Outstanding coursework!

Outstanding coursework

Weaning myself off school and education at the end of a busy half-term, I found myself scrolling through edu-twitter and reading of a suggestion that coursework may find its way back into GCSE maths. Being somewhat long in the tooth and grey in the hair, I remember “teaching” maths coursework and I don’t think I am unique amongst those of us that taught it in having very mixed feelings about it.

I absolutely loved some of the tasks and the way they encouraged mathematical thinking, discussion and communication were great. But there were a few big, BIG, negatives to GCSE maths coursework.

The first was the cheating. Lets not beat about the bush and talk of collaboration or discovery, there was a whole lot of cheating going on. Someone in the class would make a breakthrough in the task, or find a neat (aka algebraic – you needed algebra to score the big marks) way to solve the problem and within 5 minutes it had circulated the classroom twice and everyone had written down someone else’s work as their own solution.

Then there was the problem of getting students to hand in their work so it could be assessed, as my tale below demonstrates.

And lets not forget the additional workload on teachers who then had to mark and moderate (all unpaid and in their own time) piles of student coursework. Anecdotally, I know of more than one school who made the switch from GCSE to iGCSE maths simply so they wouldn’t have to mark any more coursework.

But on with today’s tale.

My memory dims, but I reckon that this must have been in the early 2000’s, a department meeting to check how coursework was progressing, who had handed it in (the school’s deadline had passed) who still had outstanding pieces of coursework, and what we were going to do to extract the work from those students. Our Head of Department directed us to phone the parents of everyone of our students who had not yet submitted their coursework.

So later that afternoon, I picked up the phone to Mrs Smith …

“Good afternoon, Mrs Smith, its Mr Mathsteacher from school. How are you, hope you are well ….

“Yes, I’m very well, thank you. Now I’m calling because Johnny has an outstanding piece of coursework”

There was a short pause, before Mrs Smith replied:

“Oh thank you so much for calling. That’s wonderful to hear …”

My heart sank. Johnny was what you might call a loveable rogue (well, his mum loved him) and she wasn’t used to getting positive phone calls from the school. But she did get a number of phone calls from the school. My ambiguous use of the word outstanding was (understandably)interpreted very differently by Mrs Smith from how we had been using it within the department.

“I’m so sorry Mrs Smith. When I said Johnny’s coursework was outstanding, I didn’t mean it was brilliant, I meant that he has not yet handed it in. If he doesn’t hand by a week on Thursday he will miss the deadline and score zero marks for this part of his GCSE”

Across the silent ether of the phoneline, I’m sure I could make out the sound of Mrs Smith’s crest falling. Another wound to bear from her disappointing son.

I explained what Johnny needed to do, and how it would help him secure his GCSE, we exchanged pleasantries and I hung up, feeling bad for my choice of words. I still feel bad over twenty years later and now I always, always, think of Johnny and Mrs Smith before I use the word “outstanding” in any context.

I can’t remember if he got a C or a B, but I do recall that Johnny did pass his GCSE maths – probably due to his mother ensuring he got his coursework done and handed in. There will be thousands of Mrs Smiths up and down the country ensuring that their Johnny hands in his coursework; there will be a significant number of Mrs Smith’s who will happily pay a “tutor” to do and submit Johnny’s coursework for him; and, sadly, there will be thousands of Johnny’s up and down the country who have no support in their coursework, other than from their teachers. And that’s not fair, and that’s (one reason) why maths coursework shouldn’t be re-introduced as an examined component of GCSE maths. (But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect students to tackle these rich investigative tasks as part of their mathematical journey.)

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