You Can Lead an ‘Expert’ to Water, But If It Doesn’t Know How To Drink…

I wrote an angry comment to/about the author of this comment piece here. I make no apology for being angry with its simplistic and patronising tone and suggestions. I genuinely believe the author – who would appear to have a notably non-teaching educational experience/presence – is writing to write rather than to share any knowing observation on new GCSEs.

I admit I write now and in my comment from a wholly English GCSE perspective, as an English teacher for 30 years – 18 as Head of English which includes in my latter time the annual intense scrutiny and judgement regarding examination results and targets – and as a Senior Examiner for GCSE English Literature for over 30 years. I do have at least this very precise teaching and assessment experience.

In the article, the only subject-specific comment is about ‘set texts’ and thus this has to be about English Literature, and thus my totally focused backlash. Nowhere else in the opinion piece is there any specific reference to subjects and/or examples of linear vs modular curriculum designs, even if these ever existed in the way described – well, not described, but vaguely invoked.

I leave it to any interested readers who have perused the article to see if they can make any sense whatsoever of the claimed liberating effect/impact of the new GCSEs. As for the condescension on how teachers ‘now’ need to work hard with the new exams and, for example, not bother their unnecessarily concerned little heads with ‘what grade constitutes a pass’ – this is simply ignorant.

For me its greatest contextualising nonsense is the assumption that all teachers have done over previous years is teach to the exam rather than tackling the syllabus with energy and creativity. It is the implicit rather that is insulting. As I reference in mentioning Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman who has recently made similarly daft ironic accusations and suggestions, teachers have taught to the exams – because they have no choice in the target-setting and judgemental climate of the last two decades at GCSE [and elsewhere], yet the very nature of teachers in this vocation – especially in English and, I suspect, other more creative subjects, but not exclusively as the vocational tag apples to most, whatever subject taught – has and always will be to make the teaching as lively and engaging as they possibly can, whatever complete dissatisfaction is professionally held with the content and means of assessment.

I would like to know how the author thinks this sweeping statement about teaching and learning in the past could ever apply to a subject like English Literature:

A generation of teachers has spent their professional lives teaching a modular curriculum. We are used to serving up six-week, bite-sized, discrete chunks of knowledge. It was formulaic and predictable – if students could answer a limited number of questions in a certain way there was a good chance they would get the requisite mark. Superficial skimming over a subject and teaching to specific questions would usually get a student through an exam.

I might say if only if I was as cynical and ill-informed as the author. The intensive study then and now of, for example, the poetry in the GCSE English Literature anthologies could not deliver this model for discrete parcels of knowing. That doesn’t mean it was then and is now perfect: indeed, it never was, and is still demanding for all the wrong reasons in terms of amount of content and therefore a requirement of over-knowing [and of course those creative teachers the author imagines didn’t previously exist would teach skills and transferable appreciation over content knowledge, as they now do where possible]. But if I go on I will have to get even more specific and detailed and illustrative, and the article in question doesn’t deserve a treatment it woefully did not deliver itself.

This is what angered me most. This complete lack of specific references. As I said, it seems to be an article that exists entirely for the sake of being an article.

And as for the ‘Experts’ heading…

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