Is teaching cheating?

The Teachmobile

Today I was sent this:

It purports to be a briefing sheet used by an AQA advisor to justify the movement of controlled assessment grade boundaries in this summer’s GCSE English exam (otherwise referred to as the GCSE fiasco.) I can’t vouch for its provenance beyond saying that it was emailed to me from a Head of English at another school who I have no reason to believe would have sent her time inventing fake documents. But you never know.

Now, the arguments about grade boundaries have been rehashed endlessly over the past few months and I have little to add to that debate here. No, the only contentious item in this missive is the fact that AQA appear to be saying that they need to shift boundaries in case students gain an unfair advantage due to having decent teachers. The, not entirely unreasonable, premise would appear to be that if a teacher is “familiar with the specification and its requirements” they will be “better able to teach candidates in a way that helps them to meet the assessment criteria”.

Well, duh! Isn’t that the main reason teachers become examiners or moderators? Isn’t it a professional duty to be “familiar” with the exam specifications you teach? And since when has teaching well been an unfair advantage? Surely all teachers have an equal opportunity not to be shit?

I am, possibly, misinterpreting all this. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation which will, in due course, become clear to me. The alternative is that under the guise of rigour, exams are going to made increasingly mysterious: ignorance will be the new expertise.

So, help me out here, is teaching cheating?


And indeed, it turns out that all this is entirely true. Here’s a link to the same document on the AQA website.

The GCSE English “fiasco” – Why shouldn’t all have prizes?

Lots of folk have had lots to say about what went on behind the scenes at the various exam boards this summer and throughout it all I’ve largely kept my peace. Having absorbed the various arguments and counter arguments I feel I’ve arrived at some sort of opinion.

In a nutshell, the issue seems to be that the prevailing (political?) opinion is that since the GCSE was first examined in 1988 (incidentally the year I took my exams) standards have steadily declined whilst grades have inexorably risen. For the past 24 years this orthodoxy has been if not unchallenged, at least accepted by the majority of educationalist and politicos. Then, along came Mr Gove on his well-muscled stallion and set out what all Daily Mail readers had long suspected: GCSEs were not fit for purpose and schools were churning out well-qualified youngsters who were unable to spell or add up. As far back as 2008 Gove made it clear that he would make GCSEs tougher and that pass marks for C grades should be doubled. Earlier this year he warned that, “There are going to be some uncomfortable moments in education reform in the years ahead. There will be years, because we are going to make exams tougher, when the number of people passing will fall.” The only real surprise is that it’s happened this year.

Yesterday he attacked the English Language GCSE as not being “fit for purpose” and added that he intended to “reform examinations at 16, move away from a discredited model and move towards one which is fair and has more rigour.” Well, I’ve got no complaints about making exams more rigorous, but what exactly does that mean? Was this year’s English GCSE really ‘not fit for purpose’? And if so, why?

I’m happy with the idea of modular exams being phased out, I’m delighted to hear that there will be only a single exam board allowed to write specifications for each subject and I’m over the moon to hear that controlled assessment will be culled. Fine. But why do we want to restrict the number of students who are awarded a C grade?

Whether you think the grade boundaries changing between January and June was fair or not, the reasoning behind manipulating figures in order to restrict the numbers of people who have passed an exam just seems bizarre. I can accept some of the issues raised about the problems with criteria based exams and absolutely accept that it’s impossible to avoid subjectivity when marking essays but the examiners are trained to ‘best fit’ a student’s work to a mark band which best describes their ability. If a student shows that they are able to meet the criteria for a C grade then it seems reasonable to suppose that they should be awarded a C grade. Doesn’t it?

Even Mr Gove wants his prize for falling results

Now the counter argument to this attacks the “All must have prizes” attitude that seeks to reward failure and dumb down curricula to the point where anyone can achieve. It may or may not be the case that getting a C grade in English is too easy. As an English teacher I don’t believe it’s particularly demanding (afterall the is C grade we’re talking about, not A*!) and have long thought that setting a target of 100% is a sensible approach: I act as if all students can get at least a C. And mostly they can. If students have earned their prize, why wouldn’t you want to let them have it? What possible benefit can there be from saying that only a set number of students are allowed prizes?

And frankly, a C grade in English is not all that much of a prize anyway. In the past I have taught students I’ve considered functionally illiterate who have managed to get C grades in English. I am not particularly proud of this. Morally, I think I should have spent more time improving their literacy and less time teaching to the test but this is the world in which we live. This, as I’ve been told throughout my career, is what we want. So to then turn round and attack a system which has been designed to make teachers very good at making students pass exams seems silly if you’re still going to bark and drool about standards.

