Changes to the GCSE English Literature specifications are, apparently, starting to bite. As well as abandoning the modular approach to assessment in which students sat 2 separate modular exams and completed an extended piece of controlled assessment, students are now expected to sit two terminal exams.  One change to these exams which has upset lots of English teachers is the move from ‘open book’ to ‘closed book’ exams. What this means is that students are no longer permitted to take copies of the texts they have studied into the exam and are instead required to have learned quotations by heart.

The TES reported recently that as a consequence of a petition with over 100,000 signatories being presented to parliament, MPs will debate the whether such an exam is fair. The petition to authorise open book exams reads as follows:

The introduction of closed book examinations, for GCSE English Literature, requires students to learn and memorise quotes for this exam. There are 2 literature papers which include the content of: 15 poems, 2 plays and 1 novella. Exams shouldn’t be a test on the student’s memory, but how we interpret texts.

Students are expected to remember: quotes from each character & themes and context that are incorporated within these texts – it is estimated that 250+ quotes could be potentially memorised for this exam. On top of 20+ exams, students are experiencing high levels of stress – due to the paper being more demanding for a higher grade. English is a subject that all employers & universities look at, therefore if students are unable to realistically achieve high grades – there will be lower employment rates.

The government’s response is that, “GCSE English literature content requires students to read the full texts of the books and poems they study. Students will not need to remember the exact words of poems by heart in order to succeed.”

Let’s have a think about the concerns raised by the petition. Firstly, there’s the claim that exams shouldn’t be a test of memory but of the ability to interpret a text. Why is interpreting a text more important than knowing it? I think this is a ’21st century skills’ argument is disguise. If we prioritise a skill of interpretation over knowledge of the texts studied we can then also claim that it doesn’t much matter what it is that students are interpreting. You can claim that the ability to interpret texts offers potential employers some insight into your intellectual capabilities which will somehow transfer to being able to interpret financial statements or legal reports, but, as regular readers will know, I’m deeply sceptical that such generic, transferable skills can be taught. No one think about – or interpret – something you don’t know. The idea that a student’s interpretation of text they don’t know much about is an any way worthwhile is, I think, both sad and deeply limiting for students. All too often in English lessons students learn that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, that there are ‘no wrong answers‘ and that arguing what you think is more important than knowing a text in any depth. Anything which challenges these orthodoxies is, in my view, a good thing.

Second, we have the claim that the new GCSEs are unduly stressful. What’s causing this stress? We all accept that exams are stressful by nature – it’s always a cause of anxiety when someone judges our performance in any area. But would we be doing students a favour by eliminating stress from their lives? Would this better prepare them for job interviews, presentations, moving house or whatever else they’ll encounter in their lives?  The implication is that the stress is caused by expectation to memorised over 250 quotations. I think learning quotations seems stressful because it’s something many teachers haven’t had to do before, and so it’s perceived as overwhelmingly difficult. Not only that, memorisation is often used pejoratively as if being able to ‘regurgitate’ a quotation is trivially simplistic. Can you spot the inconsistency? Either learning quotes is hard or it’s easy – I don’t see how we can argue that it’s both.

Happily, there’s very little correlation between intelligence and the ability to commit information to long-term memory: any fool can memorise stuff. Everyone reading this has memorised many thousands of vocabulary items, hundreds of letter/sound correspondences and a  complex system of grammar and semantics. Although it might seem like a Herculean task to sit down with a list of these things and attempt to deliberately memorise them, in practice it’s something we do with relatively little effort. Children who teachers might perceive as ‘less able’ will still have memorised vast quantities of football statistic, pop lyrics and any other information they deem important. Our problem is that many students don’t see what’s studied at school as sufficiently important to actually learn.

Everyone has a strictly limited capacity to pay attention to new information, but if your working memory is slightly smaller than average then you are at a serious disadvantage educationally. You can hold less information in mind at any one time. The only way around this limitation is to commit more information to long-term memory. Open book exams actively disadvantage students. Because they can rely on looking up whatever quotations they want to use in the exam, they have no need to commit anything to long-term memory. But this is a false comfort. The additional effort of finding relevant quotations and copying them out reduces students’ capacity to think analytically or creatively. Instead of freeing working memory to make an interesting inference, attention is on trying to find the right page number. And the students who are disadvantaged most are the ones with the smallest working memories.

The idea that some students – particularly those from less well off backgrounds, or those perceived by teachers as ‘less able’ – are somehow unable to learn quotations is particularly pernicious. This is likely to result in self-fulfilling prophesies: if you don’t think ‘kids like these’ can learn quotes they’ll probably prove you right. After all, nobody rises to a low expectation. But if we treat all students as perfectly capable of learning a few lines of poetry and a couple of snippets from Shakespeare, they’ll quickly see how empowering and joyful learning quotations can be.

But, as we can see from the government response, students aren’t expected to know exact quotes anyway – they’ll just need to provide the gist of what’s said, convey the meaning, maybe remember a few key words. No one is actually expecting children to rote learn over 250 quotations. But still, my contention is, the more students have learned by heart, the better they know the texts they have studied, the less stressful they will probably find the exams. Ask any actor, learning your lines is a lot less stressful than wandering on stage trying make it up as you go along. This might also help students understand that they must prepare for an English exam as they would for any other subject. For too long students have been under the impression that ‘you can’t really revise for English’. Au contraire. You can bloody well revise those quotes!

But what about the love of the subject? Schools Week reported today that “English A-level applications drop 35% due to new ‘harder’ GCSEs“. Apparently, students have been put off choosing A level English because they perceive it as ‘too hard’. This has, we’re told, resulted in a fall of 35% in students studying English at A level next year. How do we know this? Because applications are down 35% in one 6th form college! The entire chain of causation is constructed around provisional data from just 8 6th forms. But hey, let’s be charitable and assume that this fall will be replicated across the country: is that a savage indictment of the new GCSEs? Well, it might be, but equally it could be a testament to their rigour. As a Head of English, I used to spend quite a bit of time attempting to persuade Year 11 students that actually A level was quite hard – certainly a lot harder than GCSE. They were rarely convinced and were often shocked at the step up. My view is that English has been too easy and that if it is now perceived as a more challenging academic subject this might actually be a good thing.

In short, I do think the new GCSE is tougher but this is not due to the closed book nature of the final exams. I accept that adapting the way we teach to the new reality might be a challenge but as we get used to the linear system I hope English teachers will realise that closed book exams are fairer, less stressful and, because they encourage students to know whole texts, allow for richer interpretations.