Category Archives: IBDP:TOK

ToK A brief introduction…

I am very pleased to be teaching ToK (Theory of Knowledge) again next term, albeit as part of a 6th form enrichment programme rather than as a fully fledged IBDP ToK course…  Here is an idea for the 5 lesson introduction…

tok intro lessons

Much of my older material can be found here and I will be delivering a 6 lesson follow-up focused on ToK of the Arts later in the year.

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Paris : Friday 13th November 2015. How can we know what to feel? A ToK stimulus by any other name…

A couple of hours ago I read a tweet from a twitter-colleague Emma Kell (@thosethatcan).  It read “When there was unprecedented horror in France in January, I was full of energised response for my students. This time, I’m all out of words.”  All Morning I had been trying to mark Year 10 essays about Much Ado and found myself staring out at the rain and thinking about Paris and the terrible events unfolding there last night.  Again and again my mind wandered and I found myself close to tears on numerous occasions.

If we return to school and cannot discuss such atrocities with the students, we let them down.  This is not about British Values, or some other such nonsense peddled by the Thought Police at the DofE, this is about being human and interpreting our emotions when faced by the unimaginable,

I suppose this is the assembly I shall never deliver, or the TOK lesson I wish I was due to teach.

Please:  if you do not want to explore the atrocities carried out in the name of religion last night, do not read this piece.  It is personal and does not in any way reflect opinions of any organisation I represent.  However, I needed to write it, to help me to clarify my own thoughts.

At the time of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and in 2012, I wrote this piece for my ToK students: Charlie Hebdo   I felt able to articulate comment  at the time in a way that leaves me now.  I believe it comes down to what the IBDP ToK programme might refer to as the Ways of Knowing.  In short, knowledge is transmitted and assimilated in four ways:  Language, Perception, Reason and Emotion.  Has Language ceased to be a useful medium for knowledge in these cases?

If we look at today’s papers, the language is all rather predictable.  Not just cliche ridden, but lacking in any ability to convey the real horror of events.  “Carnage”, “Chaos”, “Tragedy”, “Massacre” are simply not enough.  Nor can we deal with the perpetrators.  To some they are “scum” – a catch-all term used so widely these days it has no meaning at all, apart from to those left-wing twitter trolls who cannot refer to anyone of the Right without the label Tory-Scum attached.  This easy familiarity has robbed the word of any power.  To others: “terrorists”.  But, to call these people “terrorists”, though accurate, lacks emotion and the idea that a terrorist is to some a “freedom fighter” simply muddies the water when this word is deployed.  What they are is “murderers”.  A simple word, but again one that does not convey the enormity of the crimes committed against innocent souls last night.  We seem to have run out of Language, as Emma was suggesting in her Tweet.

Our perception of events last night is coloured by all sorts of things:  what were we doing when we heard and what was our frame of mind at the time? Which news channels do we watch, and with what language did we gain our knowledge of events?  What sort of response was our social media timeline providing? How old are we and what other events can we recall with which to interpret the events in Paris?  I am 52.  I was a student in London in the early 80s and recall IRA atrocities aplenty, both in London and in in Warrington and Omagh.  I recall vividly the events of 9/11 and 7/7, so have a strong field of reference.  Beyond this I am stuck, however.  My perception of the perpetrators and their warped sense of moral rectitude is one of utter evil, but beyond that, I can perceive no detail to help me to come to a clearer understanding of events.  I suppose that like many, I have a vague notion of a bearded warrior somehow sweeping along the Champs Elysee much as he had done in Iran or Syria.  This is clearly wrong, and one of the troubling niggles here is that witnesses have described men dressed in a quasi-paramilitary manner carrying guns.  Let’s face it, we see that in London regularly.  No one looks twice, we lower our heads and move swiftly on – it simply does not attract notice.

But I am clearly troubled emotionally, and so are many of my colleagues and friends if Twitter and Facebook are anything to go by.  We are left with Plato’s chariots of reason and emotion being pulled in opposite directions by the respective teams of horses.  What we cannot obtain is a cathartic response to rebalance the system.

