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

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Portsmouth 2017 with Jonathan Doyle

Jonathan and me via Jonathan's Twitter

I was fortunate to be invited to Portsmouth Diocese during a week of talks by Jonathan Doyle. On Monday 20th March 2017, I travelled down to St Jude’s Catholic Primary School in Fareham.

Jonathan is an internationally renowned speaker on Catholic education. He has spoken to over 300,000 Catholic teachers to date, 400 schools sign up to his weekly formation programme and he has produced a wide variety of resources to help Catholic teachers. These are my notes on his presentation. They hopefully reflect the meaning and spirit of his work, but they are my notes and interpretation.

  • Cynicism, burnout and exhaustion are sadly a key feature in all schools. How do we ensure our teachers keep turning up?
  • It is not surprising as we spend all day dealing with people, getting blamed for stuff… teachers are on the front line.
  • However, every teacher has their first day; no teacher starts off cynical, exhausted and hating what they do! (Jonathan spoke about how his dad had a job that he hated all his life)
  • Even if you don’t feel it, someone you know does. And you probably know about it.
  • Mother Teresa spent her life on the front line - she didn’t only survive, she thrived!

The Simple Equation:  The demands and complexity in teaching will continue to increase; time and energy are finite
  • In education, your job is only going to get harder; it will get more complex, more demanding, more pressured, greater expectations, new initiatives.
  • As our culture loses sight of God, people become more aspirational about material things - they want more stuff! More education, leads to more money, and therefore more material gains - or so people believe.
  • Where will better and better outcomes come from? Where will we find this energy? Especially as our primary vocation with a family, as a mother or father, son or daughter, also continue to place demands on us.

In Australia, only 5% of students from Catholic schools step into a church within a year of graduating. There is nothing compelling enough happening in Catholic schools to make students want to keep going to church. These schools have good outcomes, producing good young people… but government schools can do that just as well. Have we failed our mission? Why do Catholic schools still exist?

Jonathan spoke about a Catholic-based sex education talk he and his wife gave in a Catholic school and the Principle pointed out that theirs was “just one story”. If we present the Catholic story as simply one among many, we are failing in our responsibility to present an authentic Catholic vision. If you don't agree with it, why are you doing it?

The 3 Objectives of Catholic Schools
Pope Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), “The Catholic Church does not have a mission; she is a mission.” We do not belong to a Church that ‘looks for things to do’, such as education; Jesus certainly didn’t say at the Ascension, ‘Make sure you create big, complex institutions’. There is simply a Body of Christ. We cannot separate our mission from this; quite simply we are looking to bring people into a relationship with God. Therefore…

  • Objective 1: To create disciples - If students have an encounter with the real and living person of Christ, they will want to have a relationship with him in an ongoing way. The school needs to ask,  how effectively are we creating an example of Jesus? Or at least, how are we creating the context to allow that to happen? Catholic teachers in the school must be living catechisms… no student is going to ask to borrow a catechism to read! Yet a good Catholic teacher can be a catechism, a book that is lived out. If students do not see that Jesus matters to us, there he won’t matter to them - “set yourself on fire, and the world will come and see you burn!”
  • Objective 2: Integral Formation - “Christ is the foundation of the educational enterprise in a Catholic school… The fact that in their own individual way all members of the school community shares this Christian vision makes the school.” (The Catholic School 1977) - a school with 10% Catholic teachers is different to one with 25% or 50%. Integral formation is not just an evangelical mission; students have a wide variety of gifts and talents (music, art, athletics etc) and these must be fostered by the teachers in the school. All those little moments where you give help, guidance and encouragement are vital in this too. Be proud of using the best teaching methods and most effective pedagogies as you are helping in this formation. “The integral formation of the human person, which is the purpose of education, includes the development of all the human faculties of the students, together with preparation for professional life, formation of ethical and social awareness, becoming aware of the transcendental, and religious education.” (Lay Catholic in Schools: Witness to Faith 1982)
  • Objective 3: Philosophical Anthropology - This means to form an authentic Catholic vision of the human person, the person created “in the image and likeness of God” - what you think a person is, will determine how you treat people. Jesus went to Calvary for the person you like the least, the person that annoys you the most. Catholic schools are quite good at social justice, good at being nice… but have we lost our Christology? When our young people go into business or marriage, how will they treat people?

Tools and Fuels - Jonathan’s new book
Jonathan is an obsessive cyclist but one day, for the first time, he didn’t finish a race. It had 3 hills. On the first, he didn’t set up his gears correctly, then for the second he didn’t hydrate properly… and ended up calling his wife to pick him up. He had the wrong tools, and the wrong fuel.

We can’t do a big task with the wrong tools and wrong fuels.

Generally speaking, we have the right tools; our pedagogy is good. Most teachers can teach, even with the impending budget cuts, they will be able to deliver a lesson. Our fundamental problem is our fuel.

