Break down the mental blockade;Subject of the week;History;Features amp; Arts

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Factual knowledge alone should not be the key to GCSE success, writes Chris Culpin

Next week I sit down to set the questions for the 2001 GCSE paper I am responsible for. It's a bit of a personal landmark - the 30th year I have set a public exam paper. And all of them have assessed factual knowledge. Factual knowledge is currently GCSE Assessment Objective 1. Teachers teach it; candidates learn it; questions ask for it; markers reward it.

GCSE is not a quiz. Questions on the Berlin Airlift do not ask simply for its date, or how many aircraft took part. They require candidates to use their knowledge to address some part of Objective 2: "This syllabus requires candidates to demonstrate their ability to describe, analyse and explain." This gives rise to questionssuch as: "What were the consequences of the Berlin Airlift?" Yet this kind of question, which carries a lot of marks, poses problems for candidates at both ends of the ability range.

For potential A* candidates the problem is not lack of know-ledge: they probably know all that a 16-year-old can reasonably be expected to know about the Berlin Airlift. The problem is how to help them select and deploy it successfully. The culture of GCSE seems to be that more and more factual information is the key to success. If you hand a piece of classwork back to these students with the comment that it is "only" a B or even an A, they will ask "What did I leave out?" The answer is probably that there was nothing important left out, but that the information they had used could have been deployed differently.

In the case of the Berlin Airlift question, candidates at A* will show that they know what happened, but this needs to be set in the context of events in Europe since 1945, with a wider analysis of key events in the Cold War. The key to top-scoring answers is to do with selection and deployment of knowledge and finding the right structure for an answer. Revision sessions could well concentrate more on the importance of structures than on packing in the facts.

What of candidates heading for a D, E or F grade? Despite Chris Woodhead's scepticism about the value of this kind of GCSE, they will have done the course and got a lot out of it in terms of understanding, their ability to think logically and read critically.

Yet faced with the same questions as the potential A* candidates, they are often unable to show that they do know something about the topic. Since 1998 history has been one of the few subjects not to have tiered papers at GCSE. History teachers are divided between those who like common papers for their openness and those who are concerned that they put students off doing history after 14. The relative difficulty of exams is, at one level, complex. At the student level it's clear-cut: they look at papers for other subjects and they see questions which demand less recall and less extended writing.

Suppose the question read: "What were the consequences of the Berlin Airlift? In your answer you could refer to: the division of Germany after the war; the main features of the airlift; Nato and the Warsaw Pact; the Cold war; the Berlin wall."

Immediately these D to F candidates have some "pegs", some clues as to how to display their knowledge. And will the game have been given away for the A* candidates? Of course not. A few names have been provided, but nothing about how to use these items in an answer.

So could we go further in making history GCSE more accessible without "dumbing it down"? In many subjects candidates take various aids into the exam: texts for English, dictionaries in languages, atlases in geography, formulae in science. Suppose history candidates were allowed to take in a simple chronology for their syllabus: an agreed list of 20-30 key dates. The drop in anxiety for weaker candidates would be immense. No doubt quiz fans will complain, but, for those of us who want to keep history open to all, it is surely worth serious consideration.

Chris Culpin is a chief examiner for Edexcel.The views expressed here are his own .

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