Archive for the ‘Intermediate’ Category

So it’s that time of year – revision is upon us! The problem at hand is no longer how to teach new material; instead, we’re looking for ways to ensure that the spectrum of texts, techniques and skills covered since last June are securely understood and readily accessible for all of our pupils.

One question that seems to come up a lot with my Intermediate 2 English class is how sure I am that they will find suitable questions in the critical essay section of their exam (an entirely valid concern). On Tuesday this issue arose once again, and once again I told my class that the chances of them not finding an appropriate question for Norman MacCaig’s Visiting Hour are as close to nil as makes no difference (we have, of course, studied other poems as well). The real issue, I reminded them, isn’t whether or not they can find one suitable question, but rather whether they can recognise and select the best available question (as over the past six years the vast majority of poetry questions have been eminently suitable for this particular text).

An hour or so later, during a free period, I started to really think this through, and I realised that if I could find a way to show them the importance of choosing the right question, then I would surely also be able to assess and develop their detailed knowledge of the text and its techniques (a non-negotiable pre-requisite of effective decision making in this context). A few different ideas came and went before the following occurred to me:

The Poetry Bracket‘The Poetry Bracket’ at the end of the lesson, with 2008 Question 8 the eventual winner

This, then, is The Poetry Bracket, an idea adapted from American competitive sports. Here’s how it works:

Each of the poetry questions from the last 6 years is represented by the appropriate code (for example, question 9 from the 2010 paper is 10-9 in the top right corner) and each year is grouped together. This means that when you begin only the spaces on the far left and far right are completed, with the rest being filled as you work your way through a series of competitions between the various questions. Once you have made your ‘Bracket’ on the board, and handed out copies of the Intermediate 2 poetry questions from the last six years, you’re ready to go.

The first step is to select the most appropriate question for each particular year, with the winner going on to the next round of the competition. There would be a number of ways to complete this stage but I decided to use a whole-class discussion followed by a vote.

Once the best question from each year has been selected, the top three on each side of The Bracket must compete – once again I led a class discussion for this section, although this time I pushed the pupils much more to really argue their case, often pitting two pupils who disagreed directly against one another. By this stage in the process I found that most pupils – even those who had been reluctant to express their opinion openly and vocally in the initial rounds – were getting involved and gaining in confidence. At the end of this stage you will are left with two remaining contenders, and at this point the whole process becomes even more entertaining.

In order to debate the contest between the final two questions the room was split in three, with those strongly in favour of one option on either side of the room and undecided pupils in the middle; then the gloves came off. The ‘team’ on either side had to argue for their chosen question as persuasively as possible, with my only role being to facilitate this discussion by bringing different pupils into the debate to support team-mates or challenge opponents. In the end, the victors succeeded not only because they argued well for their own side, but because they demonstrated that the answer that could be written for their question would also – if done well – incorporate the question of their opponents. What matters, they realised, is not choosing the easiest question to understand or the most obvious choice for the text, but rather finding the question that would allow them to write the most sophisticated response.

At the end of the process it was clear that the intentions of the lesson – to improve pupils’ ability to select an appropriate question for their text whilst also enhancing their knowledge and understanding of the texts – had been successfully achieved, as the quality of discussion around appropriate essay questions had markedly improved from between the first and last stages of The Bracket process. Furthermore, in the end, the pupils did select what I would consider to be the best available question from a selection of the 18 available. I’ll certainly be using this approach again to enhance my revision process for poetry, prose and drama.

Edit

Having read this post David Terron has put together a Powerpoint outline to be projected on an Interactive Whiteboard and annotated over. It is slightly different in that it requires a few extra questions to be added since everything works in pairs all the way through (the way a Bracket is actually supposed to work) but it will be just as effective for anyone wanting to give this a try. Click here to download it.

So the SQA have finally seen fit to let us see what the exam papers look like for courses that pupils will be starting in June (and which, by extension, they should be being prepared for in the work they are doing this year). As an English teacher I was particularly eager to get my hands on this material to see if there was anything in it to mitigate my complete disdain for the single biggest proposed change – the imposition a set text list for Scottish literature and the requirement that pupils answer a question on this area.

What, then, did I find when I opened the appropriate section of the SQA’s website? Well I found three things, and feel I should explain each individually.

Firstly – and and I would expect least controversially – there is the ‘Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaulation’ – or, in simple terms, Close Reading – paper. Realistically there isn’t much change here at the business end of the paper, with the exception of the fact that there are no more question codes to guide pupils. The only real issue I have with this paper is that the marking scheme is, like the title of the paper, needlessly complex, but this shouldn’t have too much of an impact and is probably just designed to convince us that someone has been working really hard on our behalf.

The next thing I opened was the ‘Critical Reading’ paper, which is a combination of a critical essay section and the new Scottish texts questions. On the face of it there should be no problem with the critical essays as – theoretically – nothing has changed in this area, and we can continue to exercise complete freedom in selecting texts for this section of the paper. While this is, is simple terms, true, the example questions provided in this specimen paper are concerning because they are so open, and there are two problems here: for some pupils (probably the most able) the questions do not look especially taxing, making the paper yet another missed opportunity; for certain other pupils (this time the least able) the openness of the questions will be the very thing that will cause them problems.

Unfortunately, these issues pale into insignificance when considered alongside potential problems caused by the ‘Scottish text questions’. Leaving aside the list itself (more on that next) I am extremely concerned about the implications of the way in which the analysis questions have been structured, specifically in the area of poetry. In the sample paper the final poetry question is for eight marks, and requires that pupils compare the example text (a Burns poem not in the set text list) to other Burns works that have been studied. This, in essence, is the format of an Advanced Higher question – it will be too difficult for many students and for the others a significant amount of coaching will be necessary. This in itself may cause problems, but there is a more serious consequence of this question structure – in order to properly prepare students for this, those electing to study poetry from the set text list must study all five of the poems for any given author. To put this into perspective I presently teach between three and five poems a year to my Intermediate 2 class in order to properly prepare them for the critical essay question on poetry – given that pupils will surely not be able to use the same texts for both sections of the paper this means one of two things: either pupils must study at least eight poems in a single academic year (as well as prose and drama texts), or poetry is to be avoided for this section of the paper (which would be a terrible shame).

