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With exams well and truly underway (and good luck everyone!), understandably many history teachers’ thoughts have turned to coursework for their year 12s. I’ve blogged about A Level History coursework before, but as many are now at the particular stage of thinking about titles I thought it would be useful to explain some of the benefits of the myriad approaches to coursework we’ve already seen from the choices of this summer’s cohort, the first students through the new A Level.
The fundamental thing about OCR’s coursework is – we firmly believe – the unique degree of flexibility it provides. As long as the question chosen sets up a judgement on a historical issue, students really can investigate anything. There are no hoops to be jumped through: no set number of historians with supposedly contrasting views to be read, no arbitrary minimum period of 100 years to be covered. It is simply a knowledge and argument-driven history essay, in many ways university-style. Students can pick up on something they’ve already studied to reinforce their knowledge, or they can investigate something entirely new.
And it is that choice that is going to be the crux of this blog. I thought I’d use a couple of recent social media posts as prompts: this on-the-face-of-it relatively unremarkable tweet by my Subject Advisor colleague Asher (and if you don’t already, please do follow us on twitter; it is not all just pictures of Asher on his holidays) and a comment by tgoodwin on our coursework discussion forum (you can join the other 902 members of our A Level history discussion forum here). The comment was:
Just as a matter of interest, how many schools have given pupils a free choice on what to do for coursework? We did, and not one of them chose a subject we were already doing. I found that encouraging, though I suppose it may cost them marks. Surely the idea is to provide independent learning, and that is not really what is happening if all the pupils are doing the same topic, or are doing something that they have already been taught.
An understandable point, and I hope other teachers join that discussion (or indeed leave comments below this blog) to give their views. But I don’t think it is necessarily right. Earlier this week I had some email correspondence with a teacher in York, who wanted suggestions for coursework questions on Tudor England to 1558. He’s encouraging (maybe requiring, that would also be fair enough) his students to reinforce their Unit 1 (Y106) knowledge through their coursework. I was able to give him a list (which won’t by any means have been exhaustive) of more than 50 Early Tudors questions approved this year. They ranged from the fairly standard (Assess the reasons for the English Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII) to ones the like of which (and this is a promise) would never appear on a Y106 examination paper (To what extent has the contemporary Cowdray Engraving depicting the Battle of the Solent informed our understanding of why the Mary Rose sank in 1545?) through other areas of clear personal interest (How significant was the role of art as a political tool in the Tudor court of Henry VIII?).
The point is that students investigating a topic area that they’ve already been taught will still work independently and have a fascinating array of questions to choose from. That teacher in York found the list of Tudor questions “inspiring” (as did I: email firstname.lastname@example.org to get a copy or ask for an equivalent). Even if students choose a ‘standard’ topic they will still be developing their learning and engaging with sources and historians, and ideas, beyond those they encounter for their exam (at least they will if they are to do well). And if you, as a teacher, have large numbers of students many of whom will not be taking their studies in history further, this could well be the most practical option – and the best for your students. And equally if, say, your teaching of Napoleon in unit 2 has inspired a high-flying student who really wants to get more into the debate about whether he was a military genius, then absolutely they should pursue that – and doing so is as worthy as any other coursework investigation.
So, what of that tweet of Asher’s (“Lots of LGBT themes in 2017 A Level Hist cw”)? In some ways here is the other side presented. We’ve seen so many coursework questions this year that really do present a different path (remember there is useful advice on question choice in the Unit Y100 Guide) – so much that it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the most radical feature of the reformed A Level. Titles such as How significant was the Jagiellonian dynasty in the Polish renaissance?; To what extent did clan rivalry cause the Somali civil war 1992 – 2011?; To what extent were the 1981 Brixton riots a watershed for the black community in the UK?; How far was equality for homosexual people in Britain advanced between 1967 and 2014?; Assess the reasons for the difficulty in being in openly lesbian relationship in Victorian Britain; To what extent did women have a greater social standing in Celtic society than in Roman society? (among many other Ancient History titles). A whole spectacular range of titles simply not seen in the legacy History A Level.
These and many, many diverse other original questions are inspired, and inspiring. They clearly represent a genuine passion on behalf of the students, and – no matter what the final mark awarded – they may well have provided research opportunities the memories of which will stay with the students for a very long time. For some they are uncovering “hidden histories” (at least hidden from standard A Level textbooks); for others, they may well be ‘understanding themselves in time’ (to borrow the Schools History Project, our GCSE partner’s, strapline) – possibly seeing themselves in the story for the first time. However, none of this means that they are going to do any better, or have in any way a more valid A Level, than their contemporaries who chose to do further research on the English Reformation under Henry VIII.
Overall, the fundamental point is the freedom of choice you and your students have when selecting titles, and there are different, equally legitimate ways to use that to your advantage. Key things to remember:
For further information and advice, you can download last year’s INSET pack free of charge from our CPD hub – which will also be the place to visit to get details of the 2017/18 programme.
Submit your comments below and if you have any questions then you can get in touch with us via email on email@example.com or on Twitter @OCR_History.
Mike Goddard - Subject Specialist - History
Mike is a history subject specialist and has worked at OCR on the history portfolio since 2007. Previously he has held roles at Cambridge International Examinations and for an educational publisher. Mike has a degree in Economic and Social History from the University of York and a Masters in Modern History from UCL. In his spare time he enjoys crosswords and snooker.