Evolution and "Intelligent Design" are two opposing arguments about life on Earth. "Intelligent Design" argues that such complexity could not have arisen spontaneously without a Creator. While Evolution suggests that a process of constant mutation and adaptation is what makes life survive. Within the theory of Evolution there have been various competing ideas around whether change is by gradual adaptation or by sudden mutating jumps.
So our new GCSE. Is it an example of "Intelligent Design"? Or is it a natural Evolution of what we have now?
This post is based on a talk I gave to the HMC Modern Languages Conference in the East of England at Langley School. Thank you very much for inviting me! Many of the more practical (and positive) ideas are already on this blog in other posts, so please do click on the links that follow to see further detail for balance and hopefully useful ideas for planning and teaching.
I do like the fact that committees have been around long enough to have a proverb about them. A camel is a horse designed by a committee. In particular, as the result of a design process which was "conflicted or overly idealistic". And where too many "conflicting and inexperienced opinions were incorporated into a single project".
We can see this in the creation of this new GCSE. A politically selected panel putting forward reforming ideas to fit an agenda, flying in the face of established values and practices. Followed by a consultation which deformed some of the principal features. Followed by the creation of the exam by the Boards, with a totally different perspective from the original intention. This post details how a GCSE initially constructed around a limited high frequency vocabulary list has been sold as a syllabus built around diversity, individuality and culture. And whether that hybrid beast can survive in the wild.
Of course, while camels may look ugly and ungainly, they are in fact robust and resilient. So we need to look carefully at the new GCSE and see if it turns out to have surprising strengths and versatility.
What sort of creature have we got?
I am going to look at four headline features of this new beast.
|Dictation. Not what it says it is.
Image created by Bing AI
Dictation. Not what it says it is.
The reason the panel tell us Dictation is in the new GCSE, is in order to test knowledge of the Sound-Spelling link, or Phonics. This is NOT what dictation does. When French school kids do dictation, it is NOT to see if they can write down how it sounds. They can do that:
|Je c'est pas se qui t'arrive
|Tu es la meilleure maitresse
The point of Dictation is to STOP them writing it down as it sounds. Dictation is a test of knowledge of correct spellings and correct grammar. Not a test of phonics. This post on dictation shows how understanding this can lead to the development of effective ideas for using dictation in class. I would encourage you to read it and see if there are useful ideas you can try. One of the main ideas is not to start doing dictation and realise it's all about grammar. Instead, build in dictation to your grammar teaching. For example from the very start, alerting pupils to the change in a sentence that a key sound can make:
__ petit_ chien_ noir_ cour_
This sentence will look totally different depending on whether the first word is le or les. Dictation means we have to highlight this kind of grammatical awareness in our teaching from early on. Don't wait until you decide to do some dictation (imagining it is just a phonics test) and discover you have opened a can of worms! Please do look at the post on dictation mentioned above to see more ideas on how to make this work.
Next. Role Play.
What Role is it Playing?
Role Play. What Role is it Playing?
Again, I have a post on Role Play in the AQA and Edexcel specifications which looks in detail at how they work. To summarise here how I see the AQA Role Play, I would say that it has questions very similar to the ones you would expect to ask in the Conversation. But they are marked for short correct answers, in the same way the current Role Play is in the current GCSE. So no reward for extended answers, and the word "ambiguity" used to introduce marks for accuracy into something intended to be marked for communication.
Please do click on the link above for detail on Edexcel Role Play as well. But I will spell out the main ideas here. Edexcel have gone down the road of Role Plays in transactional situations. It doesn't seem a good fit for what the GCSE was intended to be about. It smacks of phrasebook learning in a GCSE that was all about building sentences from knowledge of the grammar, not whole phrases. Even worse, it could run into the buffers of the lack of transactional vocabulary.
Already in the sample assessment material, we can see that the transactional nature of the Role Play is starting to break down.
You arrive alone in the café in a foreign town. You ask for your drink. You ask the price of something on the imaginary menu (from a very narrow choice - chocolate, cheese, French stick, ice cream, pasta, rice, fish, fruit, egg, cake, sugar or rabbit). At this point the waiter engages you in conversation about your favourite food. Things escalate quickly as he asks you if you are doing anything tomorrow. And you reciprocate by asking him what time his work finishes! We have come a long way from transactional Role Plays in a very short time.
A Conversation Killer?
