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Thinking about knowledge in citizenship education - The perils of content coverage in the GCSE course

In recent years, knowledge has emerged as a contentious issue for curriculum designers and teachers, in England and elsewhere. In this series of blogs Lee Jerome, an ACT Council member and Associate Professor of Education at Middlesex University, sketches out some ideas about how citizenship educators might think about knowledge - from what kinds of knowledge citizens need; how such knowledge relates to citizenship participation; and how teachers might plan for progression in knowledge and understanding. 

Thinking about knowledge in citizenship education (6): The perils of content coverage in the GCSE course

Many citizenship teachers are currently struggling to make sense of the new GCSE specifications and understandably feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content which is specified in those courses. One of the problems with the specifications is that the knowledge is listed as though every fact or item were equivalent. I’ll take the OCR specification as an example, and here the problems are immediately evident at the start of each section where the initial information box is titled ‘key concepts and terminology’ and typically includes a long list of undifferentiated terms, for example, for the British constitution terms include: executive, legislature, judiciary, cabinet, black rod, uncodified constitution, code of ethics, police commissioner. Clearly these aren’t all equivalent concepts, the police commissioner is just a single role in an organisation, whilst the cabinet refers to a specific group within the executive, and therefore the executive might be seen as an overarching concept. The rest of this section simply outlines a list of things learners should know from general principles such as ‘the separate but complementary roles of the executive, legislature, judiciary and the monarchy’ to specific examples such as ‘ceremonial occasions’ like the state opening of parliament. The exam papers attempt to cover the breadth of such knowledge, and therefore teachers are understandably under pressure to ensure that students have committed this knowledge to memory and can access it, largely in the form of isolated facts in response to multiple choice and short answer style questions. 

This presents the teacher, and the student, with some problems if the experience of citizenship education is to be anything other than an exercise in constant rote learning. And here I want to clarify, I don’t have a problem with rote learning per se if it is one strategy that leads to other activities that promote deeper thinking. My problem with the current examination set-up is that it encourages narrow rote-learning and regurgitation in the test, and does not provide sufficient opportunities to connect up those facts into deeper conceptual understanding.  

One of the first tasks is to sort this information into some form of conceptual hierarchical structure, or a knowledge organiser. This is a big task and it is unforgivable that the exam boards have dodged this essential job. For the unit on British constitution we might start by singling out the terms executive, legislature and scrutiny as organizing concepts through which we teach the rest of the material (we’ll leave judiciary to one side for the moment as it crops up elsewhere when teaching the legal system). This might look like the following chart:

Figure 1 (click to download)

This can be used as an advance organiser for teaching and revision and the teacher can work with students to locate information in the appropriate part of the diagram (where does Black Rod go, where do we put the budget etc.?). Students can also annotate the diagram with descriptions of the relationship between each box for example to record the fact that politicians are drawn from the Commons or the Lords, or the contents of the Queen’s speech in the state opening is provided by the government, or the ministers who are scrutinised by members of parliament, are members of the government (and therefore also members of parliament). In this way students learn the essential facts, but also learn how they fit into the whole, and thus how they relate to other facts.

Bruner and Ausubel would argue that the job of remembering all of these diverse facts is made easier if one provides a structure to hold them (see blog 5).  The information also becomes more useful when one understands the principles to which it relates.  Establishing the conceptual knowledge offers the double advantage of helping children commit information to memory, and helping them to understand the principles of democratic government. Making connections like this also means students can deal with knowledge in convenient ‘chunks’, which means they make fewer demands on their working memory when they are recalling facts to respond to an exam-based problem (Sweller et al., 1998).

In the sample assessment materials provided by OCR the teacher is not given much help in distinguishing between high and low level responses.  For example, in a question asking students to consider the arguments for and against Britain’s membership of the EU, the top marks are to be given to answers which provide ‘an excellent evaluation of a range of evidence’ whilst lower marks are awarded for a ‘good evaluation of a range of evidence’ and the lowest marks for ‘a basic evaluation’.  Clearly this doesn’t provide a workable model of progression and so the citizenship teacher needs to draw on their own conceptual understanding in order to plan meaningfully, and to make the teaching more interesting (see blogs 4 and 5). 

Strategies to connect the facts and concepts (or to go beyond superficial recall) 
Colleagues at ACT have suggested using a variety of classroom approaches to enable students to make (and name) these connections back to organising concepts / schemas, for example:

  • Differentiated structure strips, which break down a bid question into parts, for example, with the 8 mark OCR question about EU membership, the strip starts with an introduction, moves on to consider arguments for and related facts; arguments against with related facts; and then asks students for their considered conclusions. Here the knowledge is pre-organised, and students just have to select and interpret.
  • Knowledge quilts (see figure 1), which summarise a range of facts, keywords and concepts from the unit and encourage students to choose the most relevant ones to answer each question. This helps them to distinguish relevant (and related) facts linked for a particular task or question. This is a refinement of the Zone of Relevance activity that has been written about by history teachers (and I’m sure by many others). Here the facts are organised on revision cards, and students place them on sheets of sugar paper (nearer the centre if they are very relevant) or off the paper if they irrelevant. As with all these kinds of activities, it’s the opportunity to discuss the reasons for the selection and the nature of the connections that is important. If you have the cards for this activity, then you can also play ‘odd one out’ by selecting any four cards at random and asking students to come up with a compelling argument why one could be the odd one out. The deeper their understanding, the more conceptual connections they can argue.
  • Deliberate comparative thinking is also a new approach which is required for this new specification. Here teachers have recognised that sometimes the exam might include a source with new information, such as how State Court judges are appointed in the USA. Here students have to be taught how to spot the relevant principle (appointment of judiciary); recall the way this happens in the UK; make the comparison; and explain the difference using relevant vocabulary and relating it back to constitutional principles about the separation of powers. If this material has not been taught, used and revised in relation to the principles, then it is unlikely to be usable.

Knowledge retrieval and use 
These techniques can be used in revision, but teachers are also setting these structures up in advance, to run through the whole GCSE course. Examples from ACT colleagues here include:

  • Knowledge planners provided up front, and the on-going production of revisions cards (organised according to the knowledge planners) as each unit is completed. 
  • Lesson starters which focus on both short-term and long-term recall, to ensure that information is not left un-used for months on end.
  • Regular use of the BUG technique for de-coding questions. Here students put a box around the word which defines the type of question being asked (outline / explain / describe etc.); and underline the key words that indicate the knowledge being tested by this question; and then glance back at their notes to identify the most useful knowledge for the task. 

I think the new GCSEs are unhelpful. There is far too much content and too great a fixation on knowing facts for the sake of it. There is not enough emphasis on what is important, and what key concepts and principles run through the whole course. The GCSE leaves unanswered the big questions about what citizenship really is, and what someone really needs to know to be an effective citizen. It also leaves unanswered the big question about what makes a citizenship lens on the world distinctive from legal or historical or scientific lenses. However, in the creative responses of teachers, these questions are being asked in the classroom, and practical answers are emerging. I hope in the next round of exam revisions, these practical insights will form the starting point for exam boards, rather than being called on to salvage an undesirable situation.

Figure 2: Knowledge quilt (click to download)

References
Sweller J, van Merrionboer, J and Paas F (1998) Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, 10 (3), 251-296

Thanks to Helen Blachford and Verity Currie for suggesting practical strategies for making the new GCSEs work.
 

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