David Cameron has even gone so far as to say that the “All must have prizes” culture is cruel. Why? Presumably on the basis that it somehow ‘robs’ children of aspiration. Isn’t it cruel to tell someone what they need to earn a prize and then refuse to let them have on the basis that you’ve given out too many prizes already and that although they did what you said they didn’t do it quite as well as someone else?

There’s a whole other puzzling argument about the ‘fact’ that criteria based exams will automatically result in grade inflation which is why we need norm referencing. I don’t buy it. Let’s accept for a moment that there has been grade inflation. That can’t be the fault of schools or teachers; they just don’t have the power. Grade inflation, if it’s allowed to happen, is fault of Ofqual and the exam boards. But why can’t we end grade inflation and still see results go up? Surely the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive? I’m not suggesting (as some my claim) that teaching has improved enormously over the past 20 years (I think it has) or that children are more intelligent (I know they’re not). It’s just that we’ve got really good at preparing students for exams. When I took my GCSEs in 1988 nobody gave a stuff whether I passed because schools and teachers weren’t held accountable. Nothing happened when my Elvis impersonating History teacher taught the wrong syllabus and the entire class failed. Nobody ever considered showing me a past paper or a mark scheme.

Now, this may have resulted in a better education, I don’t know. It was certainly more rounded but it’s inescapable that the focus of teaching has changed over the last 20 years and passing exam has become of paramount importance. Small wonder that we would get really good at doing what we’re chiefly held accountable for.

So, here’s what I propose:

1. Let’s speed up the process of moving to a system of single exam boards for each subject. This should do away with the incentive to inflate grades. And while we’re about it let’s expose and exterminate all other cause of grade inflation. Just to be on the safe side.

2. Let’s act as if all students can get at least a C grade and teach them accordingly. And while we’re at it why not act like they can all get A*s?

3. We’ll never get a 100% pass rate because #2 isn’t true. But we should get steadily rising results which we can be sure aren’t due to grade inflation because of #1

4. It’s been pointed out to me that our exam system purports to both rank students and display degrees  competence at something. It does neither well so let’s just settle on the latter. This should make #3 possible to achieve.

At that point we can all pat each other on the back for a job well done.

Alternatively, we could rethink exactly what exams are supposed to do and begin again. But that’s crazy talk!

Related reading on the GCSE ‘fiasco’

Geoff Barton’s impassioned and thoughtful blog posts

John Tomsett – This much (I think) I know about…the English Language GCSE debacle!

Andrew Old’s dissenting view here and here.

Related posts

Reading should be our top priority

Teaching to the test

Easy vs Hard


What makes a perfect English lesson?

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Is there such a thing as the perfect English lesson? Well, no, probably not. At least, not that I’m aware of. There is, you may be disappointed to discover, no single lesson that you can trot out endlessly and clap yourself on the back for being a good egg. If there were it would quickly become dry, boring and you’d quickly be exposed as a fraud. But, if we remove the definite article (whoa! Grammar!) and consider perfect English lessons, then we can probably agree that there is some mileage in having the discussion.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that, like me, you’re either a pretty good teacher who wants to be better, or someone with an observed lesson looming who’s looking for tips. In the latter case be warned: there’s not much that can be done to disguise bad practice over the course of a single lesson. There is no silver bullet that can turn us into an amazing teachers overnight; being outstanding is, I think, not a matter of charismatic delivery. It’s about hard work and effort. It’s about thorough planning based on sound assessment for learning. And it’s about consistently being there and having high expectations of and belief in the kids in front of you. I consider myself to be a good teacher who is capable of delivering an outstanding lesson with a fair trailing wind and if I’ve had a good night’s sleep.

Like me, you’ve probably taught some shoddy lessons along the way of which you were immediately and rightly ashamed. The temptation is to nail these failures into the lead lined coffins they belong, but there’s gold in them thar hills. One of my heroes, Samuel Beckett asked in my all time favourite quote, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” If we can expose these moments of shame to the harsh light of inquiry there is perhaps much to learn, though the process of learning it can be painful.

That aside, these failures are hopefully few and far between. In the average week I reckon I serve up a couple of satisfactory efforts amongst the mainly good lessons I preside over. The outstanding lessons are (and I hope for a couple every week) either the product of inspiration and as surprising to me as they are to my students, or meticulously planned.

It is this latter instance of the well planned, competently delivered English lesson which I’m interested in dissecting. Is it possible to unpick and classify what exactly this is?

What makes English different?

