Posted 10 June 2003 - 08:50 PM
1. A recent edition of Teaching History with an article by Chris Culpin (I think), in which he said that for some pupils, GCSE is so easy it is barely worth doing/ for others, it is hard beyond comprehension. TRUE.
2. Ongoing complaints that History is MUCH, MUCH harder than many other subjects (not least, Geography) - though I'm not convinced that the differences aren't ironed out by easier marking.
I share Dan's disappointment. Today's AQA B paper 'analysis' questions all asked 'Which was more important as a reason - a or b?' Which is fair enough, but we haven't taught them how to deal with that kind of question, and my staff are left wondering whether the pupils will have managed to understand what the question was really asking.
I've complained about the questions in History GCSE exams for a long time.
They add another layer of difficulty to what is alteady a conceptually hard subject for my pupils to appropriate. What the questions do is add a layer of obscurity over the facts, concepts and skills - so we have to TEACH the pupils how to recognise/deal with different ways the question might be presented/ what the questions really mean.
When my pupils know what the question is really asking, they can often answer it very well. The problem is that so often the real import of the question just goes over the top of their heads.
Thus, in today's paper:
'Describe how Chamberlain helped to prevent war over the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia in September 1938'.
I wonder if it would be possible to find a clumsier way of phrasing it. I suspect that the examiners were trying to make it easier (???) for the pupils by unpacking what they wanted the pupils to say. But really, it's a VERY difficult question. It's asking how Chamberlain tried to avoid war AND about the Sudeten crisis both in the same question.
What, I wonder, would have been so bad about asking simply:
Describe the Sudeten crisis of September 1938.
'Describe how the organisation of the League of Nations was meant to keep the peace.'
If you look at the question as an adult, it's a very nuanced and difficult question. 'Was meant' is a very loaded phrase.
And 'the organisation' of the LoN is VERY ambiguous.
The way the wording is phrased I think suggests that they want the pupils to list the elements of the way the League was organised (Council/ Secretariat etc), and to explain for each how it was meant to keep the peace. (So again, we have two questions in one - describe organisation/ explain how kept peace) But 'organisation' can also mean 'body' (as in .org), so, arguably, the question MIGHT mean the LoN as an organisation - 'Describe how the LoN organisation tried to keep the peace'.
What would have been so wrong with:
'Describe the organisation and powers of the LoN'.
What makes all this so depressing is that pupils doing other options/questions were not faced with such ambiguities in their 'describe' questions - cf:
describe the Schlieffen Plan
describe the decision made at Yalta and potsdam
describe Soviet involvement in Afghanistan 1979-1989.
I don't think the problem is in the grading - I think the problems get ironed out in the marking. The main problem is that my pupils see what are potentially 'gift' questions and don't do them because they are turned away by the obscurity of the language.
I wonder whether it's a cultural thing - whether the phrasing of the question means it is more obscure for certain cultural groups than for others. Are children from a working-class area, for instance, where perhaps nuanced conversation round the dinner table is not such a frequent occurrence, disadvantaged by the phrasing of the questions? To go back to the Chamberlain question, I think that the way that question is phrased, for someone with the ability to read the language, actually unpacks exactly what the examiner wants the pupils to say/write about/expound. For my pupils, the wording simply obfuscates the real question. But I COULD have asked my pupils that question in a way which they would have been able to answer, and answer it well.
And I wonder where EFL pupils stand in all this?
I recognise the arguments for a single paper, but I really think we need to move to a two-tier system.
But I also think that the examiners need to look to the phrasing of their questions.