Archive for June, 2013

When I started teaching, classrooms still contained blackboards and chalk and the personal computer hadn’t been invented. When I stopped some 10 years later, technology had stretched to whiteboards, wipeable markers and the BBC B.

On returning to teaching as a private maths tutor I spent a day in a local secondary school to see how technology was being used. Interactive whiteboards and their linking with in-class computers makes the teaching environment a lot better than in the late 1970s. Lesson preparation is much easier – no more creating purple Banda masters and duplicating using a mixture of isopropanol and methanol, though the smell was quite enticing!

If there is one part of technology that has made a really big difference it has to be the internet and online teaching resources. Sites like BBC’s GCSE Bitesize are brilliant for students while tried-&-tested lessons from the likes of the TES (Times Educational Supplement) site can save hours in planning.

On the homework front, a number of websites offer comprehensive packages to which many schools subscribe. A good example is MyMaths (www.mymaths.co.uk). For less than £600 per year a secondary school gets a huge interactive resource covering National Curriculum level 2 through to A-level. Unlimited access for all students and teachers, online homework tasks, an assessment manager and booster packs are just some of the advantages.

So what could be wrong with the scenario of personalised homework for all students? From the teacher’s perspective, not much. Cuts down on setting homework, taking in exercise books and handling marking. But there is a huge downside.

Anyone who has marked GCSE papers or worked with the marking schemes that are made available will appreciate that most marks are given for showing the correct methods and working out. In fact it’s possible to get a grade A without having a single correct answer! How? If small mistakes are made, the answer would be wrong (which usually loses one mark) but all method and working out marks would be obtained – and that’s the lion’s share of the marks. How do you show method and working out with online resources such as MyMaths? You can’t. So how do students get used to showing methods and working out? They don’t.

Technology is a brilliant helper but the problems start once you become a slave to it. MyMaths has its place in maths teaching but from what I’ve seen, too many teachers are using it instead of setting proper homework. This might be expedient and provide a short-term answer but until GCSE exams are taken online too, such a lazy approach will adversely affect students’ grades – especially those on the margins of passing.

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Today, the British government is announcing changes to GCSE exams. Note I say the government, in tandem with the exam regulator, Ofqual. From a maths point of view, the main change is to promote the idea of developing independent problem-solving skills, rather than setting types of questions that can be rehearsed.

There are a number of problems with this, not least of all in the teaching aspect. Do I hold secondary school maths teachers in high regard? Generally, no. The kind of salary on offer attracts people for whom maths teaching is not a passion – and to be a good teacher you must have this passion. I had it when I taught full-time back in the 1980s but too many of those I now come into contact with teach purely from a textbook and fail to enthuse their students in any way at all. Are such teachers going to be capable of helping students to develop independent problem-solving skills? Not a hope – especially those without a maths-based degree who never had the opportunity to develop such skills themselves.

The second problem lies with the never-ending change in syllabuses. Edexcel is a good example. Its linear GCSE (to be taken at a single sitting) has changed three times in the past six years. 2540 finished in November 2008, 1380 in November 2011, and the current syllabus, 1ma0 (a rather unfortunate set of letters and numbers!) was first examined in June 2012. Now that modular maths exams (taken at three sittings) have been outlawed, there has been the further introduction of 2MB01 (which, to add to the confusion, already existed), taking the modular course of the same code and changing it to three exams at a single sitting to be first examined in June 2014.

Confused? Hardly surprising – and it appears that all of these will be canned for the new course to be started in September 2015 for first examination in July 2017.

The former Schools Minister Nick Gibb said the changes were being made to “eliminate grade inflation. It has to happen. There’s been concern for many years about grade inflation in the GCSE exam and with the proliferation of resits and modular exams in GCSEs there’s been a real concern about standards.”

Really? Edexcel has been given a free hand to set grade boundaries for linear maths GCSE so low as to no longer be meaningful. Twenty-four per cent for a grade C? And the reason? To allow parity between modular and linear exam systems as the former is easier than the latter. It’s farcical – and of the examination boards’ creation. Yet Ofqual and successive governments have done nothing to control this unworkable system.

So where does this leave IGCSE? Interesting question. As it’s a worldwide qualification I don’t believe it will be subject to the same changes. If that is the case, and as only non-state school students can sit IGCSE exams, this is going to widen the gap between IGCSE and GCSE. IGCSE is already seen by many to be a symbol of status, almost a badge of honour, for non-state schools.

For this new examination system to be successful, three things need to happen:

1. Shut down IGCSE in the UK and make all schools subject to the same examination system.
2. Have a single examination board rather than the current competitive situation with Edexcel, AQA, OCR and various others
3. Allow OfQual to administer the examination system without being answerable to Parliament (which it clearly is).

As a professional maths tutor I should be happy with this confusion – far more parents will be looking to have their children tutored. But I’m not. I believe it’s change for the sake of change without adequate consultation with those of us in the teaching profession. I have little doubt that this will be barely workable but will it end up going the way of Michael Gove’s proposed scrapping of GCSEs last year? Probably not – and that’s the really worrying part.

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