The other question which may be doing the rounds in the nether regions of your mind is, what makes the English lesson different from other lessons? And d’you know what? Apart from the content (the stuff which makes it English rather than say, history or French) there’s probably not much to go on.

Lots of folk have opined on what lessons should have in them and Jackie Beere has already provided us with a concise overview of the perfect Ofsted lesson. Is there any need to think about what a perfect English lesson might be like? Well, I don’t know about you, but us English teachers are a funny breed and maybe, just maybe, a little bit elitist. A little bit sniffy about some of the other subject specialisms. Clearly, ours is the most important subject; maths, the only other real contender is just hard sums and funny squiggles. Where’s the emotion? The passion? The humanity?

We teach students mastery of their own tongue; we expose them to great cultural works; we give them time and space to articulate their adolescent feelings. And we try to teach them about apostrophes and commas and stuff. Where else other than English lessons are students at once creative and analytical? Where else are they exposed to such breadth and variety of experiences? Other subjects all do bits and pieces but in no other lesson will a student encounter such an unpredictable, bewildering array of lovely stuff.

I realise I’ve probably alienated any non English teachers who might have been sufficiently bored to read this far and for that I apologise, the above is of course written with my tongue firmly in cheek.

Many thanks.

And by the way, my book The Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson is now available on Amazon.

Here’s a lesson which, if not perfect, is certainly about as close as I’ve ever come: Anatomy of and Outstanding Lesson

Formative assessment and the mark scheme

I’ve been consciously and actively using exam board mark schemes as an essential component of formative assessment with my classes for some time now and thought it was time to share what I was up to more widely.

I led a CPD session on this recently and while none of what I said was new or even particularly surprising, it did at least remind us what the point of marking all those essays is.

Before putting my presentation together, I decided to check out what was out there already. Plenty of stuff on formative assessment but nothing specifically (nothing that I could find after 20 minutes on Google anyway) on the use of mark schemes as a teaching & learning tool.

I thought it would be useful to recap some of the stuff Google presented me with about formative assessment first. Two neat definitions I came up with were, “The process used by teachers and students to recognise and respond to student learning in order to enhance that learning, during the learning.” and “Assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet the students’ needs.” The bits in bold are my doing.

Basically, the benefits of formative assessment can be summarised as:

  • Students learn more effectively
  • Some students feel more involved in the schooling process and become less disaffected
  • Teaching is focused more effectively on the individual student
  • Positive effects may be particularly evident in the less able
  • Learning in the wider (not subject-specific) sense can be enhanced

One thing I was fascinated to discover is that formative assessment is particularly effective for students who have not done well in school, thus narrowing the gap between low and high achievers while raising overall achievement. Well, that’s good and handy in the current climate, I thought to myself, we’ll have some of that!

So, we’re agreed, that sounds win-win. The next step is to reacquaint ourselves with what formative assessment looks like:

  • Feedback should be about the particular qualities of students’ work, with advice on what they can do to improve, and should avoid comparisons with other pupils.  Vague comments about neatness or trying hard just won’t cut it – they must be specifically and explicitly related to success criteria which the students are familiar with.
  • For formative assessment to be productive, students should be trained in self-assessment. I’ve put this in bold because if you’re anything like me, you’ll have noticed that kids quite like assessing each others’ work but are much less keen to mark their own. Why? It’s harder. It is therefore, imperative to train ‘em how to do this.
  • Opportunities for students to express their understanding should be designed into any piece of teaching, (this creates the interaction whereby formative assessment aids learning)
  • The dialogue between students and their teacher should be thoughtful, reflective, focused to evoke and explore understanding, and conducted so that all pupils have an opportunity to think and to express their ideas.
  • Tasks must be clear and relevant to learning aims. The feedback on them should give each student guidance on how to improve, and must give opportunities to help to work at the improvement.

As I began by saying, none of this is new. If you’re not already doing this as a teacher then I despair. Research clearly shows that formatively assessing students’ work is the single most important thing you can do as a teacher. So, well done if you’re doing it; if you’re not then you need to start. Or quit.

OK, OK, you knew all that, but what about the mark scheme bit. Aren’t they the impenetrable wads of edu-drivel that even seasoned teachers are often unclear about? Yes, that’s them. Why in God’s name would ever put such a ridiculously obfuscated text in front of a bunch of poor, unsuspecting young people?

Well, there are some definite pros to using mark schemes with students: chiefly, students have ownership of how their work will be assessed and their progression will be clear, and focussed on meaningful outcomes.

