Clever questions make bad exams;Talkback

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Change for change's sake is dangerous when it comes to GSCE papers, says Geoff Brookes

Every year I go into the GCSE English literature examination to see whether I have won the lottery. This year I lost; I failed to predict what the questions were going to be. Not only that, but I got the impression that this exam paper was put together not to allow candidates to show what they know, but to catch them out.

I have taught my class proper literature. We have looked at real issues which have inspired them and provoked a real engagement with two texts, The Merchant of Venice and Silas Marner. My class have spoken and written with sensitivity about Shylock, and have prepared themselves to deal with - among other things - the central complexities surrounding his character and its interpretation. They were ready to write about important things and to express their responses and enjoyment of the text.

So what does the Welsh examination board do? They ask themselves "What haven't we asked recently?" and set a question about Nerissa, Portia's companion.

They are trying to outwit the teachers who have all been trying to predict the questions - but in doing so they are actually disadvantaging candidates. The things pupils want to write about are ignored or marginalised.

How can an exam paper on The Merchant of Venice avoid any mention of Shylock? Doesn't this devalue literary study by reducing great works to a consideration of secondary characters?

I'm not a fool. The board needs to change its questions to avoid prepared answers. But the quest to provide new questions can prevent pupils from making use of what they have learned.

Examinations are supposed to be enabling devices; I feel my pupils have been penalised. Shylock and Silas Marner are fresh and interesting characters for them. But because of what has happened before, they are not allowed to write about them.

Have we made such little progress that we are still trying to trick our students? What effect does this have on weaker candidates?

It seems to me that the only sensible response to a GCSE question which begins with "Imagine you are Dolly Winthrop" is quite simply "Why ever should I want to do that?" Geoff Brookes is deputy head of a Swansea comprehensive. He has taught English for 26 years

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