The emotional response is staggering.  If emotion is to be the only route to knowledge, it is certainly readily implanted.  This morning’s social media posts were dominated by pictures of Paris with cursive script encouraging us to “pray for Paris”.  Curiously we were asked to pray for a city, not the families and loved ones of the victims, nor for the innocents touched by such scenes that their sleep will be troubled for days and weeks, nor for perpetrators in a sense of granting Christian forgiveness.  No.  This was a convenient application of emotional thinking – utterly well intentioned but ultimately a sloughing off of any responsibility to actually engage with the issue.  We pray, and then go about our daily business, the emotional crutch has done its job. It is so glib and so convenient.  It is also somewhat ironic that we were being asked to pray, since one of the many Gods to whom the average social network might pray must actually have been in some way responsible for the atrocity, if only by a failure of duty of care for his followers.  No, this does not wash with me.  I am sorry and I apologise if I offend, but the emotional fall-back of God, simply is not enough.  We are the ones on the planet who can change behaviours and who have to work out our route to salvation on a personal level in the light of such events.

My emotional level, curiously, improved when I listened to a recording of Beethoven 9.  The marking was long forgotten.  There is something tragic and uplifting about the Ninth symphony.  During the 3rd movement I began to feel emotion which was actually beneficial – to recognise the beauty of the little string filigree which accompanies the slow melody began to me me smile and stop living in a state of semi-fret all morning.  In the last movement in the setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, the Bass soloist interrupts and angry and grumbling orchestra with these words:

O Freunde, nicht diese Toene!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere!
O friends! Not these sounds!
But let us strike up more pleasant sounds and more joyful!

Before launching into the well known tune – the European anthem no less!  With the message that “alle Menschen werden brueder” we are begged to remember that we are all human, regardless of divisions artificially imposed by governments or religious doctrine and this must be our foremost emotional response  – to seek to join  and not to segregate.  Funny how it can take an external stimulus to do this  –  to speak to our emotions and possibly carry the truth of an emotional response.  In my career as a singer, I sang these words many times, but they never had the resonance they carried today as I listened.  Cometh the hour…  (if you are interested in my thoughts on music by the way, try this post: on music ToK ).

So, having begun to channel my emotions, we come to the rational approach.  Far too cold for social media, but much needed all the same.  Voltaire’s Pangloss would have rationalised an explanation for such an act in his “best of all possible worlds” and in today’s world we can all begin to piece together a rational response.  Ideas begin to form and then float away, to return later and coalesce in order to allow us to leave our houses without irrational fear: 120 deaths (it may be more) in a city of 2.244 million (2010) is a pinprick; such events do not occur  with regularity and there is more chance of being struck by lightning or even wining the lottery than of being caught up in such  an event (thank you Adam Hills at @thelastleg); in the USA in 2014 there were 51.753 shooting incidents, resulting in 12.568 deaths ( ).

All in all, the reasoning approach which emerges eventually allows us to respond in such a way that we can continue to live our lives and interract fully with our friends and colleagues.  It takes much longer to emerge, the more closely you are caught up in the event, of course.  And we should not discard emotion at all, because we must respond on that level – that is our humanity.  It is also what scares us about the murderers we see in the you tube clips and on the news – gunmen, suicide bombers and cowardly, black hooded executioners beheading innocents – why do they not have emotion?  This is the terrifying question and the one which should bring us up short.  Of course (?) it is better if a terrorist is brought to face justice in a court of law rather than being vapourised in a drone attack, but then again if the man in question has so lost touch with his innate humanity how can we expect any remorse or recognition of “wrongdoing”?

Uncertainty is part of the Human Condition, and we must cope with it on our own ways.  That’s what makes life worth living in so many ways.  The trouble is that when the ways of knowledge begin to fail us, the uncertainty can be unbearable,  We should always try to step back and allow room for our thought processes to coalesce.  Life is not perfect and it never will be.  At times, it is simply too painful and complicated for our brains to process.  That’s Life.


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Awakening revision window

13 IB have created a window revision sheet – I love it. Chapter XII and XIII of Chopin’s Awakening.

A fortuitous day in Slough…

awakening window

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Creativity in Analysis: Why I love teaching Y13 IB

I have copied some of my Year 13 IB English Literature creative responses to Chapter 10 of Chopin’s Awakening. I left out only the pencil drawings that were too faint to copy well. These are to enable the class to have their own copies, but also to stimulate interest from other teachers/students.
It seems to me that the opportunity for creative response activities is fundamental to the IBDP course and students are used to this sort of activity from the earliest days of Year 12. Today they surpassed themselves and I wish I had recorded the comments that went alongside these little works of art. Nikita’s drawing of Edna in her fish bowl has simply so many layers of symbolism embedded in it that we all listened in awe as Chopin’s writing was analysed thoroughly in her explanation of this response.

Feel free to take a look and perhaps you might want to use the artwork to stimulate debate in your own lessons if you are teaching this text.

awakening 10

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Why waste a teaching opportunity? The language of cheating.

Although Year 13 TOK presentations are approaching, it is never too late for a little stimulus.

