The syllabus is changing again! Over the years, my little website has gotten attention mainly for my essays, but I’m feeling a little bit uncomfortable with them now that the syllabus will change for those taking the O-level exams in 2023 (though 5N and repeat 4E students will be taking the old 1128 syllabus in 2023 according to the SEAB). The thing is, the way I write my essays has been influenced by the marking scheme for the 1128 syllabus and the way that the SEAB wants to assign marks. Under 1128, markers were to grade an essay mainly according to its use of language. Under 1184, markers will have to split the allocation of marks between content and language, which requires a greater emphasis on shaping an essay towards more of a JC-style General Paper (GP) approach, though the O-level English paper has different question types.
The key statement to pay attention to in the 1184 syllabus comes under “Band Descriptors for Content”, which awards 9-10 marks when “All aspects of the task are fully addressed and developed in detail” in an essay. Unlike in GP where students are recommended to write between 500 to 800 words, the recommended essay length for 1184 is still between 350 to 500 words, though in practice students who get A1’s almost always exceed the recommended limits. To get the 50/50 grade for GP (or at least the full 30 for the content marks), we expect students to be able to consider the main points of the existing debates around the issues raised. So, if a question is asked about the extent to which charitable giving is desirable (a question from 2021), we want a 50/50 essay to be aware, at least, of the main sides of the debate perhaps best represented by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on one end and, on another end, Anand Giridharadas who published Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World in 2018. In practice, this usually takes more than 800 words. I think it’s almost impossible to reflect that kind of cognizance in an essay of 350 to 500 words; let’s not even think about whether a 16- or 18-year-old child will be able to do this.
How will the 1184 syllabus change teaching? Not much on my end, to be honest, but I will point out to students that some of my essays may no longer get 30/30 for the new syllabus. 1128 wants consistent “relevance” (a direct quote from the assessment scheme), which is different from fully addressing a question’s terms. 1128 allowed students to take creative and unconventional routes to argue a point to get the 30/30 — the rest of the assessment scheme is about language — but under 1184, using the same strategy could get what was 30/30 a 25/30 instead. I can hear the objection some teachers may have: we have always been marking for content! But my reply to you would be that the SEAB does not want this, at least in their syllabus documents. It is good and necessary to teach our students as if we were marking for content, but we have to point out to them that for 1128, that’s not the way they are marked. Anyway, in my own teaching, I do not encourage my students to take risks with content when writing their own essays—but because I’m me, I feel the freedom to do so in my own writing.
I contend that most of my essays will get 30/30 under both marking schemes, but I’d feel much less secure about some of them because, in my attempt to fulfil all the criteria that 1128 lays out AND to satisfy my own sense of creativity, I usually take huge risks with my content. I do so because when I go through my essays with my students, I want them to be able to see the risks that I take and how they could pay off (or not). To make things clear, I don’t encourage my students to take those risks themselves, because of the depth of knowledge and reading required to write the way I do. Moreover, if I’m completely honest, there are some essays I’ve posted under the 1128 banner that I will no longer give the 30/30 to.
The fact that some of my essays here may not qualify for the full 30/30 under 1184 points to the trouble of the updated syllabus: while it will be easier to prepare the more well-read students for their future in JC when they probably will take GP, the students who may have had their reading habit killed by painful experiences in school may face even more pain. It is going to be harder to tell students to be playful with their arguments and with their language—an approach which is arguably more sound both in the short and long run with both the demands of the developing teenage brain and of the working world in view—and the students who are already lagging behind may fall behind even further. If being playful in the context of disciplined analysis will be penalised once it gets too far in an essay, the assessment pressures could push pedagogy into the trap of excessively emphasising the drier bits of learning, and that will impact our students’ abilities to pick up the deeper skills of creativity that people have been calling for in the working world for a few years now (see this, this, and this).
This post is getting a little long, so I’ll put a further analysis in another post. For now, say goodbye to the 1128 marking scheme below!
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