YOU HAVE TO GIVE students the exam question – sometimes

Sometimes it’s best to tell students what’s in the test.

Summative assessment is important. Differing greatly from formative assessment, which focuses more on an immediately taught concept, summative assessment checks whether students have learnt the topic to such a depth that they can produce responses based on any number of aspects taught. But there’s a hidden price!

The repercussion of this design is that most students sitting their Literature exams will experience the questions to be variations on what they expected and indeed prepared for. I expect that this applies to most subjects, but as an English teacher, I’ve found that most will still produce good responses and demonstrate a good knowledge of the texts and their themes and characters, but their responses will effectively become their first and only expositions.

Even if students are well prepared and their knowledge of a text is secure, the working memory will still be on overdrive if the question in front of them requires an adaptation of their rehearsed flow.

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from @Olicav:

Of course, we want to see students adapting and applying knowledge to suit new contexts, but there’s no getting away from the fact that because of the potential cognitive overload, the exam product is likely to be an inferior representation of the student’s actual ability. The more the working memory is stressed in this moment, the greater the separation from potential.

Oliver Caviglioli’s infographics are very useful in helping explain Sweller’s cognitive load theory.

So despite summative assessment being important, its downside is that it is unlikely to be the setting for students to imaginatively explore an essay question, and therefore, due to the inexorable pressure of time, unless I provide other opportunities for them to edit a piece of work, they won’t ever get to develop and pursue imaginative responses to questions.

This is why during a unit I give students the title of the essay question before the assessment date, with class time to prepare for it. In this way, students can prepare and explore thoughts about a line of argument in depth, receiving feedback on their thinking and essay structure. For some, who work hard and put in the effort, the assessment sitting is actually the 3rdattempt at the question, which yields significantly better results compared to the first draft. For these students:

  • They get to fulfil a potential that would ordinarily be denied to them with the submission of a single draft.
  • They get to use their imaginations in writing a response.
  • They get to experience the best part of being an English student.


I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on twitter @edmerger

COMBINING the Knowledge Organiser with Retrieval Practice

Once a text has been studied, and content is well understood, the application of the knowledge to essay writing is usually the expected path. Here’s how the team and I at South Devon High School help students develop their essay writing. Huge thanks to Katie Babbs for helping design this.

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  • The grid is presented to students. Across the top are possible essay questions, and down the left hand side are the scenes from the text.
  • Students populate the squares if they feel the essay question is represented in the particular scene. Students decide whether they go along each row with each scene, or down each column with each question. I suggest going down each column as it helps reinforce the text’s plot multiple times, which significantly strengthens their knowledge of the text as they continuously revisit the scenes and quotes.
  • I model the process of justifying the choices. At this point, students will probably argue that a square should or shouldn’t be included, which is perfect as the explanations help other students come to terms with the task. Depending on the group, you may have to populate the first few rows/1 column to get things moving.
  • Next, students need to understand the requirements of the exam/assessment task: how long they will have to write, and consequently how many examples would constitute a strong response, bearing in mind that the beginning, middle and end of a text needs to be discussed.
  • Students then begin the planning process for each essay question by going down each question and prioritising scenes and relevant quotes to suit the time allowed in the writing.
  • Students then practise writing the essays. This is where they will realise how many examples they can discuss in the allotted time, and suitably adjust the number chosen.
  • I encourage students to choose questions, or I decide topics that have examples from different scenes. Ideally, students would complete at least 4 of these essays so they can produce responses with a range of scenes. Of course, there will be a great deal of overlap, which serves to consolidate the knowledge of the text a great deal. The advantage of this also is that multiple exemplars are produced that can greatly assist students who are either still unsure about particular essay strands, or who will become inspired by the thinking of other students.

The development of essay writing is a strong feature of this activity, but almost crucially, the students’ knowledge of the text is significantly strengthened as they continuously revisit the scenes and quotes, and we know how powerful retrieval practice is. You can have students write their first 2 essays from the grid, but then take away the ability to see the quotes, or the scenes, and then all of it, as their retrieval capacity becomes increasingly secure.

The template works for a range of texts, and can have space assigned to add context if necessary. Here is the doc for you to use and adjust to suit,

Here is a completed one for a few Macbeth questions. Adjust quotes, choice of scenes and choice of questions as required.

Here is one for A Christmas Carol.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

The incredible skill of the English teacher

I absolutely love the ideal of the English GCSE literature curriculum. The summative assessment at its conclusion is a wonderful way to assess the cumulative knowledge and skill of students. The happiest examiner is s/he who reads intelligent informed discussions on a range of possible perspectives of texts. The exams are indeed set with this as the expectation: students have a base level of knowledge about a text, and then are able to engage with various conversations that can arise from its understanding – these become the essay questions. And this is needed to be multiplied by at least 4 substantial texts plus multiple poems. So the paragon for teachers is to have students secure with the entirety of each text, its plot, its vocabulary, its context, its themes, its characters and their idiosyncrasies, the language techniques that enhance each of these aspects (including structure), the ability to synthesise and link various aspects of a text and sometimes with other texts based on all of the above, the skill of structuring a response incorporating the synthesis, whilst planning lessons, formatively assessing progress (possibly re-planning as a result), designing summative assessments, marking student summative work, teaching students how to revise, managing behaviour, motivating and encouraging and counselling, sometimes parents too, whilst maintaining an indefatigable image of professionalism, strength, and wisdom. Oh, I forgot to add dealing with the incredible pressure of time in achieving success in each of these components, the pressure of results, and the expectation to be continuously developing professionally.