I thought I would channel my frustration at being labelled a “cheating” English Teacher in some current media stories into an idea for presentations. A reminder, you need a “real life situation”. This is the #GCSEFiasco, as it is known in the twittersphere. You also need a Knowledge issue. Hopefully you will identify several once you read on.

To recap: This summer, thousands of students predicted C grades in English attained Ds. There are other subject areas affected, but English bore the brunt of the apparently harsh grading (not marking) by the exam boards. This grading seems to have been generated largely by the insistence of OFQUAL that there could be no “grade inflation” this year and a further insistence that the numbers attaining all grades should have been preordained by the levels of attainment reflected as far back as Key Stage 2.
Tough luck if this happened to be a year which did indeed show genuine improvement.

Because many teachers feel badly let down by the excuses given for the sudden hiking of Grade Boundaries between January and June – especially for boundaries applied to Controlled Assessment where the tasks had not changed one bit, there has been a long running argument in the media, particularly on Twitter, which has now led to a group of schools, head teachers and unions taking legal action against OFQUAL. Because of this, let’s leave that until the action is concluded and look instead at the way that knowledge related to the mess has become disseminated.

Today’s press has seen teachers labelled as cheats. This is the Headline in today’s Daily Mail:
Grading fiasco of scandal-hit English GCSEs is blamed on cheating teachers

Read more:
Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

How good a vehicle for knowledge is Language? This kind of blunt instrument does so much harm. Teachers are cheats – no question, we deliberately and maliciously set out to break all the rules to our perceived advantage.


Of course not. Now I am not going to pretend that all teachers are saints or that no teacher has ever sought to assist their students to a higher grade by “optimistic” marking. There is enough evidence to be found of manipulation so severe that cheating is the only word for it. I know of one Primary Head who lost his job after regularly “editing” the KS2 SATS papers at his school -interestingly he was not hidden by his staff once suspicions began to emerge- and who has now presumably caused a curious blip in national statistics in his local area – y10 and 11 should be nicely ripe for inflated GCSE targets by now. There must be others at all levels, some thus far unidentified. But the vast majority are not cheats and have broken no rules. This is not a “just obeying orders” defence, but a request to look more closely at the charges:

“Teachers over-marked” – no doubt some did, not maliciously but possibly due to some confusion over whether little Timmy had “begun” to show awareness, or was showing “some awareness”… even with internal moderation, this is a hard call. It is also noteworthy that few schools seem to have been told by the Exam Boards in June that they had anything other than well-marked work. Indeed most Controlled Assessment papers are moderated first in school, then by exam boards before the marks are converted into grades – remember, teachers do not award grades, we mark in bands and have no real awareness of the grades our marking will generate.

Tactics were used by teachers to ensure high marks: Well why would they not be? What might those tactics be? Use of unwarranted extra time is alleged, as is the use of mock controlled assessment tasks. Well, not at my school. On the other hand, consider this: The WJEC GCSE Language specification which my school sat, states that students may be told of writing tasks for CA in advance of the actual assessment. In the face of possible complaints from parents who see neighbouring schools doing this, are any going to refuse to do so? In effect, therefore, students are given preparation time for a description or narrative, for which they are given 1 hour in class. How many students do not make use of this time I wonder to hone and polish their work before they commit it to memory? How many parents consider the Grail of an A to be so worthwhile that they pay a tutor to prepare the work for/with the student? How many teachers watched for the hour and saw students writing solidly for 45 minutes with no pause for thought? As long as no two students write identical work, this can not really be called plagiarism, but what evidence do we have that this is the students’ own work? Is any one cheating here, or is the system simply utterly naive?
Another tactic is writing frames. These have long been used and are a tool I loathe. On the other hand, the WJEC Shakespeare essay is the most bizarre hybrid imaginable – a 4 hour CA based on 1 play, 2 poems by different poets and a further group of poems thrown in for good measure. Mine managed to write on the idea that women “lack retention” in matters of love in Twelfth Night, AND a further 5 or 6 poems from an anthology – in one essay. The title alone filled four lines. The need for some kind of scaffolding is obvious if one is going to manage such a diverse piece of criticism, if only to organise thoughts – these were 14/15 year olds, not undergraduates. But, yes, there will be some for whom the scaffold is so detailed that students do little more than filling in the blanks.
For these, there is an explanation, if not a clear excuse, in the eyes of some: teachers are held hostage to a system in which the A*-C level is God. They are assessed to this in terms of National League Tables as well as held accountable professionally should their cohort not achieve these levels or their targets. Given that for many this accountability may well be job threatening (or perceived as job threatening, which is, in reality, the same thing), it is hardly surprising if they are over eager to assist the development of a coherent line of argument. Quite why such scaffolding was not picked up at Board moderation is beyond me, however, since the outcomes are usually so formulaic to be obvious.

