Wednesday, 29 March 2017

GCSE RS: Extended Writings Questions

"We are all teachers of literacy"
(Every English teacher / literacy coordinator, ever!)

Many RE teachers have been panicking about content and delivery time with the new GCSE in RS, quite understandably. However I have come to the conclusion that actually we also need to explicitly focus on literacy, namely writing good 'argument' essays. There is a potential situation where we allow only our students with good knowledge and understanding of RS AND good literacy to succeed in our subject. 

I teach the new Edexcel RS GCSE and I realised in my first few assessments a number of students were not even attempting the D style essay questions. These carry 12 marks (or potentially 15 with SPaG) and this meant losing 12 out of 24 marks. On questioning, they shrugged and said they were too hard. Upon further probing, it was clear that they knew some key bits of knowledge; this was not the fundamental problem in their lack of response. 

Firstly, it is vital to get away from the 'old part D' mentality. For Edexcel, that meant "3 points for, 3 points against". We can't just tack a conclusion on it this and hope for the best. Yet I understand why this may be a reasonable start point for less able students. They can pick up some marks for this, which is better than achieving nothing.

Secondly, I admit that my thinking has moved on from when we were under pressure to complete my textbook and devise strategies to help students write Part D questions. I am looking forward to working in future publications to provide more help and guidance to students and teachers with this. We initially looked to a approach similar to above (with developed, rather simple points), as more information trickles out of Edexcel, I am sure we will review for future editions.

Thirdly, we need different teaching techniques to our marking techniques. We cannot use the old Edexcel system of "simple point = 1 mark, developed point = 2 marks". The exam board keep repeating the fact that we need to be looking at the level descriptors. If I am honest, I as an A-Level teacher, I am finding this an easier adaptation from a marking point of view. However, I feel that are not particularly accessible for GCSE age students. As such, I have produced a resource in a format that I have used for A-Level before:

(Please comment on the document if you can see ways to improve)

One Size Fits All?

Different questions may require different approaches. Edexcel published some timing guidelines and suggested that "2 minutes thinking time" was built into each question. I'd suggest this is thinking and planning time, considering what the multiple views are, or what the different religious perspectives are. A simple template, especially "FOR, AGAINST, CONCLUSION" just won't work for some. Sadly, a one size fits all writing frame also will not always work.

Some activities I have completed in class to help students:
  • Providing a list of statements from Part D questions and getting them to identify what the multiple viewpoints may be - and linking to various religious views.
  • "Walking Talking" (PiXL) practice - talking the students through answering it, before getting them to write themselves.
  • Drafting questions as a class / in pairs / with textbook and then redoing in timed conditions.
  • Providing the content, and getting students to focus on literacy skills (see below).
I am conscious of the cognitive load placed on students while completing these questions. If we are asking them to recall information that is not secure (in their long term memory), given we are completing the question in the lesson where content has been delivered, plus asking them to do some relatively advanced essay writing, it is likely to overload their working memory. Therefore, for many D questions in class, I give the students the basic content and ask them to construct a good answer, focusing on their literacy skills. (Read more on CLT <here>)

Edexcel Spec Language
  • Deconstruction: Putting in your own words as to show a full understanding, including the separation/identification of key ideas
  • Logical Chains of Reasoning: Accurately using key connectives such as: therefore / as a result / in contrast / however / this shows that / this means that / this demonstrates that
New Info
Edexcel have released an 'update' with some further guidance; download <here>. A few things are apparent:
  • Unless all bullet points in the question are referenced, it is limited to Level 3 (which is what mark scheme does suggest)
  • A lack of clear conclusion does not mean an award of zero marks (thankfully!)
The "Double Advantage / Double Disadvantage" of SPaG has always annoyed me. The way I see it, the student who can write well (a generally good proxy for intelligence and exam success in humanities) can get an extra 12 marks across the paper, which is more than likely an additional grade. Additionally, the level criteria in D already factor in elements of SPaG with "coherent and logical chains of reasoning".

Less able, SEND and EAL students therefore are put at a disadvantage I believe. Additionally, I have no idea how such a subjective criteria will be consistently applied. What is the difference between reasonable, considerable and consistent accuracy? The only one I'd be confident on is awarding 0 if nothing was written.

We are not using on unit tests, ie 24 mark questions; 3 mark SPaG is too significant. We will have to use on the mock no doubt. I am aware of some teachers who totally ignore throughout, therefore any marks they pick up for SPaG are a bonus.

I believe the inclusion of SPaG was a DfE requirement, not the choice of Edexcel.

Arguing: A 'New' Approach?
It was helpful that Charlotte Vardy shared this video from her GCSE training course detailing her suggestions for attempting AO2 questions. It is worth watching for yourself, and it is generic, but most exam boards share a similar structure:

She points out that these extended questions are not just looking for two views, that is simply information (and therefore presumably just AO1). This would be the mistake of using techniques from old Edexcel spec.

She argues that the best approach is to see questions as looking for a view (thesis) backed up with various reasons. Students should work out their position before starting to write (remember the 'thinking time'!). This allows responses to begin with a view; this fulfil the Level 1 requirements for a conclusion. It is not simply a personal response, but a confident belief in the right answer. It is necessary to have counter arguments, and it is vital to link to particular religious beliefs. 

The structure suggested is therefore:
  • View
  • Reason 1
  • Reason 2
  • Reason 3
  • Religious groups / Denominations who would agree
  • Religious groups / Denominations who would not agree
  • HOWEVER / BUT...  - this is the evaluation, allowing a counter claim, but dismissing it
  • SO in conclusion, repeat initial view (backed up by most significant reason)
This avoids a simple description of different points of view.

I'd recommend watching the video rather than relying on my notes / interpretation.

I used to often use exam questions as consolidation at the end of one lesson, or a starter of the next. I more frequently use them now as a teaching tool. We don't write notes and then use them answering a question. The exam question is often their 'notes'. This may help them actually remember the material better if Dan Willingham is correct in his belief that students remember what they think about (read an overview <here>). They need to think far more deeply answering a Part D than just copying notes down. 

I also think this is excellent preparation for A-Level RS study. It is not easy, and certainly a challenge for less able students, but if we reduce the cognitive load in the first instance, we can be teachers of literacy, getting them to write well, in the context of our subject. For me, there is a great joy in this. A joy that was not there in the previous Edexcel spec. Even now, some of my most able students are writing essays that are enjoyable to read! 

Images courtesy of TimeSlip Blog

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