Content mastery

If you’re anything like me, you want to spend time going through a text. I like to read the entire thing word for word with my class. I want to explore every nook and cranny, make connections with everything going on in the world, have debates, use themes as stimulus for creative writing, parse extracts like Sherlock Holmes, and have students write multiple essays on a variety of perspectives of the text. To achieve such utopia, the most important thing is to ensure that students have sufficient knowledge to be able to engage in discussions, both verbally and in writing. To facilitate this, I explicitly teach them the information. Then, religiously, I help support the recall of information through retrieval quizzes, a highly effective strategy.

But even with this ascendency, because of the constraints of time, the reality involves a compromise to the amount of knowledge some classes can absorb. In my experience, conceivably because of my lack of skill, the amount of time spent on recalling information is dependent on the ability of the students I inherit. The headache here is that the amount of time used to recall information can often take up time that should be otherwise spent on developing synthesis. Is this usurpation of time what potentially distinguishes the final grades of various classes?

Concomitantly with securing knowledge, students need to be shown how to write responses to questions based on the knowledge. Modelling tasks is imperative for successful uptake by students, and again, the time spent scaffolding seems to correlate with ability, resulting in a concession of synthesis time. The skilful English teacher, however, is able extract every drop out of the time available in the classroom by knowing, via strategic assessment design and specific feedback based on assessment, a discerning eye and skill in writing precise actionable feedback, what constitutes the appropriate level of modelling for the relevant class. The skilful teacher also understands that rushing through this stage is actually detrimental to saving time in the long run, as without the depth of understanding, students will always struggle to master the writing of such a response.  S/he is able to see the woods for the trees, not panic with Time lurking, and the complaints of ‘bored’ students, and knowing that next door is already on chapter 5, and patiently continue on the mission of consolidation whilst new content is delivered.

Shakespeare the obscure?

Sometimes the skill level of the English teacher is particularly striking. Take as an example the teaching of Shakespeare. The first great skill is having a thorough knowledge of the play itself. Of course it is expected that a subject teacher is very knowledgeable about their subject, but Shakespeare is bloody hard*. It is incredibly complex almost exclusively, and being able to help students understand the text is an achievement in itself.

This is particularly the case for students who take longer to understand even modern texts written in far more recognisable language. The design of lessons to maintain student attention is imperative. You may disagree with this, and say the text is inherently interesting, but for some students, it is as difficult to understand as a foreign language. It would be like you and I sitting in front of a person talking to us in Russian, for 6-8 weeks. Intrinsic motivation levels to remain attentive would certainly wane (the analogy only works of course if you can’t speak Russian). Abridging the text whilst maintaining the integrity of it, yet ensuring adequate coverage to satisfy summative probabilities, is an art form.

Dexterous delivery

Incorporating context demands that the teacher is conversant in quite a bit of history. The more skilful English teacher works hard to deliver the content in an entertaining way. A good storyteller will always succeed because it appears to be innate in us that we love a good story. It is for this reason that story telling assists the memory of key pieces of information: via elaborative retrieval. There are currently some very interesting ideas around that consider the practising of delivering such parts of a lesson, particularly by Ben Newmark: ‘Giving a well-crafted explanation is best viewed as a short theatrical performance‘ – (see principle 7). Whilst there could be some concern about the robotic nature of such rehearsed teaching, I actually think it becomes the opposite, with better delivery greatly assisting in maintaining student attention.


Finally, but by no means exhaustively, a good English teacher is like a rock. They are compassionate but assertive, caring but firm, honest and insightful, and patient. They deal with multiple personalities every day, sometimes put up with behaviours that aren’t conducive to a learning environment (I am becoming more and more interested in ideas presented by educators such as Ben Newmark who provide ideas about removing such situations), and sometimes become teacher to parents too. English teachers are in fact rather remarkable**. What other occupation has such a remit: managing time, people, and most importantly, futures. Of course there are some, but they are amazing too.

* There are some who naturally are very good at Shakespeare – they are incredible, which proves the article’s thesis.
** Of course this article applies to all teachers (except the Shakespeare bit).


I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger




Can ‘NO EXCUSE’ policy safeguard our future?


Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 8.18.17 pmThis tweet from controversial educator Katherine Birbalsingh makes clear the rationale of proponents of ‘no excuse’ schooling: belonging is an ultimate goal, education facilitates this in our culture, and conformity facilitates the most conducive learning environment to afford that education.