Teachers gave extra time. Again, some may have done so, but surely this is the minority. Consider though the practicalities of the Shakespeare CA above. A 4 hour CA required 5 1 hour lessons to take place. Some SEN students received an extra 25%. For me that means a CA spread over two weeks. I kept all paperwork under lock and key, but assumed that students continued to think about the task in their own time. It is possible that my students received a few minutes over or under the 4 hours – I was timing carefully, but across this sort of period, can I be sure? Well, yes, I can. As with all my colleagues at school and the vast majority of teachers across the country I took the organisation of CAs very seriously indeed.
To this end, once completed, they were locked away and marked. NO improvements and no alterations. Indeed this was the frustrating point. A Twitter colleague, @learningspy has written about this elsewhere, and draws attention to the fact that all teachers knew that under the old system they would have made suggestions for improvement and the resultant final draft would have attained a higher mark. Still we plodded on, some voicing concern about the new CA system, but generally working on a “wait and see” approach.
We have waited and we have seen that we have been labelled as cheats in the press. Thanks a bunch. No doubt there were some SLT instructions in some schools, no doubt there were some teachers who marked to the top end of the criteria, but not everyone in every school. And not this year only, if this is the case.

Teachers are not saints, but neither are we the only sinners. The system is rotten to the core. CAs are no improvement on Coursework and league tables ensure that everyone is pressed to mark to the upper end of the scale one way or another. Remember that in schools where teenagers who were marked up at KS2 are now sitting GCSEs, these children may well be targeted an A or even an A* – on false data. I am sure their KS3 teachers looked at their work and commented that the level 5 seemed wrong, but once it was in the system it was deemed to be fact. So begins the problem. 1 teacher tries to boost his schools’ SATS results at KS2 – many secondary teachers are weighed down by unreachable targets. Some have supportive management teams who recognise their endeavour; others do not and feel pressured to “enhance” the marks they award. These enhancements are not picked up by the fail-safe of moderation and thus begins the idea that all teachers cheat.

The matter has come to light because of OFQUAL’s somewhat heavy handed treatment of the grading this year. Students who finished in January were called “lucky” by the head of OFQUAL, Glenys Stacey whilst those who attained the same marks in CAs in June received lower grades. This goalpost moving is what prompted the outcry and legal action. Teachers, Headteachers and governors have united to try to protect their own schools from perceived failure whilst the body which acted in what many see as a precipitate and politically motivated manner, was allowed to run an enquiry into itself. What a surprise, then, that the one group not implicated in its findings was… itself.

This is such meat and drink to conspiracy theorists and knee-jerk respondents of the “how very dare you” variety that it is really another own goal.

Teachers are not “cheats”. The system is poor and the lack of trust given to many teachers to regulate the targets and levels of the students in front of them is shocking. It is time to review the whole system. Not simply to impose another half-cooked curriculum onto teachers who now have no idea what they will be being required to deliver in 2015 since the whole thing is up in the air.

Teachers are not “cheats”. They use the system to its letter and may sometimes push the boundaries to improve the likelihood of a student receiving a particular grade, but not all, and certainly not in an organised plot as implied by the Daily Mail banner (above).

Sadly there seems to be polarisation amongst teachers about this issue – in one corner stands @realgeoffbarton, a Head teacher who has been prepared to put his head over the parapet to argue against the perceived injustice of the treatment of June students who did not achieve the same grades as their January counterparts despite in some cases performing to a higher level. (This argument has led to all WJEC marks in Wales being overturned this year and the January levels utilised.).
In the other corner is @oldandrewuk who is arguing that the whole process is rotten and that there is no point trying to pretend that there are no teachers anywhere behaving like Arthur Daley (showing my age). To name but two colleagues who I follow and read.

The point is not clear cut. From where I stand, there is great unfairness and hence injustice in this June’s grading, but also a strong case for acknowledging that the current exam system is so flawed and the requirements of the league tables so strong, that the whole thing needs an overhaul.

Consider this if you want to in the light of the WoKs:
Emotion- We are not cheats/we are sure that there is an injustice here somewhere.
Reason – Grades are going up, data never lie, There must be an accountable body somewhere
Perception- something is badly wrong with the current system, even if I am not sure what that is
Language – The emotive value of a word like “cheat” can not be overlooked -“OFQUAL find numerous and varied reasons for the increase in marks seen this year in GCSE English CAs” is not a good headline. Or, consider the subjectivity of all mark scheme descriptors and revisit one of the most successful presentations of the last five years.

