How big is the gap between GCSE and A-level? Carol White suggests ways teachers can help their students change gear as they start sixth-form history.
Since 1988, there has been a quiet revolution taking place in history A-level. AEB 673, ETHOS, the Cambridge History Project, the new NEAB syllabuses and London Syllabus E have all had a considerable impact on history teaching at A-level and are likely to have a strong influence on the new syllabuses currently being produced by the exam boards.
One of the main reasons for these development projects was the perceived mismatch between the knowledge, skills and understanding required by GCSE and those needed to succeed in a traditional A-level course. In many ways, this perception has turned out to be more apparent than real. Since the essay writing required in O-level examinations was largely narrative and focused on accurate recall of information, O-level essay skills often proved positively detrimental to the development of the more focused, analytical skills required in good A-level essays. Recent developments in A-level syllabuses take GCSE as their starting point and seek to capitalise on the understanding and skills developed at key stage 4.
In planning approaches to A-level teaching, it is all too easy to get bogged down in the considerable amount of historical content and become preoccupied with covering sufficient ground. Teachers need to take the opportunity to stand back and reflect on ways in which students can be nurtured in developing their key skills and historical understanding. Then they will improve their performance at A-level.
What are these vital skills which underpin A-level history, regardless of the area of study?
o Reading skills: Many experienced history teachers claim that A-level students today do not read as much as previously. Whether or not this is true, A-level students do need to be taught how to read - for meaning and purpose and with a sense of direction. They need to be given the tricks of the trade: effective use of contents and index, looking for key words and phrases, reading with key issues and questions in mind.
o Note-making skills: Many sixth form students do not know how to make effective notes. They have never been taught or given opportunities to develop this vital skill. At the beginning of an A-level course, it should not be assumed that students know how to make notes from their reading or from lectures and teaching. They need to be shown how.
o Source analysis and evaluation: GCSE has done a great deal to develop this skill. However, at A-level, students need to be given as much opportunity as possible to work with a wide variety of sources - and, in particular, with sources of some length from which they are required to select and not just regurgitate. Even at A-level, there is a danger that history is perceived as a series of six-line gobbets. In particular, students need to be encouraged to read from a range of historians, to understand differences in interpretation and the use of evidence - and to develop a real understanding of historical debate and controversy.
o Essay writing: This remains the most under-developed skill - and maybe it is true that GCSE requirements have not included sufficient writing at any length, although coursework offers opportunities for teachers to use extended writing. However, the highest grades at A-level will not be achieved with narrative essays which contain little analysis and focus.
Most examining boards now publish mark-schemes for past A-level papers. Chief examiners' reports - required reading for any A-level teacher - also make it clear that students must show that they can plan, develop logical, coherent arguments, support those arguments with appropriate evidence and write lucidly and cogently.
A-level students also need to be taught how to approach a particular question; how to use their reading and research to give supporting evidence; how to marshal an argument - and, ultimately, how to do this against the clock in about 45 minutes! Continuous practice, increasingly under timed conditions, should start in Year 12 and not wait until after the mock examinations in Year 13.
o Research and investigation: Many syllabuses now include a personal study. This can be an exciting opportunity - or it can become drudgery. In particular, students need to be helped to frame and focus an appropriate investigation, to identify key questions and to research and focus in response to those key questions.
A-level teaching focuses, of course, on particular areas of study, but whether the topic is the Tudor revolution in government; the rise of nationalism in the 19th century; the causes of the First World War or the repeal of the Corn Laws, the conscious teaching of these key skills is as important as the knowledge which needs to be acquired. Indeed, the development of these skills will help students to acquire, and most importantly to understand the content to better effect.
o Alongside teaching goes review: From the start of the course, students should be given the opportunity to consider what they have achieved and what they need to do to make further progress. They should be aware of the knowledge, key skills and understanding they need to acquire and develop. They should have as many chances as possible to consider for themselves how they are progressing and they should check these perceptions with the teacher.
From the very first A-level essay they write, students should know what is expected, how this piece of writing will be assessed, what they have done well and what they need to work on. They should be given as many opportunities as possible to discuss their achievements in acquiring both kowledge and skills, with each other and with the teacher. The process of target setting, action planning and review which underpins all good assessment practice is of key importance in the sixth form.
The exam boards have done a lot to help this whole process. Chief examiners' reports give very helpful advice and guidance. Mark schemes give clear indications of what is required. Focused questions have helped to limit the lottery of question-spotting so that it is no longer necessary to cover as much sheer content.
Perhaps it is time that A-level teaching received rather more attention. The Historical Association is doing its bit - watch out for the programme for the 14-19 Conference in January 1996.
Carol White is deputy president of the Historical Association, chair of its secondary committee and senior area adviser in Humberside.