In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Eve chooses to eat the Fruit because she desires knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil which Satan promises her. Her problem is rooted a misunderstanding of what knowledge is. She knows what good and evil are, and talks about them with clear understanding that they are oppositions, and that one is to be welcomed and one is to be feared:
What fear I then, rather what know to fear Under this ignorance of good and Evil […]
She knows what they are but the problem is not ‘knowing’, as such. While she can discuss them as abstract concepts, what she lacks is understanding of them. All that good and evil are, for Eve, are words, with no reality behind them. It is only through experience, through fully understanding the dreadful implications of her actions, that her fear of death and evil are realised, but too late.
While preparing my Year 13s to take a closed-text exam on Paradise Lost, it occurs to me that a similar misunderstanding about what knowledge is, and its value, is at the root of the idea of closed-text exams. English Literature is fundamentally a skills-based subject, and, while content knowledge is useful and vitally important, insisting on closed-text exams for both GCSE and A Level betrays a severe lack of knowledge about knowledge.
Of course, there are elements of content which need to be taught and ‘known’. Students need to know what a sonnet looks like, what a metaphor is, what the parts of speech are, what iambic pentameter is, what different words mean, what the conventions of tragedy are, and so on. But the other problem with knowledge is that there is too much of it, so someone, somewhere, sitting in an office in Westminster, has to make the decision as to what knowledge is important and what isn’t. Don’t get me wrong – I adore Victorian novels and can’t wait to teach Jane Eyre for the new GCSE, but why, for example, are 19th century novels a particular genre we have decided that our GCSE students need to know from September, as opposed to any others?
Another issue is that knowledge is no longer a premium. Yes, I was once pretty pleased that I was able to recite Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, and I that I could almost recite all of Sonnet 116 (although I get lost somewhere between the ‘wandering bark’ and the rhyming couplet), but neither of these things have ever gained me anything, except perhaps the odd crossword clue or pub quiz question. Now, I can go onto Google, and with a few keyboard strikes and clicks, almost any knowledge I need is accessible in seconds. I no longer need to know, or be able to recall at a moment’s notice, who wrote what, or when they wrote it, or how that quotation goes. Now I can locate the information I need from my phone, away from my computer, on a train, and at a push at the top of a mountain. To some extent, I no longer need to know anything at all.
Knowledge, as is clear from Bloom’s Taxonomy (objections to it aside), is the first step, and will only get you so far. We are much more interested in what we can do with that knowledge. This is where application and analysis come in. Readers do not simply passively absorb what they read as content, as ‘stuff’. Good readers question, compare, ask how, ask why, and make connections. One of the most fundamental skills of English Literature is explaining how writers use different linguistic and structural features, as well as literary forms, to convey their ideas. To do this, learners need to be exposed to a variety of different features, to apply their base knowledge to this, and consider how the methods used are influential to the readers. It is a skill that is practised, a muscle that is exercised and honed, and through that practice and exercise, learners (ideally) grow in confidence as independent readers of a range of texts and forms.
This, surely, is what we want them to be able to do if we want to say a student is mastering English Literature. Except that they can’t. With a closed-text exam, they aren’t able to put the energy and focus for their examination revision into appreciation of the artfulness and deliberateness of writers’ choices. The focus is instead on remembering quotations or even whole poems by heart. This puts a barrier on curiosity, on questioning, on that independence which we so want our students to have. The question learners are engineered into asking is no longer “Why does this poet use this word?” but “Which word does the poet use next?” It doesn’t take a genius to work out which is the more academically rigorous.
A requirement for closed-text exams creates a bizarre mixed message for students. Is the focus on their ability to understand and interpret texts, to become engaged and critical readers regardless of genre? Or is it an ability to regurgitate a series of facts or quotations? The latter only benefits those who have strong long-term memories, while the former gives us far more scope to test for a range of abilities and skills.
I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but it strikes me that we need to take a leaf out of Eve’s book. It’s not enough to know. We need to taste the fruit to fully understand what the consequences are. This is where the analogy ends, however; eliciting understanding through open text exams (as opposed to fact recall through closed-text exams) is clearly not the same as the Fall of Man. But what concerns me more is the consequence of encouraging a generation of learners to think that knowledge is all there is. No application, no analysis, no evaluation. No one will ask why any more, only what.
Now it hits me. Perhaps that was precisely the point.