Now, go and explore – this is where you take over.

A copy of the full OFQUAL report mentioned can be found at the following location, look at it carefully before you attempt this presentation.

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TOK stimulus for presentation: The language of Government.

The TOK of the Government proclamation:

• Ofsted chief: ‘teachers don’t know what stress is’

• “The examination system that we have has got to be ruthless and stretching all pupils,”
• has said he intends to ditch the term “satisfactory” to describe schools and replace it with “requires improvement”.
• Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, told The Times that inspectors would mark down schools that gave pay increases to teachers who were “out the gate at 3 o’clock”. He said he expected teachers to stay beyond the end of the school day to “go the extra mile” for children, especially when working in poor communities.
• He also said that teachers unwilling to act as surrogate parents in poor areas to pupils who lacked support at home did not deserve a salary increase.
• He said: “We just have to accept the reality of that. If you are going to go and work in these areas, there has to be a commitment to working beyond the end of the school day. That’s why I asked those questions about performance management. It’s about recognising those people who do go the extra mile.”
• And Mr Cameron said there would be “no more excuses for failure in schools, no more soft exams and soft discipline”.
The quotations that open this document are taken from national press coverage of issues concerning Education over the last six months. They are, naturally, taken out of context and are not intended to be another teacher-rant at the unfairness of criticism aimed at our profession. This is intended as a TOK presentation stimulus.
It should be stressed that the intentions of OFSTED and the Government are in many ways laudable. It is obvious that all industries perform better when staff are “going the extra mile” or are staffed by employees who want the best for their “stakeholders” and are prepared to fight to achieve this. I have no intention of gainsaying the idea that exams should be rigorous, standards of behaviour should be high and commitment to the job should be strong.
So, what is the effect of the language used in communication here?
Some years ago, the finest TOK presentation I have known looked at the language of mark schemes and made much of the somewhat fluid meaning of “satisfactory”. It is interesting that this word has once again been singled out for attention by Mr Wilshaw. Consider his comment. It is generally known that “satisfactory” implies a sense of being good enough, but his comment seems to demand a change of perspective. Satisfactory is the third grade of rating under OFSTED – Outstanding, Good, and Satisfactory. Here there is no doubt that Mr. Wilshaw is ridding the word of any sense of being good enough, and seeking to attain improvement. Laudable in the extreme, but possibly disconcerting in a world where a perceived negative can end a career. Still, this one seems sensible and begins to remove the potential for misunderstanding so inherent in the idea of satisfactory.
Possibly more concerning is the idea of a “ruthless” examination system, especially when linked to the Prime Minister’s pronouncement about “soft” exams. What message is this sending to those of lower abilities? Are we really striving to ensure that they have no chance of attaining examination success? Obviously not, one hopes, but the wording suggests otherwise and here begins a litany of similarly Draconian pronouncements.
The language used of the education system in this country is relentlessly negative at present. What does this do to the perception of the industry? What do parents and teachers –with slightly different emotional positions – perceive to be the state of teaching in this country?
Mr Wilshaw has said that his 3 O’clock comment was taken out of context, but it is hard to see how the idea of “going the extra mile” or “pulling one’s weight” might be misconstrued. How are teachers meant to respond? The vast majority arrive an hour or so before the school day and leave some time after the bell, to continue to work later in the evening. Despite this they are being attacked () so they think) and labelled as not working hard enough – no discussion and no room for debate. Many parents may well have a view of teachers based on a perception of long summer holidays which seems attuned to that of Mr Wilshaw, but surely the problem is that the same point could be made about any industry in the county – form Council Office Workers to Merchant Bankers. What is the effect of singling out teachers in this fashion and why is it being done?
Not only that, but consider this: you are a parent of a thirteen year old just entering KS4. The much vaunted new exams will not arrive in time to save your son. Instead he is faced with a system that the government are fond of saying is unfit for purpose and driven by a “race to the bottom” in terms of exams. What faith have you got left in the system to support your son? In this case, what is the effect, with regards perception, of the rhetoric around examinations this summer? Even if you agree that GCSEs leave a lot to be desired, is the constant negativity helpful?
All of the quotations above can be explored and considered in the light of Perception and Emotion of the response to the language used. There is scope for an interesting presentation here. Are teachers too open to emotional responses? Is OFSTED so rational in approach that it has no concept of the perception of its language?
Go on, go the extra mile!


