'Swinging a pen' can bring results

Kerri Carr

Ways to prepare for the new HSC assessment guidelines, which become mandatory in 2018, were addressed during a recent Centre for Professional Learning course.

The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) has set school-based assessment guidelines “to prevent plagiarism and cheating” and advised “HSC examination questions will be less predictable so students must apply their knowledge and skills in their answers”.

More writing and thinking

“Every kid should write almost every period,” workshop presenter Judy King said. “I don’t care if it’s PE theory, I don’t care if it’s industrial tech and it’s a prac lesson — 10 or 15 minutes of it should be devoted to swinging a pen,” she told participants in the course for teachers preparing to teach new Modern and Ancient History syllabuses next year.

And Ms King does not meaning copying notes from the board, which she described as “passive learning”, but rather note making and writing practice that promotes thinking.

Workshop participants were given a handout containing questions for writing practice, phrased to prompt deeper and higher-order thinking and apply knowledge. Ms King advocates that students write short, sharp (six to eight lines) and focused responses to similar questions as part of their classwork — answering at least one question every two weeks. On occasion, pairs of students might talk about their question for three minutes before writing their answer.

You then need to give students feedback on their answers. Over a semester, you should see improvement in their answers, with evidence that students are learning the vocabulary contained in the syllabus.

It’s harder to embed writing practice into 50-minute lessons than 80-minute lessons, she acknowledged, “but you really need to try and find a way”.

Make classwork count

In addition to an exam and a research task (“trying to put the questions in a way that the answers can’t be downloaded”), Ms King said she would be inclined to count the best four of a student’s responses to six or eight “quite substantial” pieces of classwork (some of which were based on the types of questions included in the handout) as an assessment task.

Ms King said this approach helps to deal with students’ “Does this count?” attitude to applying effort to their work.

The workshop handout included a sample question: “When did the Roman Republic Die?” Ms King said the question could be changed to “When did Australia become a nation?”.

“That’s not very easy to look up on Google,” she quipped. “Is it Gallipoli? Is it before 1788? Or is it when we got our navy in 1912? Or is it when Curtin told Churchill to get stuffed, that he was going to go with America? Federation? Or you could argue that we’re not a nation yet because we’ve still got a British head of state.

“You want to try and build this contestability, varying interpretations and substantiating arguments with examples and evidence and the more they can do that the better.”

Some students might find it difficult to answer those questions working alone, but not if they discuss them in pairs or groups ahead of writing their own considered argument to the question. Ms King said a written response like this could be one of the four pieces of classwork offered up to be counted for assessment.

Other questions in the handout address the syllabus concept of contestability — students are asked to assess different interpretations/perspectives of a historical figure (Napoleon and Che Guevara), by citing evidence. “Is Che Guevara a mass murderer? Is he a narcissist? Is he a patriot as well as a terrorist? and so on. You could change Che’s list and put Nelson Mandela there, you could change Napoleon and put Yasser Arafat there — it doesn’t matter — it’s contestability. It can be an event as well, but the labels change,” Ms King suggested.

“How you can be all of those things depends on who you read. If you read a feminist perspective, a Marxist’s perspective, or a 19th century account versus a 2017 account. Why are they different? What’s happened in the meantime to change that? If you could get half-page considered answers to those sorts of questions, I’d be counting them as a formal assessment.”

New topics and approaches

In other sessions, course participants were guided through the new rationales and content areas for the Modern and Ancient History syllabuses. Teachers were also involved in planning a scope and sequence and developing a teaching program.

The Introducing the New Ancient and Modern History Syllabuses: Focus on Year 11 course is popular — booked out this occasion and previously, plus for a date in Term 4. For information on other courses aimed at helping teachers with new syllabuses and other professional learning offerings visit http://cpl.asn.au/. All courses are accredited through NESA and are registered professional development for maintenance of accreditation at Proficient Teacher level.

NESA-accredited hours

Plenary, workshop ans small group delivery modes

Course designers: Kate Cameron, Jennifer Lawless and Carly Boreland

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