About challenge

Monday 10 February 2014

Part of the sales-pitch for the 'new' Language B programme was that it should be seen as 'more challenging'. Now that the 'new' programme is bedded down and has become the 'current' programme, to what extent has that promise been fulfilled? This issue is discussed in the page More challenging? ... and note the discussion under the Comments for that page.

One of the key indicators of the degree of challenge has traditionally been the number of grade 7s awarded, so how does the new English B perform? In English B HL, in May 2013 there were roughly 12% of 7s  and in November 2013 roughly 6% of 7s . These figures are certainly not generous, and are in line with percentages of 7s in most large-entry HL subjects ... which would suggest that English B HL is pretty challenging.

What qualities earn a grade 7? We senior examiners have informal shorthand terms for some of these qualities : 'sparkle' and 'publishable'. Let me explain, with particular reference to writing in Paper 2 ...

'Sparkle' aims to label that sense of originality, of imagination, that one finds in top-of-the-range scripts. There is sparkle when the task has been handled not just methodically (that's grade 6 material) but thoroughly ... and not just thoroughly but acutely. There is sparkle when the candidate has evidently selected ideas that are highly relevant, and has expressed them clearly, powerfully, even wittily. Sparkle is usually associated with a distinct and personal tone of voice in the writing ... and this is very often expressed through irony or flashes of humour. A script with sparkle will be entertaining but at the same time perceptive. To illustrate, with a real example ...

The May13 HL Section B was based on a stimulus about physical versus emotional poverty. The script in question was written as a speech, thanking those who had contributed to an anti-poverty campaign. The first paragraph charmingly and movingly describes how contributions would alleviate the lives of poor people ... but the examiner is beginning to think that this will be one of the many responses which fail to grasp the concept of emotional poverty. At exactly this point, the script twists, and launches into a passionate appeal for a further effort to combat the emotional consequences of physical poverty. The impact is powerful, precisely because of the contrast between the two sections ... and 'sparkle' applies because it is very clear that the writer deliberately chose to compliment first and then shock secondly, in order to disturb and motivate. The language throughout expresses a real sense of personal address to the audience, on a topic about which the writer feels passionately. The weary examiner (me) was moved...

Can we teach 'sparkle' ? I would argue that the quality of performance in the illustration given above is due to a successful training in 'focus' - the ability to decide exactly what you want to express, and how it is best expressed. See the page 3 Rationales, compared for fuller discussion of 'focus'.

'Publishable' should not be seen as meaning 'perfect' - scripts can be publishable even if they need the attention of an editor to tidy up the odd error and suggest a little re-structuring. Amazingly, a small minority of candidates produce, under exam conditions, scripts which could be published more or less as they stand ... as witty, imaginative, lucid responses to the set task. Such publishable scripts are coherent in all respects, focused on a clear purpose, economically expressed through precise selection of content and language - all of which indicates a strong command of imaginative thinking. To illustrate, using an example from the old programme ...

A couple of years ago, the HL Paper 2 asked for a fictional narrative beginning "When the asteroid struck the Earth, I was ..." The vast majority of responses to this slightly hoary task were predictable accounts of grim survival in apocalyptic conditions, some finishing with rather unlikely happy endings, and just a few (thank goodness) with "... and then I woke up and it was all a dream"! The script in question indeed began with a dream about the asteroid hitting the Earth ... the first-person narrator wakes up disturbed and frightened ... has breakfast and goes to school, where it's the last day of the Diploma programme, the last day of school ever ... her friends are all in manic moods, and the boyfriend seems rather weird and strange. (By this time, the examiner (me) is thinking 'But what has all this to do with the damned asteroid?') Our heroine goes home ... pestered by parents about her plans for the future ... boyfriend doesn't ring ... goes to bed - and has the asteroid dream again ! Because, through one brilliant final sentence, we understand that the asteroid is a metaphor expressing her fears about the destruction of her comfortable world at school - the ending changes how we perceive everything that has gone before.

Can we teach 'publishable' writing? Not entirely, but we can certainly prepare a student's intellectual imagination. The root of the publishable brilliance of the illustration above is a grasp of the concept of metaphor, and the ability to use metaphors actively ... and all students can be prepared to think metaphorically - see, for instance, the page Handling metaphors.

In short, the 'challenge' of English B for the teacher is to widen students' imaginative skills along with the necessary range of linguistic resources; and for students, the 'challenge' is to put such skills into practice ...
 



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