own quizzing and self testing.

Assessment hour

At my school we have taken what I think is quite a bold decision by insisting that most students only take three A levels. This, in part, has allowed us to offer an additional hour’s teaching to all subjects. On top of this, and I realise that we are lucky here, we have created an additional assessment hour every cycle. This means that every two weeks, each student completes a one-hour assessment under supervision for each of his or her three subjects. The assessment can take whatever form the department thinks is appropriate, such as a quiz, a set of comprehension questions or an essay. This format was designed to provide departments with the opportunity to assess students’ learning (ok, performance) on a regular basis, but it is also proving to be a fantastic mechanism for regular low stakes assessment.

Building knowledge

For me, probably the greatest benefit of the new linear course – with fewer texts studied in greater depth, together with the specific structures put in place by my school – are that it has meant I can teach in such a way that build up my students’ knowledge and understanding of the texts, whilst also addressing their individual and collective weaknesses. With the need to prepare for an exam early next year removed, I now have more time and freedom to build up a web of knowledge around the text, to methodically introduce relevant contextual details, to tackle grammatical misunderstandings one by one and teach analytical skills through extensive modelling and practice. In short, to do things the right way.

End note

I don’t wish to paint my teaching as great or somehow perfect; it is far from it. I have not got everything right and some of my quizzes are more effective than others. Interleaving in the way that I have illustrated above has been a challenge: although I genuinely believe in the efficacy of distributing learning and weaving between units, it stills feels unnatural and requires a courage of conviction. So conditioned are we English teachers to the practice of teaching a text or unit in a term that to break up this dominant structural arrangement can feel weird and unnerving. I also don’t mind admitting that I am still struggling with my own knowledge of the texts. I hate being just one step ahead of the students, even though I know that this is not really anyone’s fault – it is just the way that things sometimes go in large schools with lots of variables. If anything, being not so well prepared has reminded just what it is like for less experienced teachers, where everything is new and every new text is a body of knowledge to learn!

Thanks for reading

 

 

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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.