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A response to “Prizes for all” and improvement…

Y13 TOKKISTS: read and respond – there’s a presentation in here – see what you can find.

Earlier this month, David Cameron announced that it was time to increase competitiveness in school sports and to get rid of a prize culture in which all participants see it as their right to be rewarded for mediocrity or failure. In recent weeks this sporting metaphor has been broadened and used as a response to the ongoing issues surrounding the marking of GCSE English exams this summer.

In general terms, the Prime Minister seems to be speaking sense – surely there is a need for sport to be competitive at a young age if the Olympians and Paralympians of 2020 are to be identified and honed to perfection. A lack of true competitiveness must tend to reduce the inspiration that drives the truly competitive to compete. Too many children faced with easy reward will settle for a level of attainment and never push themselves to go further. I would love to see sport re-elevated to a serious level in the curriculum alongside the e-bacc and other academic signposts (as long as Art, Music and Drama get equal respect – there is a place for competitive elitism in schools and it is not just in a Maths lesson).

To apply this idea to the GCSE marking issue and use it to justify the shambles of this Summer is disingenuous, however. It is not that, as a teacher, I want all to have prizes, but I do want a level playing field.

Using the recent Games as a metaphor for the exams:

1: Imagine there were no Paralympic Games. All the heroes of recent weeks would be forced to compete against able-bodied athletes in a single competition. In this competition there would be no chance of outright victory for any – except for David Weir who would clean up in the marathon. Of the others, Ellie Simmons, Jonnie Peacock and the rest, there would be the tag of gallant losers and the taint of being curiosities at the main attraction. These remarkable athletes might pursue their careers, but there would be little funding and little real inspiration to for the younger generation here. In the end there would be a second tier of competitions arranged with reduced standards for entry and these would not be treated with a great deal of respect… We might call this model the GCSE.

2: Mr Cameron no doubt sees the plans put forward by Michael Gove for a return to a clear two tier system as the answer – The O level model might be said to mimic the relationship between Olympics and paralympics, except for one thing.

The whole is based on this silly idea that “Prizes for all” must be removed from the system because it implies that too many prize winners are not worthy of their prizes. In the O level model the lower tier competition will still be precisely that – a low tier treated with disdain by many employers and thoroughly divisive within schools.

The issue that the politicians are struggling with is this – how to give the lower tier students a meaningful competition in which they can be proud whilst at the same time ensuring that it is treated with the same respect as the higher tier competition. No one watching the paralympics disparaged some of the incredible achievements witnessed on the grounds that the World Records were slower than those of the able bodied athletes. The differences between competitors were accepted and the wave of excitement was generated by recognition of competitors simply performing in a way that took the breath away. The paralympians were loved and respected in a way that few CSE students (if you can remember back that far) ever were.

And here is the problem that relates to this summer. Grade inflation, it seems is acceptable when Gold medals are awarded, but not when students are sitting exams. Day after day, paralympians shattered records by the dozen, yet no one complained – apart from Oscar Pistorius, who might have a justifiable gripe which will be looked into. Instead, it was held as proof of dedication and resilience from these remarkable young men and women that they were pushing themselves to improve, despite having achieved so much already.

This summer, students found the grade boundaries shifted between January and June, not just for exams, but for Controlled Assessment pieces identical in every way regardless whether they submitted early or late in the year. In some cases, particularly at AQA, it looks as though the D/C boundary was targeted to eradicate this “inflation”. Apparently OFQUAL did raise a concern to the Minister about the worry that genuinely improving students might be hit by this redrawing of the boundaries, but went ahead, nevertheless. We all saw the range of close finishes in the games – Pistorius losing to Oliveira, the GB women in the 4×100 medley and so on. If a similar rule had been applied here, the finish might have been extended by 10 meters and GBR would have extra medals, but everyone would acknowledge this state of affairs as so unfair as to be offensive.

So why is the practice acceptable in marking exams? Boundaries are always tweaked in line with the results and the complexity of papers, but is this necessary? The International Baccalaureate Diploma retains boundaries in exams year on year and has no record of grade inflation in its forty year history. Apparently GCSEs are a breeding ground for inflation – why?

Firstly, the habit of changing the curriculum as each new Minister strives to make his mark must cease. All this does is confuse students, irritate teachers and lead to a system in which grades and marks can not really be compared year on year because the criteria keep changing. This is unhelpful at best.