The 2nd Equation: You cannot do a supernatural task, with just natural resources
  • How do we survive? Do we just keep trying harder? Are we just “people of goodwill”? (Saint Pope John Paul II) Do we just rely on our personal effort, energy and psychological strength? You cannot out muscle a system that will just expect more and more.
  • John 15 outlines a personal and intimate exchange between people that knew each other well: Jesus and his disciples. He makes it clear, “apart from me, you can do nothing” (15:5) - either he is right? Or we are right - and he is wrong? Was Jesus joking? Metaphorical? There is nothing to suggest this; it is direct.

The Solution: All you have to do is become a saint.

  • The only thing that will fix this and allow you discharge your vocation is become a saint - the ultimate suffering is to not become a saint!
  • The Pre-Vatican II Church was a manual focused, teaching people to be holy through a list of ‘do’s and ‘do not’s. Holiness was only for a subset, the bishops, monsignors, cardinals etc.
  • Jonathan’s dad used to say, “If I can just sneak in the back…”
  • Vatican II gave the Church a universal call to holiness. It is for everyone. Sanctity is for everyone. It is heresy to claim that it is just for a subset!
  • The Catholic Church does not make saints, it simply recognises them - we often have an association with the Saints in our stained glass windows, hands together, not having any fun.
  • There are a great variety of Saints: St Augustine had an illegitimate child, St Mary of Egypt was a prostitute - to be a saint, you need to have really lived! God is not looking for people who “creep” through life.
  • God is able to help strip away everything that isn't you - your projections, your fears - this is when we begin to understand sainthood.
  • Life shifts - we stop doing certain things in our lives because we want to give, love and contribute - we recognise we are in love, and when you are in love, you believe you can change the world.

Our Vocation: Called to be saints
  • Primary Vocation - This is the modality of life: married, single, priesthood etc - we need to be asking how can I be a better husband/wife/father? How can I love them better. Often the things that you resist are what God wants most for you. God comes disguised as you life! “Do I love my wife as Christ loves the Church?”
  • Secondary Vocation - This is the work you do. This creates a paradigm shift… but whatever Jesus did he elevated. He worked, but he didn’t have to. Work is a good thing; through our work, God makes us holy. When you say the one word that a child needs to hear, it is important to remember that nothing you do will go unnoticed. Our society and culture allows these things to go unnoticed, but God does not.

The Venerable Solanus Casey
He was one of a family of 11 from Chicago. He worked as prison guard, train conductor… but wanted desperately to be a priest. He was kicked out of seminary for not being bright enough. Eventually the Franciscans gave him another chance, and after some time became a simplex priest - he could not perform public ministry. He was given the job of sitting in the front room of the Franciscan house and answering the door to guests. He let them in and made small talk until the person they had come to see was ready.

He spent 22 years doing this.

However he developed a supernatural gift of listening, he heard “the deepest wounds of the heart”, and miracles began to happen as he prayed with people.

All he did in life was the one simple thing asked of him, open the door.

The Solution Continued
  • The way is a person.
  • Others will devise systems or programmes…
  • The only thing that will do it, is trying to be saints.

The Path of Dependence
  • The sun will come up tomorrow - will you rely on you or will you reply on Christ?
  • A real person who rose from the dead, will give you supernatural capacity to become most fully what you already are.
  • We can rarely beat problems on our own.
  • God’s grace builds on our very nature.
  • We need to learn a path of dependence on God and realise that we cannot do this with God

How do we practically do this?
  1. Return to the sacraments
    • We need a deep desire to be with Jesus in the Eucharist, the “source and summit”. The Saints all know this, it grants a supernatural grace.
    • Our students often do go, because we don't go - you cannot give what you don't possess; you cannot share grace you do not have.
    • In Eucharistic adoration we can say “I am here, I am going to keep coming”
  2. Return to prayer
    • We need to give time to God - can we find 10 minutes?
    • Pray for your students
    • Find a chapel, do you pass a church? Can you come in 5 minutes earlier?
  3. Return to an encounter with scripture
    • This is how God will most likely speak to us

We may end up cranky, anxious, depressed and exhausted as teachers. How can we not only survive but thrive? By being saints.

As Jonathan says, “the Catholic Church has the best product, but worst marketing department.”

I'd like to thank Edmund Adamus, Professional Advisor to the Episcopal Vicar for Education/Schools Commissioner in Portsmouth Diocese, for the invite.

I'd also like to say a huge thanks to Jonathan Doyle for his generous and inspiring witness - it was well worth a 2hr+ journey each way to hear what he had to say (and he had come from Australia, so that kind of beats my journey!)

I hope my notes are useful; “The hand is the conjoined instrument of the mind” (St Thomas Aquinas)

Further Questions

Upon reflection on this, I will be blogging more on some of the ideas here. Questions that have already come up in my mind are...

  • How does this help our non religious colleagues / colleagues from other faiths?
  • How does it enable us to help our non religious colleagues / colleagues from other faiths?
  • How do we best deal with resistance to these ideas?

Portsmouth 2017 - Day 2

Jonathan filmed his second talk of the week. This covers some similar themes, but also introduces and touches upon some other key ideas. I recommend Catholic teachers everywhere to watch:

Jonathan also features on the ARC website with some videos on Theology of the Body for teachers. View <here>