Ticking the boxes: what’s wrong with set texts

Box tick thumbnailIn the wake of government reforms, it’s now examiners who choose the texts that UK media students will study – not their teachers, or students themselves. What are the consequences for teaching and learning?  

In the last couple of weeks, secondary school students in Britain have been sitting the first examinations to be conducted under the latest wave of government reforms. When the reforms were announced, there were widespread fears that Media Studies would simply be eliminated. In the event, the subject was not killed off – although, as I suggested two years ago, it has effectively been ‘strangled’.

Matriculation examThe changes undoubtedly reflect the government’s hostility to Media Studies – or at least its inability or unwillingness to understand its basic aims. However, the problems here are by no means specific to this subject. The wider reforms derive from a more general commitment to a so-called ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, and to creating an appearance of greater difficulty and rigour in the assessment process.

I say ‘appearance’, because I don’t believe the new approach is actually more difficult (however we might decide to measure this). It may be more difficult for teachers to negotiate the new assessment requirements, but that’s not the same thing as the qualification itself being more difficult. In fact, the focus on factual knowledge has led to an emphasis on rote learning, which might well make it easier for teachers to ‘teach to the test’. Meanwhile, the reduction in creative practical work and the elimination of extended, research-based coursework means that some of the more challenging aspects of the subject have been removed.

Nevertheless, the new courses are loaded with vastly increased quantities of specified content, and much more elaborate assessment mechanisms. The specification documents and supporting materials produced by the awarding bodies are astonishingly detailed. They don’t just prescribe topics and areas for study, but a great many of the specific points, arguments and references students will be expected to include in their examination answers. At least one awarding body has produced ‘fact sheets’ on the set texts. I’m not sure who writes these documents, but they have effectively become the tablets of stone that determine what will be taught. With such a large and detailed body of content to cover, teachers will have little incentive to look beyond them. Meanwhile, students’ exam answers are increasingly going to resemble checklists of required facts and references. Such an approach implicitly reduces teaching and learning to a matter of ticking boxes.

I’ll admit to being a ‘glass half empty’ kind of guy, but it seems to me that many of the gloomiest predictions we made two years ago are coming true. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the new specifications, which is very evident on teachers’ Facebook groups, and at meetings. Teachers are struggling to make the best of things, but there is considerable frustration with the assessment process, and great anxiety about the amount of content to be covered. Many are awaiting their students’ results with trepidation. Teachers’ confidence in their own expertise – and their ability to make independent, professional judgments – has been seriously undermined.

There is evidence that (as we predicted), some teachers are abandoning Media Studies for Film Studies. Despite being fairly conservative and more narrowly defined, the new Film Studies specifications appear less problematic, and more enjoyable to teach. In other cases, schools and colleges are abandoning Media Studies A-level for more practice-based ‘applied’ or ‘vocational’ (or at least pre-vocational) courses. The numbers of students taking Media Studies at GCSE and A-level was already declining prior to the introduction of the new specifications, probably as a result of other reforms such as the EBacc (the English Baccalaureate, a factor that is also badly affecting other creative and social science subjects). There are no figures as yet on the new courses, but I suspect the decline is likely to continue.

Ticking boxesIn my earlier analysis of the reforms, I was very critical of the way the new specifications were approaching media theory – and in particular, the identification of a compulsory list of named theorists. Of course, theory is an absolutely fundamental dimension of media teaching. However, specifying particular theorists – and then reducing their work to gobbets or bullet points that have to be learnt and then regurgitated in examinations – is unlikely to result in any authentic understanding of theory. If we want students to use and apply theory, and indeed to question it, we should not be treating theory as a set of facts-to-be-learnt.

Similar arguments apply to another aspect of the reforms, which I didn’t consider in so much detail in my previous account: this is the new requirement to study specific ‘set texts’. This has never been a feature of Media Studies examinations in the past. Yet each of the three awarding bodies is now obliged to identify specific media texts for compulsory study in each of the nine media covered by the qualifications.

In the AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) specification, for example, these are referred to as ‘Close Study Products (CSPs)’ – apparently in deference to the government’s distaste for the term ‘text’ in relation to media. (It would have been interesting if the equivalent document for English Literature had been required to refer to Shakespeare’s plays as ‘products’…) The document lays out the criteria that have been used in selecting these ‘products’, which closely follow those of the government’s subject content document for Media Studies. The products are required to be diverse, for example in terms of target audience, historical period (media created prior to 1970 must be included), the cultural context (including global media, produced in languages other than English) and the mode of production (including ‘alternative’ media). There is a somewhat looser requirement to include media that ‘students would not normally engage with’. In addition, the selected products have to relate to the subject’s theoretical framework; they must ‘possess cultural, social and historical significance’; and there must be products of ‘perceived quality’, that offer ‘rich and challenging opportunities for interpretation and in-depth critical analysis’.

