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Smart planning for NCEA at John McGlashan College

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Iain McGilchrist, Head of English at John McGlashan College, discusses planning for NCEA. After investigation, his team decided to design their programmes so that the external assessment preparations fed into the internal assessments.


We’d noticed that there was always a dip at level two - our level one results were very good, our level three results were very good but student performance did seem to dip a bit. We looked at ‘why is that?’ and we thought we were just cramming too much into the course.

So what we decided to do was rather than have a programme design done by achievement standard (where we would pretty much trot through the achievement standards in a pre planned sequence) we decided let’s actually use our teaching of literature, for example, and the stuff we read as preparation for external, so let’s use that to get some internal assessment. So our external assessment preparation fed into our internal assessment. And by doing the internal assessments the students improved their skills in what they were able to write about externally.

Well let me give you a bit more specific information by way of an example of how the smart planning, using the feedback loop internal and external, works. I started the year with one of my year 12 classes looking at the poetry of Wilfred Owen. We’d done some preparation, done lots of discussion, essay writing, all the things you would typically expect. At the end of the unit I started a creative writing workshop and the creative writing assignments - I looked at possible assessment tasks on TKI and I decided that none of them really suited precisely what I wanted to do. So a colleague and I developed our own assessment task which was based on the poetry study, invent a suitably interesting topic for creative writing yourself and then do it brilliantly.

Later in the year when we come back to further preparation for external assessment and getting students to write about short texts we come back to the creative writing and draw inspiration from that. Because there is an example of how the students are able to show a deeper understanding, a more emotional understanding and a lot of the extra information that they were now including in their essays was from the thinking they did as part of their creative writing.

We really wanted to get away from our planning, especially in the senior school, being driven by assessment. We wanted to get back to teaching good stuff because the kids liked it and then we would do some activity that was going to be assessed.

In the classroom it would look like there was lots of just general engagement with something they were studying, for example, Macbeth in my class in particular. And we would do all sorts of work with the characters, the themes and all that sort of thing. After a while the students can have a choice in how they’re assessed. They could choose to base their oral presentation on Macbeth and as part of NCEA assessment they could earn credits for oral presentation. They may not wish to do that, they may not wish an oral presentation. They may wish instead to do some further creative writing for a writing portfolio based on Macbeth. So in practice it means that when the students are working on work that’s going to be assessed it’s not necessarily all the same thing.

One of the challenges for teachers if they adopt this way of planning is that you can feel quite insecure, you can feel as if it’s out of control.
What I’ve seen in my own teaching and what I’ve seen in the teaching of my colleagues is that instead of the lessons being a sort of ‘let’s do some reading, discussions, some film and then death by worksheet ‘ it’s much more along the lines of some sort of co constructed negotiated understanding. So that in the lessons instead of just keeping the kids busy, we actually end up working together to build our understanding and the lessons I’ve seen are much more organic, much more student focused in that respect.

The most important benefit is that the students really feel that they’re learning something - that they’re not just there as a receiver of information. Now it’s not like that, it’s much more of a dialogue that we construct together and the buy-in has been enormous. I’m flabbergasted at the number of times students say, ‘Thank you I’ve really enjoyed today’s lesson.’

There’s definitely a lot more transfer of knowledge and skills and cross curricular links and links within the English programme. If I were advising other middle school leaders to think about changing their planning in this way I’d advise them to do it, do it slowly. Don’t change the world all at once. And almost treat it as an inquiry model yourself. How well does this method work in our schools?  

Published on: 12 Mar 2012