Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Jaundiced Teacher Struggles to Hold Onto Ideals

Term has started. The last opportunity for candidates to be examined for the old-style A levels will be in January - otherwise it's the new form of A level all the way. Now, it may be that I'm just a crabbit old bag these days, but, God, I just can't find any joy in 'teaching to the test' and particularly this test. Time was, a couple of geological epochs ago, that I taught books. I taught students about pertinent themes, explored structure and language, and hopefully conveyed the joy I feel when analysing a beautiful piece of literature. It was not unknown for my students to discover they actually liked their books and that they'd been guided to an enriched appreciation of said books. I was always keen on explaining the historical and literary context for the books because this was part of the enriching process. But the bottom line always was the text itself, and exam questions often took the form of a passage for close analysis: 'Here is a scene from 'Antony and Cleopatra': how does the language used convey the relationship between the two main characters? How would the audience react to them at this point in the play? Support your answer with close reference to the text.' I've seen all sorts of changes over the years: texts allowed in exams, texts allowed to be annotated, coursework options allowed, modular repeated sittings of exams. We teachers take a deep breath, adjust, soldier on.

The latest changes, though, drive me to despair. This is not English as I perceive it, nor is it English as I would like to teach it. We're losing sight of the texts: they're swamped in a morass of politically correct contextual analysis, where the key word 'synoptic' rears its head over and over, where texts have to be related to one another to such a degree that we can no longer see them as individual pieces of art, where the notion of 'different interpretations' is so dominant, that students are bewildered. I have always known, for goodness sake, that there is no 'right' way to read a text, that we all bring our cultural and gender-based selves to a reading and this will affect how a text strikes us - but now the joy of analysing a line or enjoying a plot is submerged in jargon-heavy, abstract generalisations which are fundamentally as empty as city councils with their talk of 'beaconicity' and 'outreach programmes.'

I have become Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, I suppose.

Here is a sample question from an old-form A level paper, on Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale': 'How important do you think the relationship between Perdita and Florizel is to the play as a whole?' You may argue this is simplistic, but you know where you are with a question like this and even though the wording is simple it does not preclude the bright student from bringing the deeper issues and themes of the play into their argument. How about this on 'Measure for Measure': ''In spite of the fact that men govern Vienna, it is the women who have the real power.' To what extent do you agree with this view of 'Measure for Measure'?' This is a straightforward, argument-based question, with the key phrase 'To what extent' signalling to the candidate where they should go with their structure.

The new A level has cut the six module structure to four. Two of these modules are coursework units, the choice of texts for which is left to the teacher. The boards are offloading responsibility onto teachers in a big way. Teachers feel obligated to choose texts which will provide the easiest route to getting a good grade. This means that texts and areas of literature which may be more challenging are by-passed. The proportion of coursework to exam is too large. Shakespeare, on OCR, doesn't feature till the A2 year.

Here's a sample A2 essay question, focussing on three texts for one question, shackled together by the rule of 'one text post-1990, one text poetry': 'Writers present us with a clear sense of values. These values are drawn into particularly sharp focus when a chief concern of their writing is emotion.' Comment on and analyse the connections and comparisons between at least two texts you have studied in the light of this assertion. In your response you must ensure that at least one text is a post-1990 text, as indicated by * in the list above. In your response you should demonstrate what it means to be considering texts as a modern reader, in a modern context and that other readers at other times may well have had other responses.'

Say what?

Look at the length of the question! Look at the pomposity of it!

At AS, one sample coursework task, suggested the candidate write an pitch demonstrating how to re-tell King Henry IV for a 21st century audience. How about the 21st century audience making the effort to understand Henry IV within its own literary and cultural context? There are brilliant modern takes on Shakespeare and on Chaucer, we've endured modern twists on Jane Austen and Dr Jekyll: film and TV feast on the copyright-free past. Fine and good. But when it comes to exams, why should W. Shakespeare or G. Chaucer need to be subjected to an analysis which is more sociological than literary?

I really want to stress I'm not against contextual studies: it is important to know what the role of the church was in the fourteenth century, what the position of women was in Shakespeare's day, how Darwinism shook the foundations of Victorian complacency - this is all of interest and enhances reader understanding. But, for God's sake, exam boards, I'm begging you - cut the politically-correct obfuscating jargon, get the balance of text and context right, set questions which are clearly interpretable by an A level candidate, get back to basics, bring back the joy.

