Sunday, 17 May 2015

Revising, revision and the long game

It is a universal truth that a student wanting to succeed in exams will often lean towards one subject rather than another, because it is easier to revise. The Science exam will take precedent over the English exam, because it is easier to retain the information due to its factual, concrete nature.

For me, the English exams start tomorrow. English Literature. The first of many for my students. As with most things, I get a bit reflective. Did we do enough? Did I do enough? Did the students revise enough? Are they revising while I type this?  Crucially, have we trained students to revise in English?

The recent discussions on skills and knowledge have changed the way I think about curriculum planning, but, like most people, I am starting to think of the new GCSEs and how they will pan out. I am not daunted by the fact that students will have to deal with a closed book exam. Nor am I bothered about the choice of texts. Nor am I bothered about the questions. I am, in all honesty, not that bothered about much. It is business as usual as far as I see it. No, the thing I am thinking about is how we can prepare students over time. The long game.  

Do we prepare students for the long game? Because we see English as predominately a skills based subject, we often focus on the present and the short game. If they can do it now, they will be able to do it in the future. Our curriculums seem to be focused on a jigsaw approach to learning. Students build the jigsaw. Then, they move on to the next jigsaw. Next year we will ask them to make the same jigsaw again, and hope they have remembered how to assemble the pieces to make the picture again. Finally, in Year 11 we insist that they revise how they made the jigsaw.

I think other subjects benefit from their knowledge content. They can have an end of topic test. They can have an end of term test. They can have an end of year test. They can even build in tests at the end of a lesson or a key stage. In the DNA of their subject is revising. Listening to students talk about other subjects is interesting. I have a French test tomorrow. Have you revised for the Geography test? When have I heard a student mention the word test in association with English?  Maybe, I have heard the phrase spelling test, but not anything else. A test in English is usually an assessment.   But, for me, and I think for others, an assessment is something much bigger than a test. A test is a quick indicator of knowledge retention. And, an assessment is an indicator of a student’s ability to use a collection of skills.   

I think in English we are too subtle with things. We hope that the essay the students are writing will imply that the student knows what a concrete noun is or the difference between personification and a simile. We hope the knowledge will be bubbling under the surface for all English teachers to see. We will tick off the skills as they use them in their writing and make inferences about the knowledge the student has gained. Yes, they have used the name of the characters. That shows they know something about the story. But, does it truly reflect the sum of the student’s knowledge?

Let’s take the humble noun and all its different forms, such as proper, common, collective and abstract. When do we test students about the differences? Do we test them on it? The majority of students will know the difference between them at the end of Year 6. What do we do with that knowledge? Do we check to see if it is there a year later, a key stage later or even at the end of Year 11?

I’d say most of us would refer to the different types of nouns several times in the course of teaching. What do we call these kinds of noun? We revise the term, but we don’t make the students revise it. We revise, but they don’t. And, I think that is what I am trying to get at. Collective revision is nice in principle, but it isn’t getting students to revise. We are not preparing them for a future where we want them to revise if there is a single point where we say, ‘Learn this on your own.’ We are never building them for retention of knowledge if we don’t build it in to what we do day-by-day.

How many English departments have an end of year test? Some. A few. How many of those end of year tests are assessing skills developed across the year? How many of those tests actually test what knowledge the students had learnt over the year?   

What is a sonnet?

What is the purpose of a sonnet?

What is the volta in a sonnet?

Before people start throwing exam papers and staplers at me for undermining the complex nature of learning and spoiling the fun of learning, listen to this:

What if, in addition to our usual assessments, we had only one end of year test (yes, only one) at the end of each year? That test would be mixture of the basics (grammar terminology) and topic specific knowledge. The students would have a list of terms and aspects to revise a week before the test. Then test.

We have repeated the learning process. We have consolidated the learning.  We put at the front core knowledge. We have modelled revision.

Let’s stop assuming that just because a student learnt what a noun is in primary school it stays in their brain forever.  Let’s stop assuming that mentioning what a noun is occasionally will not keep that definition for a noun lodged in their heads. Let’s assume that we have to do something annually that anchors that knowledge. Let’s assert the role students play in the learning. They have to actively revise in English. We have to teach them to revise. Otherwise we get to Year 11 and students look at us bemused and confused about how to revise for the exam next week.

Thanks for reading,


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