In the thick of the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ reforms, Teachers remain fully active at the front line of subject implementation. Any period of systematic change, especially on this scale, will come with its challenges, rewards and surprises; though from my own observations of the Technologies Subjects (including Design & Manufacture, Engineering Science and Graphic Communication), the biggest surprise was to be found in the latter. Stemming from this are, in my opinion, two very significant implications for the subject that arise form the decision no remove timed completion of manual drawings from the exam. Now, I should clarify at this point that it is not my intention here to explore the extent to which I agree or disagree with this move (I can see arguments for both inclusion and exclusion, but the decision is made!). I do, however, wish to argue and expand upon the following two points:
1. Compared with the previous subject (e.g. Standard Grade Graphic Communication), the shift in the nature of the exam questions for Graphic Communication require a more distinct shift in the type of the thinking that pupils must engage with for them to answer successfully. I would argue that this also requires a similarly distinct shift in the pedagogy teachers have historically employed to deliver and facilitate this learning.
2. That because this shift has not been articulated in advance, there is a very real risk that the subject will move further away from the philosophy and rationale of Curriculum for Excellence than it was before it was redeveloped.
With regard to my first argument, the space that would have been occupied within the exam by manual drawings has been substituted with an increase in knowledge and interpretation questions (KI). As any Technology Teacher will know, there is a noticeable difference in the nature of lesson that address KI content compared with those that address the completion of drawings, and the latter often takes pupils more time to master. In producing manual, technical drawings, pupils engage heavily with developing what is referred to as ‘procedural knowledge’. If for example, they are attempting the completion of an Orthographic Drawing, they must learn, inter alia, how to transfer sizes, which views are more appropriate to produce before others, how to use a bounce line or direction changer to generate end elevations and so forth. This is fused throughout with the requirement to correctly apply (at the correct points) packets of more factual and objective knowledge, in the form of rules and heuristics (e.g. the bounce line must be at 45 degree, which set square is which). Above all of this, however, the process is essentially one of successive application in a very well defined and (hopefully) consistent context (the pages on the drawing board shaped by the associated and recognised conventions).
Now, it could be argue that the significance of this is to do with task context. As Technology Teachers, it would be typical, in supporting individual pupils completing drawings, that questioning may tease out whether pupils are aware of relationships between different parts of their drawing – typically instigated by the pupil being stuck. In one sense, this formatively assesses their understanding of a given part of their drawing. Though these interventions are critical, they only really give an indication of the pupils understanding of the point in question (and not the whole drawing). There may be many other aspects of the drawing that pupils fail to visualise or understand in the manner Teachers do. In fact, many things that the teacher takes for granted about the drawing can appear hidden to pupils. Researchers such as Robert McCormick have demonstrated the extent to which the context of graphic communication and manual drawing can mask pupils’ knowledge and understanding about aspects of what they draw (see AAAS Conference Proceedings). Notably, wider research on context effects corroborate this.
My point here is that it would be very risky to assume that because a pupil has completed a drawing and gained full marks, that they truly understand what that drawing is telling them. The marks, after all, are for the correct completion of the drawing and not the understanding of internal geometric and contextual relationships. In the use of existing subject pedagogy, it is possible that a pupil could become very proficient at the completion of a range of types of drawings and not wholly understand the objects involved (or the holistic drawings themselves). Formally asking pupils to visually interpret drawings, rather than produce them with drawing instruments, is a different type of process that likely requires a different type of teaching. Knowing how to produce something is not the same as being able to interpret its meaning.
Given that the nature of this shift is potentially quite significant (to my mind, perhaps the most significant in any of the Technology subjects), it is surprising that teachers appear only to be aware of it through either the fact that drawing was said to be no longer part of the exam, or via exemplar type exam papers that have been published. Leading to my second argument, it is in this respect that it could currently be considered a ‘hidden pedagogy’. The potential risk as the subject moves forward, is that in the absence of any substantive focus on the resultant pedagogical requirements of the new subject, Teachers may focus too heavily on either example exam papers, or the first National 5 exam that pupils recently sat. It could conceivably be that the space where alternative pedagogy could have been is rapidly filled by extensive scrutiny and reliance upon existing exam questions to directly shape teaching in this part of the subject. As a Curriculum for Excellence subject, there are a range of challenges here, not least of which is ensuring that teaching does not actually become more exam-led than it was before; this, after all, being one of the core principles that a Curriculum for Excellence was designed to avoid!
So what now? Strive for a ‘divergent’ rather than ‘convergent’ approach to modifying teaching. I would say it is critical to avoid directly teaching to the existing exam questions by first consciously and collectively identifying the underlying knowledge, thinking skills and strategies involved and then ‘ditching’ the exam questions themselves until much later on in the process. It is the underlying elements that would form the basis of effective classroom pedagogy and understanding rather than the specific exam questions themselves. Consideration would be given as to how these could be taught through a range of tasks, experiences and contexts that would allow pupils to build up their competence. When suitably developed, exam questions could be introduced as a means by which pupils could apply their learning to contexts similar to those they would encounter in their final exam.
In my opinion (though it is tempting), avoiding the premature use of exam questions as core teaching content is one means of avoiding the subject becoming assessment driven. The depth of learning should come from mastery of the underlying knowledge, skills and processes and building up the capacity for pupils to apply these in a range of authentic and meaningful contexts. Moreover, it is this that should be the core driver in the design and consideration of classroom pedagogy and teaching approaches.
In relation to this, I would add a note of caution in reviewing the first National 5 exam paper. I was a little surprised to work out that you could potentially gain around 50% of the available marks using only visual-interpretation and no subject-specific knowledge (which, in turn, means it may be hypothetically possible to pass the exam without having ever sat the subject). Hopefully, this will be addressed to avoid notable questions being raised about the subject’s overall rigour and integrity. As a technology subject, such skills could be developed through a range of questions that are set more closely within the domain of Technology (especially in the absence of the manual production requirement which was a characteristically ‘technological’ dimension of Graphic Communication).
Graphic Communication is a subject that stands to offer pupils significant gains in skills, knowledge and understanding for a vast range of sectors and professions (not just Technology and Engineering). This being said, it could be said that the subject currently faces a number of risks that require carefully mitigated as it moves more fully into the new National 4, 5 and Higher qualifications.