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Jonathan Williams

A staple diet

Jonathan Williams reflects on the notion of change in light of the new GCSEs and A-levels

Posted by Stephanie Broad | June 17, 2016 | Teaching

Change is a deeply emotive subject and one which has challenged and inspired humanity since time immemorial. Whether it be from politicians, leaders, or philosophers- or anyone with an electronic device these days- search Google (I prefer it in standard format rather than ‘tilt’ or Star Wars scrolling) for ‘quotes about change’ and you will easily while away half an hour in satisfied reflection. 

As I write this blog, on a fruit-derived branded device, in between my daughter’s hockey tournament and swim training, I am reminded of 'Here's to the Crazy Ones' and Apple's 'Think Different' advertising campaign. 

Perhaps a little sadly from my own point of view, but maybe reassuringly from a parents’, my crazy days are well behind me. I tend to find the familiar rather comforting. Still, I get a little tickle of excitement at the idea I could be crazy, if I wanted to be; and that’s the point. Change can be thrilling. 

I have to admit that education was in danger of becoming something of an elaborate show; hamsters on not-particularly-merry-go-rounds 

Not in any way to diminish the achievements of millions of students on the legacy GCSEs, or the modular AS and A2 qualifications, nevertheless I have to admit that education was in danger of becoming, for many people at least, something of an elaborate show; hamsters on not-particularly-merry-go-rounds. 

That is why I am enjoying the new, non-coursework GCSEs and linear A-levels so much. They are fresh, with the air of novelty, but they are also far more demanding and actually sensible. They are qualifications worthy of being taught and learnt. They do not have arcane instruction manuals and ritualistic hoops to jump through. They require prolonged, deep learning. They demand independent thought; they expose students to the ‘Pit’. There is also room to breathe; there is not an endless cycle of assessments worth seven and a half per cent or 12.5% or even 25% of the final grade- there is less stress, more time to grow, and that is a very positive change to my mind. 

All of these benefits are achievable on any course, with excellent teaching and careful planning, and are a staple diet for the high school. It is pleasing, however, when the courses expect it, and when I predict that our students will be able to stand out even further from the crowd because of it. 

I offer you an anecdote, from my own recent teaching of the new GCSE. With the lower fifth, last lesson, I played Mozart- rather loudly- while girls planned a poetry essay, comparing Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ and Gillian Clarke’s ‘Catrin’. Why? It was P1&2 on a Monday morning and no-one wanted to think too hard, myself included. 

“Can we listen to music with our headphones on please?” I was asked. “Nooo,” was my slightly apologetic drawn out response. The disappointed, imploring eyes drew an elaboration. “There is no proven link between music and enhanced cognitive performance, with the possible exception of Mozart,” I said. 

It seems obvious now, but it was a daring thunderbolt at the time. After a quick search on YouTube, Mozart’s greatest works were swaggering through the classroom and we swaggered too. Within moments I was tapping my feet, knitting my brow and scribbling furious plans of my own on the whiteboard. I felt liberated. I was having fun. 

Was it a good lesson? I believe so. It was certainly memorable and there were good plans shared, useful notes taken. Unambiguously though, from my perspective, it happened because challenging change is coming towards me and I will overcome it, as will our girls; actually, we will all hopefully thrive on it. 

So, rather strangely from a teacher’s mouth perhaps: “Here’s to Michael Gove.” I did not say the word ‘crazy’. 

Jonathan Williams is Head of Faculty, English at Northampton High School.

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