Sixth-form teaching in 2017 will have to tackle the most radical changes to A-level assessment seen since the implementation of Curriculum 2000. The crescendo of A-level reform reaches its zenith this year, with the third and final tranche of subjects converting to “end of course” assessment models. But what effect should these changes have on A-level teaching? Should they result in a less than subtle shift in our pedagogical practices?
Deepa Jethwa, policy officer for the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, is concerned that “in linear A levels, students are required to identify and link concepts between a range of topics to gain a deeper understanding of the content they have learned about throughout the two years”.
Centres, she says, are having to “adopt a new range of techniques to help students recall large amounts of information in order that they succeed in a high-stakes exam at the end of two years”.
John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute, also predicts that the move to a linear exam format might “lead to more teaching to the tests” – that A-level centres might be tempted to exclude lesson content that falls beyond the strict remit of year-two exams. “End-of-year exams favour a particular way of overlearning – and could lead to teachers finding fewer ways to be excellent in our schools. Is this the best recipe for the future workforce of England?”
The challenge for sixth forms is to resist the pull of a didactic pedagogical focus that centres exclusively on exam delivery. A view is emerging that suggests the pedagogical implications of A-level reform might best be tackled by a wholesale rethink of how we engage students within the classroom. Some academics are calling for a “deep learning” revolution to help students with final course assessments.
Jackie Walsh, author of Questioning for Classroom Discussion, says “quality questioning equips students for end-of-course exams in two important ways: by deepening their knowledge and understanding of a given discipline – and by strengthening their meta-cognitive functioning”.
“Quality questioning will also enable students to think through a novel exam question, using the prompt to focus, analyse, and assess the embedded issue with the skill and finesse required for an exemplary response.”
It seems self-evident that a classroom approach that asks students to process information and become active participants in lesson will lead to a deeper and more memorable learning experience than those strategies that demand simple information recall.
Yet, as Hattie draws our attention to, the vast majority of contemporary classroom practice utilises traditional initiate, response and evaluate (IRE) questioning strategies: a three-step process that interrogates students and retrieves a single class response, before moving on to the next concept in the lesson.
The learning generated by IRE isn’t necessarily retained for the long term, which is fine if students are assessed within a modular A-level scheme. Yet it becomes problematic when pupils have to retain learning for a year or more before it needs to be used.
Research suggests that if we are serious about deeper learning, we need to inject far more discussion-based activities into the classroom in which the teacher takes a more facilitative role. We ought, perhaps, to prompt learning using what educationalist Dylan Wiliam might call “hinge” questions, which are deliberately open-ended and fuel further enquiry rather than eliciting summative responses.
Teaching that enables deeper learning should provide students with ample time to discuss and think about concepts. We should also be tasking our students with making personal connections with the ideas presented in class – and encourage exploration of erroneous answers instead of simply dismissing them.
Of course, “quality questioning” takes up class time. Indeed, one might call this a “slow teaching” revolution that requires learners to sign up to a change in their classroom role, too – becoming part of a learning community that supports, questions and values their peers.
This year is certain to prove pivotal to many sixth-form teachers in terms of the challenges posed by curriculum change, but perhaps – if we refocus our classroom practice and if we help our students become deep learners through questioning – the A-level revolution might indeed produce students with superior thinking skills after all.
Mark Dixon is a freelance writer and sixth-form teacher based in the North East. He tweets @markdixonwriter