Finally, and with (by this stage) a great deal of reluctance, I had a look at the set Scottish text list. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that I have been 100% opposed to this since the first time I heard about it because I believe that it is a fundamentally dangerous idea which runs contrary to the stated aims of the Curriculum for Excellence – it is simply ludicrous to spend so much time and energy talking up the professional freedom of teachers whilst imposing a narrow list of options from which they may not deviate. Unsurprisingly, the actual publication of the finalised list has done nothing to change my mind; even if I were to accept for a brief moment that a set list of texts is appropriate (which I of course do not) the chosen texts – especially the drama choices – are for the most part narrow, limited and dated. I see no prospect of this change improving the way in which pupils engage with Scottish literature, and actually expect it to do some serious damage, but this is what happens when politicians (and, while we’re at it, authors) are allowed to get involved in decisions which should always be made by teachers, namely what they teach their pupils and how they teach it.

It is also worth noting that the SQA felt the need to defend themselves in the set-text document itself, pointing out that their decisions “took account of the extensive feedback received” and focus on the “suitability of texts for assessment purposes.” I don’t imagine that my current S3 class would have any problem detecting the desperately defensive tone here.

Probably the worst part about this whole experience, however, is that I went through the new documents with a superb teacher who retired 2 years ago (she happened to be back in the school for a day). For ten minutes we flicked through page after page and almost without exception she pointed out that what was being proposed was, in truth, just a rehash of the assessment methods used years ago. My PT (himself about to retire) has now confirmed that there is nothing that is genuinely new or innovative in these specimen documents, further cementing the impression that the whole process has been a missed opportunity.

Why, though, does all of this matter so much? The thing is this: whilst the Curriculum for Excellence documents (such as the infamous ‘shiny green folder’) are overflowing with noble language, we are simply deluding ourselves if we believe for a second that the most important aspect of high school will not continue to be seen as what the pupils leave with rather than what they actually gain. Consequently, it is ludicrous to imagine that a student’s relative success in high school education will be measured in capacities rather than qualifications, and it is therefore absolutely crucial that we get the qualifications themselves right. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, I simply can’t see how the National 5 will really benefit pupils. Bear in mind that I say this with genuine regret – I still remember being dragged through Standard Grade at school, recognising even then that it was a terrible course that needed replaced, and was initially really excited by the prospect of a replacement modelled on the Intermediate courses which might allow us to vastly improve the experiences of our pupils; unfortunately, the National 5 Specimen Paper has robbed me of all of that early enthusiasm.

First applied several years ago by Dave Brailsford, the ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ (AoMG) is the theory that has allowed Team GB to dominate the Olympic cycling, and helped Bradley Wiggins’ Team Sky to the Tour de France title. Put simply, the approach demands the relentless pursuit of small (seemingly insignificant) improvements in order to enhance overall performance.

Crucially, the theory’s effectiveness is not restricted to the sporting sphere – the world of education can also implement it to make great strides.

Of course, this is not news to most of us: PLPs, ‘2 stars and a wish’ and comment-only feedback are, in many ways, predicated on the assumption that encouraging pupils to focus on small, individual improvements can significantly enhance their overall performance. My recent experiences suggest, however, that there is value in explicitly explaining AoMG to pupils as a means of encouraging them to approach their education in manageable, bite-sized chunks.

My current Intermediate 2 class entered S5 fresh from attaining some of the worst S4 results my school has seen in years. Consequently, they were not particularly confident in their abilities (something not helped by the fact that Standard Grade really does not prepare them for the structure and expectations of an Intermediate course). The majority of them are capable of doing very well, but the gap between where they were and where they wanted to go seemed huge and unbridgeable. Consequently, they had become too focussed on overall improvement in their work (specifically critical essays) and were therefore making the same small mistakes over and over again. Time, then, for a new approach.

A couple of months ago I spent around 15 minutes explaining the background to AoMG and making clear how I believed it could help them – focus on one small thing every time you undertake an essay task, successfully achieve a series of marginal improvements, then connect them all together to improve your performance as a whole. The feedback sheet my class use has always encouraged this (breaking the critical essay down into lots of small requirements rather than one all-important grade) but I had never really stopped to explain in depth how the process should work.

So, what happened? For the most part, a little bit of improvement.

The class were set the initial single target of improving their ability to explain the technique and effect being employed, with less attention being paid to linkage, reference to the question or personal response (not that those things no longer mattered, they just weren’t the focus on this particular occasion). The end result was extremely encouraging – the pupils were able to demonstrate the analysis skills that they had already proven they possess during class discussion and annotation exercises. To my surprise, I did not see a significant fall in the quality of other aspects of the essays either, proving that the focus on one aspect of the task would not necessarily lead to a decline in the quality of the rest of it. Over the course of last term we continued this process, picking up on specific areas of essay writing and challenging the pupils to focus on making marginal improvements.

So where are they now? Well I’ll find out soon as they sit their prelim examinations in three weeks. For the two weeks leading up to the exam we will revisit the whole arch of AoMG improvements achieved so far this year, taking them through each development in their abilities to show them that they have all the skills needed to succeed in a subject that they understandably find very challenging.

Of course I’m hoping to see a set of impressive prelim results but even if they don’t quite hit their individual targets, enough momentum has been built up so far to convince them that we are on the right road.