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Ticking the boxes: what’s wrong with set texts

In the wake of government reforms, it’s now examiners who choose the texts that UK media students will study – not their teachers, or students themselves. What are the consequences for teaching and learning?

In the last couple of weeks, secondary school students in Britain have been sitting the first examinations to be conducted under the latest wave of government reforms. When the reforms were announced, there were widespread fears that Media Studies would simply be eliminated. In the event, the subject was not killed off – although, as I suggested two years ago, it has effectively been ‘strangled’.

The changes undoubtedly reflect the government’s hostility to Media Studies – or at least its inability or unwillingness to understand its basic aims. However, the problems here are by no means specific to this subject. The wider reforms derive from a more general commitment to a so-called ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, and to creating an appearance of greater difficulty and rigour in the assessment process.

I say ‘appearance’, because I don’t believe the new approach is actually more difficult (however we might decide to measure this). It may be more difficult for teachers to negotiate the new assessment requirements, but that’s not the same thing as the qualification itself being more difficult. In fact, the focus on factual knowledge has led to an emphasis on rote learning, which might well make it easier for teachers to ‘teach to the test’. Meanwhile, the reduction in creative practical work and the elimination of extended, research-based coursework means that some of the more challenging aspects of the subject have been removed.

Nevertheless, the new courses are loaded with vastly increased quantities of specified content, and much more elaborate assessment mechanisms. The specification documents and supporting materials produced by the awarding bodies are astonishingly detailed. They don’t just prescribe topics and areas for study, but a great many of the specific points, arguments and references students will be expected to include in their examination answers. At least one awarding body has produced ‘fact sheets’ on the set texts. I’m not sure who writes these documents, but they have effectively become the tablets of stone that determine what will be taught. With such a large and detailed body of content to cover, teachers will have little incentive to look beyond them. Meanwhile, students’ exam answers are increasingly going to resemble checklists of required facts and references. Such an approach implicitly reduces teaching and learning to a matter of ticking boxes.

Read the full blog on David's site here

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