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How would we change our teaching if there were no exams?

This title occurred to me as I was reflecting on the value of translation in language teaching.

When I taught A-level French, in the second (A2) year I would devote quite a lot of time, especially in the run-up to exams, to translating sentences from English into French. Students usually enjoyed it and felt they were improving their grammatical understanding and accuracy in the process. It also had the advantage of requiring no preparation, not an insignificant point for busy teachers. For me it was quite enjoyable too, all the more so since, with years of experience, I was on top of the material and could deal with almost any question.

But you know, if there had not been an exam to prepare for, I doubt very much if I would have done it. Maybe as a very occasional alternative activity? Maybe. I would rather have used the time for interesting communication in French.

At GCSE we spent a suitable amount of time preparing for controlled assessments, oral and written. Although we did our best to fit them into our existing scheme of work, not wishing the tail to wag the dog, they did force us into practices we would have otherwise avoided. Having students spend hours memorising chunks of language is an example. Showing model essays and listening to model oral responses is another. That's time I would have spent teaching texts, watching video or doing paired conversation practice.

At KS3 we would spend a good few lessons in the summer term helping pupils prepare for end of year exams. This usually entailed a fair bit of grammar bashing to help my class do as well as my colleagues'. This I feel easier to justify, because, although regular revision and unit testing was built into the schemes of work, I could see a case for an annual recap, revision and consolidation. There's no doubt that our pupils were highly motivated by their end of year exams which were awarded high status in the school.

What if these exams had not been there? How else would I have changed my practice?

It's actually a tricky question to answer because we get so tied in to one way of thinking, one way of doing things. But here we go. I would have:

- focused less on writing

- used more imaginative material, more storytelling, less GCSE-style lifestyle material

- done almost no exam technique preparation

- spent more time on teaching texts

- spent more time listening and watching video

- continued to value accuracy, but not so much through translation

- set less revision or "learning" homework, more practice

- set more speaking homework (e.g. recording presentations)

- done more extensive reading

An interesting thing to ponder is whether it would have been possible to motivate students as much without GCSEs. An advisor once told me that she had come to the conclusion that exams were the only way to motivate the least interested students. Perhaps she was right. The post 16 curriculum is so absurdly narrow in England that it does still seem appropriate to me to have a high stakes test at the end of Y11. But if we modernised our A-levels, perhaps we could do away with a high stakes 16+ exam and be like other nations. If we are to trust the PISA tables GCSE does not seem to raise our national attainment.

What do you think?





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