Because of the language difficulties mentioned above, students will find it hard to use a mark scheme and will need a lot of practice applying grade descriptors in order for them to be meaningful.  Some might suggest that the best thing to do is to provide ‘student friendly’ versions and they may have some very valid points. But I don’t agree. I think that by doing this we dilute their meaning. If we simplify the language too much they quickly become meaningless. My view is that we have to ‘teach’ the language and give students ownership of the meaning which allows them to make use of these arcane phrases in a way which helps them to understand exactly how their work is going to be judged.

I suggest, giving out mark scheme and asking them to pick out key words which feature in all bands. This will get them thinking about what skills they need to demonstrate.

Part of the mark scheme for creative writing, AQA, GCSE English Language

Part of the mark scheme for creative writing, AQA, GCSE English Language

If we look at the example above which comes from the AQA GCSE English Language specification, we can see four common strands repeated. The next step is to decide what these skills look like at different mark bands and then to be able to design meaningful success criteria.

Part of the mark scheme for AQA GCSE English Literature Unit 2

Part of the mark scheme for AQA GCSE English Literature Unit 2

Using the mark scheme for the GCSE English Literature ‘poetry across time’ exam (above), I might try to structure a lesson along these lines:

  1. Asking students to find what the 6 bullet points within each mark band have in common (I find it’s useful to number the points here)
  2. Paired discussion about which mark band students are aiming at
  3. Still in pairs, students will highlight (I love highlighters and kids seem pretty keen on them too) key words and annotate what they think they mean
  4. Pairs share their ideas within a larger group before feeding back to the whole class
  5. I will then model marking an essay. I always make a point of writing whatever I set the students to write and this means I have a handy stack of pre-prepared model answers to use. After going through the first paragraph, they finish marking the essay in the groups.
  6. Following this, student should have a fairly clear idea about what was in mind and how I was applying the mark band criteria as I wrote. They are now in a position to have a go at writing their own excellent essay.
  7. This can, and should, be followed by peer/self/teacher assessment which sets clear and meaningful targets to improve.
  8. They then need to do it again.

This last stage is, I think, more often missed out than not. But what’s the point of all that wonderful formative assessment if we don’t give the students the immediate opportunity to act on it? If we leave it a few weeks, we’ll all most likely have forgotten about it. They may well groan, but they do appreciate it when you can praise them for doing whatever it was you told them to do.

Clearly there’s more to teaching than this, but I hold with the fact that this will have more impact on the progress of your students than anything else you do. Ever.

Zooming in and out

For some years now I have been using what I call The Grade Ladder with students to help them understand the skills required to perform at different grades. THis isn’t particulalry original and has been around for quite while. I first encountered the terms ‘evaluate’, ‘analyse’, ‘explore’, ‘explain’ and ‘identify’ in GCSE English specifications but it’s obvious at even a cursory glance that these skills are underpinned by Bloom’s Taxonomy.  grade ladder

So, to IDENTIFY, students had to be able to give an opinion and support it with textual evidence; to EXPLAIN they had to show they understood the relationship between their point and their evidence. It is important to specifically teach the use of the word ‘because’ to ensure this happens. Students could demonstrate their ability to EXPLORE by giving alternative explanations – tentative language becomes important here (it could mean this, but it might also suggest this…) In order to ANALYSE students have to make links and connections with specific details. I encourage them to focus on a word or phrase and try to show what it makes them think about or feel. Finally, to EVALUATE students have to say how and why a particular technique is effective.

Easy enough, I thought and gamely plodded on with the trusty grade ladder for next year or so feeling very pleased with myself. However, after conducting some student voice on its effectiveness I was dismayed to discover that students complained that they still didn’t fully understand some of the terms: analyse and evaluate in particular.

Calamity! What to do? In my gropings for some way to shore up a crumbling edifice I came up with ZOOMING IN & OUT. I asked students to think about camera shots and how films are put together. They easily grasped that analysing was like using an extreme close up and that evaluating was like using a wide or establishing shot. When film makers zoom in they get us to focus on tiny details and when they zoom out they reveal the big picture. Hey presto! Everyone’s confidence (not least mine) is buoyed up and everyone’s happy.

The presentation below on using Zooming In and Out to write about Of Mice and Men might help illustrate anything which seems unclear.

Zooming in and out OMAM

View more presentations from didau.
Here’s the updated Reading Skills Ladder:

Related posts

James Theobold has written a great post on how GCSE markschemes also intersect neatly with the SOLO taxonomy.

Forget the answer, what’s the question?

Creativity analysis and comparison

 Challenging Bloom’s Taxonomy