Then, the accusation of inflation ignores those students who really do try hard. It is a feature of education in this country that teaching is probably improving over time. Certainly, the implications of OFSTED is that weak teaching is unacceptable. Consequently we have to assume that weak teaching is being eradicated, otherwise there is no real justification for OFSTED to exist and keep prowling around our schools. To this, add the vast amount of web sites/blogs/VLEs which support children right up to their exams. These have only really existed in any quantity in the last few years. It would be arrogant to claim that we who blog are directly responsible for the rise in grades, but equally stupid to sneer at improvements when so much support is available to be used by the keen and energetic student.

Instead we should embrace the improvements whilst trying to ensure that standards are maintained – not higher one year and lower the next to suit political needs, but maintained in such a way that an employer or University or FE college knows what a C grade means, because there are clear comparisons year on year.

In short, the treatment of students by OFQUAL is something of a disgrace. No one would have stood for such interference with the development and improvement seen in the athletes – why should we accept it when it affects vulnerable 16 year olds?

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ON OFQUAL – where has the morality gone?

It is hard when you feel that a great injustice has been done to those who, as a teacher, you sign on to help and develop to the best of their potential. Today, OFQUAL, in a good impression of Pontius Pilate have washed their hands of the GCSE grading fiasco, despite thanking those of us who have been complaining for helping them to uncover a previously missed instance of poor marking.
In short, the response to the discovery of over generous marking and grading in January has been to penalise the next available cohort by grabbing back some of this generosity. And this is OK?
Of course it isn’t. It is the sad equivalent of a wonderful Two Ronnies sketch in which a mastermind contestant gave responses to the previous question. There has been a cock up but no one will take responsibility. The only ones to suffer are the students who have been cheated out of their possible C grades by this goal-post shift. Their reward is to be refused entry to FE courses and VIth forms and to be offered a resit.

Consider: 6 months after any formal teaching, such a student can resit an exam on which his whole future lies, not because he under performed, but because some students have apparently been awarded a higher grade in an exam period in which he was not even examined. How can that be fair?

Consider the schools now faced with opening enrollment again and trying to fit a coherent resit timetable into a crowded and fully staffed weekly teaching timetable.

Consider the double mess in November when the exam boards try to process these marks in such a way to be of use to a young student who needed the grade now. Will there be any compensation for such a student if they attain a pass in November, but find courses they might have enrolled onto this summer are full and will not take them at that stage?

What a mess. OFQUAL in a complacent and insulting report(we know GCSEs are complex) have clearly admitted that there have been errors but have shown no will to engage with the real issue: it’s the students, stupid! Students are not data, they are fragile humans embarking on their adult lives. And this is how you show them respect?

Next year there are new syllabi and grades may well drop somewhat, but we are all working to prepare students for these new exams. Is it a surprise that if this site, one of many offering resources and advice, was receiving an average of 500 visits a day in May, we find students who are better prepared year on year? No one wants to see Stalinist production figures for exam grades, but before you ruin the lives of many vulnerable 16 year olds, consider this: we taught them and advised them based on exam board materials and evidence from the moderation and grading of previous exams. They listened and worked hard. Many attained marks worthy of a grade C. OFQUAL have just supported the penalising of these students for no fault of their own.


I hope they all get A* in the resit!

Year 13 TOKKISTS consider- are teachers too driven by emotion here? Are OFQUAL so reasoned that they can not achieve knowledge in any meaningful sense? Is the perception of an injustice the same as an injustice having taken place?

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TOK and the Games…

I have been considering angles from which the last cohort of SGS TOKKISTS might approach the Olympic Games in their presentations…

Remember, the idea is to take a real life event and consider it objectively from a range of “Ways of Knowing” to produce a central point for discussion. This is the central Knowledge Issue and it should be clear throughout the presentation. The 4 Ways of Knowing are: Reason, Emotion, Language and Perception.

It should be obvious that The Olympics offer a plethora of opportunities here. It is equally obvious that the Knowledge issue has to be identified and addressed, often in the form of a question – “to what extent could the Olympics in London be seen as merely an emotional success?” Might be a good starting point.

This offers a range of approaches: emotions of large crowds, the emotion of the athletes themselves, the use of language to heighten emotion both in the stadium and in the media might be considered, as might the effect of perception depending on whether one was watching in the stadium or more distantly or the effect of watching on ones’ own.

Then there is the rational approach. The games cost a fortune. Can we afford them? Can we justify the expenditure, once emotion is removed? Even if they are a sell-out, will the country recover from the cost at a time of great recession?

