I’ve just read an excellent post from Daisy Christodoulou on the damaging effects of coursework.
If Michael Gove had done nothing else during his time at the Department for Education, he would have won my undying gratitude simply for removing coursework from English GCSEs.
Coursework has grown like a cancer on the face of British education over the last few decades, causing moral and educational havoc wherever it goes. Apologists for coursework claim that it replicates real life situations and prepares pupils for real work far better than the supposedly artificial and unfair system of formal examinations. Like most successful lies, this has a surface plausibility. But in reality, there is nothing more artificial or more unfair than coursework.
I have never met a teacher who has praised coursework or supported it from an educational point of view. The only positive comments I’ve heard have been along the lines of ‘it really helps the weaker students’.
But what is meant by ‘helps’? It means that coursework allows the teacher to provide extra ‘support’ to those who are ‘struggling’ so that they can ‘boost their grade’. It means that the teacher can provide so much ‘support’ that they can virtually write the coursework themselves. It means cheating.
In schools I have worked in previously, I have seen with my own eyes teachers sitting at a computer keyboard typing while a pupil ‘explains their ideas’ to them. You see, the pupil has such good ideas, but struggles to get them down on paper. And the pupil doesn’t get that ‘support’ at home which so.many others do (it hasn’t just been teachers who have been cheating; parents have been too).
Less blatant, but just as educationally damaging, I have in the past moderated sets of coursework ‘taught’ by other members of department where the structure of every essay was almost identical, and most of the quotations used were the same. This gives the lie to one of the justifications for coursework, that it encourages independent work. It does nothing of the kind; it turns a morally pernicious form of bureaucratic manipulation into the norm.
The pressure put on teachers to ‘get a grade’ for each pupil means that we have a blindingly obvious conflict of interest here. In private schools, this really can lead to a situation where parents are effectively demanding grades for their money. What kind of message is this sending to pupils?
I am disappointed that coursework has remained in the new A level syllabus. Graded coursework should be scrapped at every level of the education system, with the exception of postgraduate dissertations that are subject to viva voce examinations.
Of course it is important to write essays as part of studying a subject, and they can be used by teachers internally as formative assessment, but they are a lousy way of doing objective summative assessment. They are inaccurate and unfair measures of attainment, and discourage pupils from building broad knowledge, and storing it in their long term memory so that they will actually retain it once the course has finished.
The only way you could see coursework as a good thing would be if you didn’t really believe in grading, and you thought knowledge was unimportant. Sound familiar?