Rant over. For the moment


Julian fifield said...

How right you are although disgusted of tonbridge well is probably a bit harsh;-)

Teaching to the test is endemic. No surprise surely there. Its a game ; here is the test here are the standards ( and here are the keys to University and beyond ) its completely rational to teach to the test just as it is for students to game the system.So they do...in fact it would be stupid would it not so do to? disenfranchising your students in comparison to everyone else would be mad and short ciruit to unemployment. The best teachers know how to do both though. They ensure the students are educated and taught to pass the test. Granted not all can do that. My Primary locally ( Combe CE ) has acheived the best SAT results in the UK for many years bar none. By educating first and treating SATs as a game , a fun easy thing to breeze on by with . Our Head got every 11 year old to standard of a 14 or 15 year old. Every one regardless of ability or talent or keeness. Great teaching and great education too not neglected . No teaching just to test or level but encourging all pupils to exceed there very best, pushing them nicely along. why not ? with great teaching they can all do it ( useless parents notwithtsanding and there are plenty of these of course )

The prbelm you decsribe in the exam exmaple i agree is PC gone mad. I did not undertsand the question even after 3 reads.! Blooming stupid i agree. But we had to move on and have to move on. When I did A levels it was the nuclear option only. Regurgitate all you know in 3 hour writing test or FAIL. Simple as that. Many did fail at that. nerves, time of the month,etc etc. Stupid. No test of education, no test of ability or talent no test of 2 years work at all.

We are still faling in many ways. Al this August rubbish about dumbing down and standards slipping etc. A levels and GSCE have always been abuot rationing access to scare resources in higher ed. Time to stop that .Time to stop failing our young people. New game please...

rant over ;-)

Julian fifield said...

..and sorry for the typos...can't type and no spell checker in Blogger;_) that's my excuse anyway .

Muvva said...

Bloody hell, Laura, I'm very glad I took my English A-level 30 years ago! I found the example you gave completely impenetrable. I couldn't agree more with your analysis.

That said, I would have welcomed taking a copy of the text into the exam. I remember the sheer drudgery from O-level right through to my degree in English of having to learn quotes to back up your arguments. You'd attempt to rote learn 30-40 for each text, down to the last comma, with no idea if you would need them in the exam or not. It makes my blood boil now to think of the sadistic pointlessness of it now. Especially as I have the sort of memory that retains things for about 5 minutes!

Graeme K Talboys said...

And where does it go from here? Literature without actually needing to read the texts? I left teaching a long time ago and I am so glad because I wouldn't be able to cope with this sort of thing. Even in museums (where I went after schools) there was more and more pressure to provide material and courses adhering strictly to the curriculum.

My grounding in literature at school, with teachers who loved books, provided an excellent grounding for my own writing. Without A level set texts that covered a huge swathe of literature and an approach that put the text first... well, I dread to think.

And in wider terms, what do students actually get from a course that is full of such meaningless waffle? Where does all that come from? Presumably the people who set the exams have degrees. Clearly not degrees in plain English.

Lorna F said...

Julian - thanks for your rant! And well done to your local primary Head. A bit of verve and enthusiasm goes a long way. I'm not saying we should go back to the end-of-2-year exam stress, but I do think coursework should be cut back and close analysis of individual texts should take priority over the politically correct generalisations.

Muvva - I agree, the question is virtually incomprehensible. As far as quotes are concerned, there are still papers where no text is allowed, so the quotations still have to be memorised. Always fun when Milton is involved ...

Graeme - thanks for coming by and for your comments. You're right - you did well to get out of teaching when you did! I think it's up to teachers to call on their reserves of energy and continue to convey the passion and enthusiasm to counter the 'waffle'.

Lena said...

It is ridiculous. I can hardly relate to some of the homework the children bring home. I didn't think the modern world would ever change it's ways yet so much has since my own childhood.

Lorna F said...

Lena - thanks for stopping by. I agree about the children's homework. And have you have noticed that if you try to be a good mother and offer to help them look up information in an antiquated device known as a book, you get a dismissive 'It's OK, I'll get it from the internet' - and off they go to Wikipedia! The cut-and-paste generation ...