If this doesn’t interest you, why not try another direction and focus on the closing ceremony for example. To do this you might wish to study the idea of a ceremony as language and see if what we were served was indeed such an event. A bit picky? How about whether the event was a suitable conclusion to a fortnight of staggering endeavour, achievement and entertainment. The last point here is interesting. Sportsmen and women are as much part of the umbrella of entertainment as are performers on stage and in concert. Some might have noticed a slight discrepancy here. The staggering achievement of the athletes who had trained for years and consistently striven to achieve their best against a background of poor funding and harsh training regimes could be held in comparison with singers from what seemed a slightly arbitrary “last 50 years”. If any of the athletes had performed as badly as some of these – an inability to sing in tune or a simple lack of vocal quality they would have suffered the fate of the Badminton players from China. Is it acceptable for the standard of performance in one branch of the Arts to be this low and paraded emotionally as if it were so good? Indeed several of the acts seemed to be miming. I hope we are a long way from the day when athletes simply send in tapes of themselves running or jumping…

My point is not to belittle the Olympic closing ceremony – -this is a TOK presentation after all, and it was fun and rousing and would always seem anti climactic after the events of the previous days, but to consider the nature of sport and art, or even sport AS art. If art is meant to inspire, to provoke awe, to move one emotionally, then sport IS indeed art. What worries me about this selection of performances if how few were art worthy of the event that preceded them. “To what extent could the closing ceremony be considered a work of art?” might be an interesting starting point, particularly if the Opening ceremony was used as a contrast. That show, with its clear narrative thread, may well have come closer to being Art. I hope one of you might explore this area for me.

Finally, another thread might be this: There seems already to be a feeling that the new football season, arriving so close on the heels of the Olympics will help to show football up as the sordid sporting world that many consider it to be. It is not the players fault that they are overpaid and could probably write of Greece’s debt by donating one months wages to the ECB, but it is their fault that they are so regularly held up as examples of all that is rotten in sport. The preen, they pout and they sulk- mind you so did certain US and Russian gymnasts, but worse, they feign injury, they seek to have opponents removed from the field of play and they show no respect whatsoever for referees and their assistants. After a fortnight of utter respect – An Iranian embracing an American, Bolt and Farrah linked in mutual admiration we will no doubt swiftly encounter the first tawdry reports in the press of players essentially cheating to achieve their own ends while football’s governing bodies – themselves mired in corruption scandals, are powerless to do anything about it. Two sides of the same part of the entertainment industry – sport… Is sport art? Does our perception of the ethics of sport depend upon our emotional involvement?

Once you’ve done that, get going on the linguistic minefield that is “legacy”!

Get thinking Y13 – it’s over to you.

P.S. I loved the Olympics and am in awe of the athletes from all countries who took part. It was wonderful and I became a proud Londoner as I watched the coverage in Florida… my perception might be tainted by NBC’s coverage, but nevertheless, I stand by my points.

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Is there TOK in the torch?

A friend of mine is quite exercised by the fact that the original idea for a torch relay belonged to Adolf Hitler. He is tweeting about this and, as I watched it arrive in my home town this morning, I wondered if there was TOK mileage here.
It certainly seems to be a real life event and has been happening for weeks.
When you think about it, it’s odd. People are pouring onto the streets in their thousands and cheering, in our case, a balding, middle-aged bloke jogging past with a heavy cigarette lighter in his outstretched arm. I held one recently, these things are heavy and a much better piece of kit than they look at first glance.
There is a strange power at work. Until one appeared in the staff room at school (the bearer needed a pee after showing it to students), I had not entertained the idea of watching the relay in any form. This morning I dragged no2 son from bed and cycled into town. Olympic frenzy?
Certainly there is emotion at work. In the crowd I heard people ticking off colleagues or friends on the wrong end of the phone for lacking patriotism. Presumably being unwilling to turn out to watch the flame will lead swiftly to selling secrets and passing messages to the enemy. But why this patriotic fervour? Are we so excited to be hosting the Olympics that everything that comes into contact with the event causes us to stand and cheer or wave flags (£2.00) at a complete unknown as he jogs past?
The perception of the event is coloured by language and the arts and the torchbearer was preceded by several buses with pumping music and loud messages in excited tones telling us what a good time we were having. The music carried no hidden messages warning us to guard against hubris or minor key moments to enable us to reflect on the fact that once the games are gone we will be left with a Eurozone in carnage and a country locked in recession. No, this was fun all the way and people left their cares behind and smiled at their neighbours. Surely a good thing.
So Hitler lit a flame of nationalist zeal that ended in invasion of Europe and millions of dead. In 2012 I experienced a very English event (people were having their photos taken with Morris dancers…) and my frenzy was assuaged by buying two GBR kagoules in Blacks.

Run with this TOKKISTS and make of it what you will.

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