Sunday, 3 November 2013

"At This Stage". Initial Thoughts on the Junior Cycle English Specifications.

Ruairi Quinn, Exam-Slayer
I've been a bit quiet lately on the blog, being sick for a while and really not feeling up to it, going back to work and trying to make up for lost time, and then going away for mid-term. The best thing about Rome? It's not Christmas there yet, even though it's been Christmas in Ireland for nearly a month.

So back I come to Ireland and what do I find? A few days late, but the Real Specifications for English have been published. I'd a quick glance but only got around to reading them properly today. Well, well, well.

To begin with the positive, they're a huge improvement on the Draft Specification, a document so verbose and long-winded it's hard to believe there was any input from English teachers. Of course there was, but not much, because subjects and subject knowledge no longer matter. There I go, being negative, but it's hard to be anything else in the face of Junior Cycle Reform, a process described by Damien Kiberd as "jihad" in today's

The Specifications are slimmed down and easier to read and understand. This is good. I am delighted to see Shakespeare will be compulsory for Higher Level. Many assumed that he was compulsory on the old syllabus but, in fact, you could do "The Field" with your class and they'd do just as well as if you'd explored the themes of prejudice, loyalty and paternal affection in "The Merchant of Venice". In fact, they might even do better, as you'd have freed up class time to cover more of the infinite list of possibilities for the Functional Writing section. Informal letters, check. Letters of complaint, application, information seeking, commendation, check. Reports, check. Memos, check. Instructions, blogs, blurbs, brochures, check.

The three elements fail to mention literature, referring only to language. This is disappointing as literature goes beyond the use of words to include how a world is imagined and a story is developed. This is reflected in the inclusion of film as an area of study. I've said before I'm fine with including film in the English classroom but I draw the line at purely visual texts. Language must also be present, and preferably the English language. I find foreign-language films such as "I'm Not Scared" make an excellent introduction to film studies in TY but when it comes to studying a film for an exam, especially if in comparison with other texts, it's good to be able to include screenplay as an element for study.

Back to the specifications. Some-one saw sense and got rid of the stipulation that two novels be studied in first year but apparently we're to study two in second year now instead. This is dumbing-down in action, as in order to fit in the required quantity, the quality will probably be diluted. Novels studied will either be teen novels - young adult fiction - or else novellas, as a full-length novel written for an adult reading age takes at least a couple of months.  Far better to read one novel and one play, than two novels and "extracts from one or more plays". On closer reading, I see I will actually be expected to do two novels, a film, a "number of short stories", a play and "extracts from one or more plays". If I'm feeling particularly energetic we might do two novels and two plays. Ahem.

On another note, sixteen poems between second and third year sounds about right. I'm not going to quibble with the specification of an actual number of poems as I have to admit that some teachers  realised some years ago that there has never been a year that "Mid-Term Break" couldn't be used to answer at least one of the questions on the Junior Cert English paper. Ten poems in first year seems excessive, unless poems chosen are very short and/or covered at break-neck speed and not learned off. I get my first years to learn off any poems we study by heart. Yes, by heart, using the most vilified of techniques: rote-learning. Somewhere, deep within the Department of Education, an alarm is flashing red in the Surveillance Room.

There'll be a list of prescribed texts but that hasn't been written yet. I predict the absence of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the inclusion of books written specifically for this age group, even specifically written with the Specifications in mind.

The Private Becomes Public
One strand I notice going through the specifications, is the idea that private reading and writing are to made public. One of the learning outcomes is that students will "engage in sustained private reading" and another is that they will write in manner that is "private, pleasurable and purposeful".  The only thing clear here is that the writers of the document understand "private" in a different way than I do. I'd have thought that if your teacher knows you're doing something, is the one making you do it and is ensuring you're experiencing pleasure, then that's not private, that's homework or schoolwork. As of the insistence that we make reading and writing pleasurable for all, I can't repeat the suggestions made around this in our English Department without getting us all struck off the Teaching Council register.


I'm also a bit iffy about the idea of students discussing each other's written work. Teenagers can be cruel, or at least thoughtless, and I'd hate to have to subject the creative, personal work of sensitive students to the judgement of their peers. It's possible to work around this by saying "let's all find three nice things to say about..." but this soon develops into a lesson in hypocrisy.

Here's the rub, and the part of the exercise that angers teachers. Much has been written, and spoken, about the folly of teachers assessing the work of their own students for purposes of certification. All of it ignored. 40% of the marks for this course will be awarded by the class teacher. This makes the charade of setting an exam, and paying to have it marked anonymously as exams have traditionally been marked, almost a waste of time.

English is the most subjective of subjects to mark. It is almost impossible to separate the product from one's knowledge of the producer. As teachers, we tend to overmark the diligent trier and undermark the talented lay-about. As for how I'm supposed to give a cold-eyed, clinical assessment of my friends' children, my colleagues' children or even my principal's children, we all know that's a big ask. I won't dwell at length on this as I think any-one with common sense can see the problem.

The Specifications attempt to side-step issues around assessment by asserting that it is no big deal. It doesn't really matter how well students do at Junior Cycle.

"Essentially, the purpose of assessment at this stage of education is to support learning "
The phrase "at this stage" betrays a contempt for students. The idea is "sure, at this stage they're only babies. It doesn't matter that their exam is corrected by their teacher. It doesn't matter that it's more likely a pat on the head for effort than an objective recognition of attainment. The main thing is not that they know how well they're doing, it's that they feel supported in their learning."

"At this stage" implies that sixteen year olds are only nascent learners. They haven't really begin the serious business of education. That starts - when? At Senior Cycle? In third level education? Never, now that we have Google?
"Assessment is most effective when it moves beyond marks and grades to provide detailed feedback that focuses not just on how the student has done in the past but on the next steps for further learning."
Fine words, but they refer to in-school assessment, which is a different animal from State certified examination that currently exists. This is being abolished, but by stealth, and under over of a fog of rhetoric. I propose that the Department have the courage to admit they are abolishing certification at any level other than the terminal exam. After all, Finnish students sit only one exam: a terminal exam at the end of secondary education.


At this stage of cycling, it more important that learners feel supported than that they actually go anywhere.