The selection of CSPs has to cover all nine media forms identified in the subject content document, and each CSP has to relate to all four key concepts (9 x 4 = 36); and in each case, students are also required to address ‘the social, cultural, economic, political and historical contexts of media products’ (36 x 5 = 180 potential boxes to be ticked). In some instances, awarding bodies are specifying as many as fifteen set texts across the two examination papers. In the case of the current OCR (Oxford, Cambridge, RSA) specification, this results in the following selection of ‘products’ at A-level:

extracts from the films of The Jungle Book (1967 and 2016)

advertisements for Old Spice (1960s), Lucozade and Shelter

an episode of the BBC Radio One Breakfast Show

two front covers of the Big Issue magazine

extracts from the computer game Minecraft

two music videos chosen from a list of six (one ‘alternative’ and one ‘mainstream’)

two complete episodes of long-form TV drama, chosen from a list of eight, including one in English (e.g. Stranger Things, House of Cards) and one not in English (e.g. The Killing, Deutschland ’83)

two front covers and one complete edition of The Daily Mail and The Guardian

two articles from the Mail Online and Guardian websites, plus related social media feeds.

Businesswoman Writing On ChecklistAs in the other specifications, this list is clearly the result of a tortuous process of box-ticking: indeed, in the OCR specification, this is presented quite literally. This results in some choices that seem (let’s say) quite eccentric, if not arbitrary. In the equivalent OCR specification for GCSE, there is some attempt to make links across media: for example, students are required to study The Lego Movie (2014), alongside promotional material relating to the film, and the video game (that’s three boxes ticked) – although whether this results in greater coherence in terms of learning is probably debatable. (If you’d like to see a good example of a teacher ‘cramming’ her students for this kind of exam, click here.)

I’m not in any way blaming the awarding bodies for this situation. I think some of their choices are better than others. Some are surprising, even provocative, while others are profoundly boring, or just bizarre. Some work well in the classroom, while others are exceptionally hard for students to engage with. Yet, like the teachers who now have to come to terms with all this, the awarding bodies have clearly struggled to make the best of an absurd situation.

But ultimately, what is this list? It is not a Media Studies ‘canon’, or even part of one – not least because there is no such thing. In this respect, it’s quite different from an equivalent list that one might find in an English Literature specification, or a Film Studies one. (It’s hard to imagine future generations of Media Studies graduates fondly recalling the classic virtues of a 1956 ad for Quality Street chocolates, or a 2016 cover of GQ featuring Dwayne Johnson (‘the Rock’) – to choose a couple of required products from another specification.) These are not examples that obviously display ‘quality’ or ‘significance’, even if we could agree what that meant. On the contrary, they are examples selected to tick boxes – to fulfil an absurdly elaborate, convoluted system of assessment.

I have no problem at all with students studying media from other historical or cultural contexts, or texts ‘they would not normally engage with’. I would see that as one way in which Media Studies can (and should) help to extend students’ cultural capital. But this kind of study is only valuable if students are able to understand the context from which these texts have come, and to do so in detail. If they cannot do this, their learning is bound to be superficial and tokenistic. Here again, specifying a large amount of content that must be ‘covered’ means that depth has been sacrificed for an appearance of breadth.

My concern here, therefore, isn’t so much with the particular texts that have been selected (although there’s more that could be said about that), but with the principle of specifying set texts in the first place. Once texts are prescribed, teachers no longer have the ability to choose texts that are appropriate for the students they are teaching, or to respond to new and pressing developments. However, there’s a broader point here too. Prescribing texts in this way undermines teachers’ professional autonomy and independence.

grammar-schools-we-need-knowledge-not-nostalgiaThe quality of teaching – and much of teachers’ own job satisfaction – depends upon them having ‘ownership’ of what they are teaching. In the case of media teaching, texts are chosen for close study not because of any belief in their inherent value or ‘quality’, but because they function as case studies that will enable students to explore broader conceptual and theoretical issues. Once the texts are prescribed, teachers have to ‘read back’ from the chosen texts to the issues that might be at stake. In effect, they have to struggle to figure out why they were chosen: they have to guess what was in the examiners’ minds. All the supporting material produced by the awarding bodies gives some clue about this; but this effectively reduces the teacher’s role to one of ‘delivering’ content that others have devised. Teachers are effectively disempowered in their own classrooms.

This form of specification also restricts students’ opportunities to engage in independent critical thinking – a topic I have considered in some detail in previous posts. In the case of media education, and probably elsewhere as well, developing critical thinking means that we need to move back and forth between theory and analysis, and between the general and the particular. When students encounter a new media text or phenomenon (or even a ‘product’), they should be able to apply established concepts and analytical tools in their own right; but they may also be prompted to question existing theories, or find new concepts or tools that will help them to understand what is happening. Analysis is not just a means of illustrating theory, but also of interrogating, extending and generating it.

Here again, it seems that in some respects the specifications actually make things easier, by reducing the real challenges of understanding and analysing media. Yet in the process, they make learning and teaching about media much more boring, and much more of a functional chore. But then perhaps that was what the government intended all along…

 

Thanks to Michelle Thomason for discussing this with me, and updating me on what’s happening.