BAS editor Helen Laurenson assesses the redress of cultural capital in the classroom
A-levels are under scrutiny as never before. Doubt over the relevance, function and purpose of this veteran exam qualification has been exacerbated by a second year of TAGs (teacher assessed grades). ‘How can we reform the A-level system?’ wailed The Times on 11 August as results were announced.
The A-level is now seventy years old and is the sine qua non of the education system in most of the UK, where, in sharp contrast to the US and Europe, pupils at post-16 specialise early. The IB has been available in the UK since 1971, but its broader approach has appealed only to some international colleges and a minority of private schools. It has had minimal impact on our national culture of academic specialisation.
Of equal note here is the importance of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the role and influence his classification of educational objectives had and continues to have on the assessment objectives of both GCSEs and A-levels. His Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956) set out a hierarchical structure of graded learning. The system of command words and assessment objectives (AOs) entailed a standardised approach to the acquisition of knowledge within a framework of formal assessment.
Bloom’s Taxonomy therefore offers a lens through which to assess the current philosophy of teaching and learning. It also helps us weigh up the implications of examination requisites balanced against the need to encourage both cultural capital and intellectually rigorous and confident pupils.
All of the above also needs to be balanced against the current landscape of plummeting numbers in A-level language recruitment in schools, due in no small part to Brexit and Covid-19. Set against this is a shift in pupil engagement with the traditional cultural component in A-level languages, namely the study of film and literature, as evidenced in the recent Opinio Pupil Survey linked to the UCL / HEIF Research Project, ‘Developing a Partnership between Universities and Schools in Order to Enhance the Student Experience of the Spanish A-level’ (see separate article in this edition of the Bulletin).
These findings are not altogether surprising, and A-level languages teachers report the need for innovative approaches in the teaching of prescribed literary texts in the target language. Whilst undergraduate film modules in university languages departments were du jour twenty years ago, changes in the viewing habits of teenagers, the influence of Netflix and the closure of cinemas during the pandemic have conspired to make even Spanish and Latin American Cinema less relevant for current A-level cohorts. Time rolls on and even the stalwarts of subversity such as Pedro Almodóvar can no longer be relied on to enthral a young audience.
Teachers are therefore faced with the unenviable task of delivering cultural topic material to pupils who are not naturally receptive to it, nor in possession of the pre-requisite skills to analyse these texts. Pupils are increasingly drawn to the transactional nature of language learning, and often cannot reconcile the need to acquire the scaffolding and modelling needed to critique literature and film, a task they associate with English literature. The hinterland of cultural, literary and historical knowledge required for the effective teaching and delivery of García Lorca or García Márquez, for example, can also be lacking in younger teachers who have also evolved with a transactional approach to undergraduate languages study, consciously avoiding literary modules.
Consequently, there is a need to re-frame the cultural studies aspect (literature and film) of the current A-level within the broader study of ‘topics’ – dictatorship and democracy, for example, or gender politics. It also needs to be placed within a clear skill-set of cultural competences, close linguistic analysis of texts / dialogues, written communication and research skills. In addition, whilst the interest of pupils appears to have shifted squarely to linguistic concerns – communication, transactional language – this discourse cannot exist in isolation from the broader cultural, historical or social context.
In the Lower School (Years 7-9) this essential alliance can begin with the etymology of Spanish; an exploration of the historical reasons for words in Spanish of Arabic origins; the study of the social implications of words such as casar(se); Latin words with Rioplatense voseo and lunfardo being an excellent segue into Latin America culture and society. This focus on language analysis within a cultural and historical context should precede A-level study, equipping pupils with the skills to undertake close linguistic analysis and conduct independent research.
The current lack of school trips abroad is an obstacle to pupils’ cultural and linguistic development. It has limited opportunities not just to practise their transactional language, but also to immerse themselves in day to day life, gastronomy and sport, and to partake in the popular culture of adolescents of a similar age in Spain and Latin America. Netflix is useful here, with the series Inocente, Casa de papel, Elite and Fariña offering both entertainment and opportunities for cultural analysis and debate.
However, there remains the thorny issue of how best to present and ‘sell’ the idea of literature to reluctant readers. Possibilities include re-visiting canonical A-level texts through alternative readings which dismantle traditional binary oppositions of gender (eg Crónica de una muerte anunciada) or drill into notions of (psychological) marginalisation (García Lorca, Ernesto Sábato). Teaching the literary essay of A-level Spanish is possibly the most challenging component of the suite of papers, with pupils needing a good deal of support. However, it can also provide some of the most satisfying debate, evidence of progress and pupil satisfaction as they grow in confidence. Indeed, the shifting sands of global politics, as we move into the third decade of the 21st century, will demand not just those hard skills acquired through the study of language and literary analysis, but also the ensuing soft skills of cultural competence, tolerance and empathy.
In conclusion, the following suggestions may also be useful:
- Do try to read the entire text (or key sections of it) as a class. If possible provide an electronic pdf version for ease of reference and with a search function for key words.
- Assignments should be graded for difficulty, starting with a chapter or scene analysis, moving from narration to close textual analysis.
- Set research tasks in the target language (exploring authorial biography, for example)
- Boost pupil confidence in Spanish by debating key issues in class, or setting presentations.
- Use primary and secondary source comments as a springboard for further discussion of themes.
- Use Google docs to assign specific topics for pupils to share on a class document (for example, one pupil to trace the textual incidences of the navaja in Bodas de sangre or weather descriptions in El coronel no tiene quien le escriba)
- Consider differentiated tasks – Oxbridge candidates may well want to use JStor to research the influence of Existentialism in Ernesto Sábato’s El túnel.
- Encourage pupils to consider question drafting themselves, thus inculcating a sense of the importance of question analysis.
- Set commentary questions with targeted questions about an extract from the text to take off the pressure of the memorisation of quotations.
- Use the terminology of higher order thinking skills explicitly, leading to confidence in both inference and critical thinking.
- Use Quizlet for dramatic, poetic or literary terminology definitions, insisting on the use of a given number of these terms as a marking focus in pupils’ ongoing written work.