In this post on the Conversation, I tried to answer exactly that question. There is still scope for conversation style questions. And there are some marks for developing answers in some sections of the exam. (Although no marks for interaction.) But in the explanation of the markscheme, AQA specify that an "extended" answer means 3 clauses. And I don't like social media because it is boring would be an example of "good development".
Nevertheless, I gave examples of how I teach extended spontaneous speaking, using a core repertoire that can be deployed across topics. This post explains in detail how my Year 10s learn to tell stories on any topic spontaneously. I will keep on teaching this way for three main reasons: pupils will still have to give extended answers in the writing; they will still have to be able to give some (short) improvised answers in the speaking; and it works as a way of teaching core language round which other language can coalesce. Please do look at the post, because the talk was designed to have many positive useful ideas rather than be dominated by a sense of impending extinction and judgement day.
The final creature from this new bestiary I looked at was the Vocabulary List.
The Vocabulary List 50 -50
|The Vocabulary List: 50 -50
50% of the words we currently teach will not be in the new exam. 50% of the words in the new GCSE are words we have not taught before.
The new exam was originally designed to be built around the vocabulary list, not topics. Topics were seen as being responsible for introducing a plethora of words (often nouns) that were needed for different pupils to give an individual answer, but that were not central to the body of language being learned. In fact many words would be abandoned at the end of the topic. So in fact 50% of the words we currently teach, are not needed for the new GCSE. Will we be cutting them?
How will we teach pets in KS3 if only horse, dog and fish are on the list? I see one of the exam boards has added rabbit. How will we teach transactional role plays without chicken and with only chocolate, cheese, French stick, ice cream, pasta, rice, fish, fruit, egg, cake, sugar and the aforementioned rabbit available? Especially if we teach in a way dependent on substitution tables or functional phrases with elements to be substituted.
How do we write resources and texts if we don't have the words we need?
Marie Curie was a chemist. Can't say chemist. OK. Marie Curie was a cook. From Poland. Can't say Poland. Right. Marie Curie was a famous French cook.
|Marie Curie in her kitchen
Of course, we can gloss words that aren't going to be in the exam. But that's not the point. Our texts and resources should be introducing and revisiting the words that we are teaching. Otherwise what is the point of a new GCSE with a defined vocabulary list. Especially published resources. They will need to be designed meticulously so that the pupils meet all the words regularly in different contexts.
Which is where a topic based approach could break down. For the exam boards and for teachers.
Rachel Hawkes speaking at the ALL in the East meeting pointed out that in their sample assessment materials, Edexcel used all the shops and a large chunk of the clothes words available in just one listening question. They won't be able to continue like that. They will have to rotate the vocabulary used in the exams so that all items are examined over the years. This is already a problem for the exam setters, who in the sample materials were perhaps over-reliant on the 15% extra vocabulary they were allowed to choose in order to make their topics viable.
This is one reason textbook publishers need to be wary of a topic based approach. If those topic words get used up early on in the first years of the specification, we are going to find ourselves with exams increasingly based on words that weren't prominent in our teaching. I have written about the way this specification could start to resemble a boa constrictor, starving us of the oxygen of vocabulary, in this post.
Of course, for the Speaking and Writing exam, the whole restricted vocabulary list has gone out of the window. Given the personal nature of the questions, "What do you like to do with your friends?", pupils are going to want to have a range of words in order to give a personal answer. Not be able to recall one of the limited number of items on the list which could give a theoretical answer to the question.
This is where my talk came to an end with the question: What are we going to do?
I know from the old Controlled Assessment GCSE, that you can get wiped out if you fail to adapt. Continuing to teach spontaneous speaking was a mistake in the climate of retakes, targets, rote learning, academisation.
Can I spontaneously evolve and steal a march on the dying dinosaurs?
Because the premise of my talk was mistaken. I was thinking of looking at the new GCSE as a hybrid chimera. But that's the wrong way round. We are the creatures in this scenario. Faced with a change of epoch. Can we evolve and thrive?
What I said to the conference was, stick together! Work in your departments with a plan and as a team. Use your social media networks. Join a subject association. This is a time to all support each other. I don't have the answers, but I'll keep looking. Meanwhile, if this is all a bit too apocalyptic, go back and click on the links which will take you to practical things to start trying as we get to grips with the beast.
If I had to say what animal it is, I would say it's a Schrödinger's cat of a GCSE. Simultaneously dead and alive. And it's us, by opening the box, who will determine its fate.
|Bing AI's idea of a half dead, half alive hypothetical cat.