The rationale appears to be infallible, and as such, vehemently defended by conservative educationalists. This is understandable, especially considering the likely irrefutable argument that our natural desire as humans is to belong: we all feel deeply for those who don’t, and it’s a feeling that is particularly acute if it happens to be you who doesn’t.

For invested proponents, the approach becomes almost evangelical, and leads to rigorous implementation of policies that serve to eliminate obstacles that impede the opportunity for learning. Methods include direct strategies such as issuing detentions for not tracking the teacher in lesson, to less explicit actions such as preventing talking during breaks. The measures seem extreme to some, but to those enforcing them, they are deemed as necessary components of the process of encouraging a conformity that results in belonging for all. For many of the schools with current notoriety, this is particularly poignant as many of the pupils in attendance are often from disadvantaged backgrounds that often lack the cultural advantages that serve to benefit the particular type of education that western culture espouses on mass.

Why would anyone challenge this?

Whilst the sense of belonging would be characteristic of all educators’ ontological leanings, there are however, large disagreements in how to achieve the ideal.  The ‘no excuse’ approach that is exteriorised by a total insistence on conformity attracts criticism for a variety of reasons. Many struggle to extricate a significantly negative connotation from the word conformity, derived mostly from a perceived loss of personal freedom.

The disquiet is fuelled by instances of advocates (feasibly unrepresentative) tarnishing the brand with profligacy. The recent advertisement from a school for teachers who enjoy getting upset over the little stuff hurts the crusade because the overtone borders on the sadistic, and thus becomes legitimate fodder to the movement’s adversaries. There’s more to be said about this particular aspect of personal freedom, but for the sake of this post I want to discuss perhaps the more immediate concern emanating from the recent popularity of ‘no excuse’ policy.

Because conformity is logically characterised by a reduction in autonomy, the community that places trust in such a philosophy is at the mercy of those who lead it. The hierarchical nature of the military is instructive in illustrating this thesis. Subservience is encouraged in order that soldiers do what they are told when it may appear to contradict their intuition. Consequently, a good leader can achieve lots, but a bad leader can do enormous damage. A bad leader may simply just lack the skill necessary, but worse, may be self-serving.

Corruption always begins imperceptibly

It is unlikely that the vociferous opposition to the brand of ‘no excuse’ education ever emanated from a disagreement to the notion of belonging, but more from a cautionary reaction to the potential abuse of power connected with conformity, a connection that is historically less concomitant, and more concurrent with it.

But one needn’t visit the history books to find evidence of the abuse of power. It is most definitely alive and well in modern society. It is in fact ubiquitous, from the lies in modern politics (take the lies of the Brexit campaign) to the selling off of public services (profiteering for a few rather than the community) to multi-national business tax avoidance to the abuse of data from social media conglomerates (Cambridge Analytica). It happens more subtly on other levels: off-rolling students, promoting a product under the guise of journalism, to even the current ban on a television advert. The consequences of the corruption can be wide reaching, shockingly debilitative for communities, and therefore, significantly counter-productive for individuals. It is the existence of this malfeasance that disturbs and motivates the antagonist, and yet ironically motivates the building wave of ‘no excuse’ schools: to save disadvantaged students form the pernicious cycle of poverty and societal inequality created by the abuse of power, whether it be in wealth, race or gender.

Natural reactions

 The declaration of indignation, by those whose sense of justice is obfuscated by the desire for conformity, is largely generated from the concern that conformity leads to a reduction in an ability to challenge the abuse of power. The harrowing imagery in sci-fi novels and movies of future society indoctrinated and shackled by a lack of opportunity to think because of a lack of transparent information resonates with us all. The key here is not a lack of education to understand the information, but the omission of information omitted because it interferes with the interests of those in power. Institutions that promote unmitigated blind obedience to a higher power aren’t criticised because of their desires to improve the lives of those they serve, but because of the perceived likely reversal of who is doing the serving at a later date.

Panoptic transparency

 The need for transparency has perhaps never been more imperative. Those in positions influencing educational policy should have no problem in explaining their connections and links to boards and companies in order to assuage the fear of those who are appropriately wary of the misuse of power. It does not mean however, that individuals with insights into education should not be allowed to be rewarded for it, or promote their agenda as much as they can, or, importantly, to be presumed guilty simply because they are in a position to be so. But without the transparency, historical and modern corruption pervades and inevitably looms large in the minds of the average educationalist. It is this average educationalist that understands that as soon as promotion deviates from the intention of benefitting students, to the intention of benefitting individuals, then all is lost.

In the end it boils down to a fairly simplistic reduction. Can those who encourage complete conformity of our future generations guarantee their subservience is safe? If they can, it is likely that a great percentage of the consternation of opponents to ‘no excuse’ policy would dissipate. If they can’t, then it is likely that a great percentage of the consternation of opponents to ‘no excuse’ policy will remain.


I’m Paul Moss.

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