Guest Post: Some subjects are harder than others. So what?

Kevin Stannard writes in Conference and Common Room Magazine about ‘soft subjects’ and how we measure how difficult a subject is.

“Every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease.” (Recommendation of the US ‘Committee of Ten’ 1892)

Comedians Mitchell and Webb set one of their best sketches at a suburban house party. Lionel is a brain surgeon who asks other guests what they do for a living, just so that he can say their jobs aren’t as demanding as his – “I mean, your job isn’t exactly brain surgery!” This goes well, from Lionel’s point of view, until he meets Geoff, a rocket scientist.

It’s human nature to compare and contrast; and judging the relative difficulty of academic subjects is not a pastime confined to secretaries of state and the architects of the Russell Group’s list of facilitating subjects. Last century, as head of geography at Eton, I was well aware that my subject occupied a pretty modest place in the pecking order, so I was not particularly surprised to learn that when the new post of geography master was created in 1961, the appointment notice had made clear that the successful applicant should not expect to teach the brighter boys. Those taking geography “would not be at all advanced academically”, but they were, one was assured, “boys of considerable personality and with standing in the school.”

Michael Gove was not going out on a limb when he sought to drive a wedge between hard and soft subjects at A level. He was part of a long tradition of suspicion toward subjects the name of which ends in ‘studies’. The ultramontane view of what constitutes disciplinary respectability doesn’t quite reach back to the trivium or even the quadrivium, but it does remain in close touch with the recommendations on the US high school curriculum made by the (all male) Committee of Ten as long ago as 1892.

Subject provenance and breeding overlap with judgements about relative difficulty of disciplines. Common sense allows that some subjects are harder than others. But, as C. E. M. Joad would have said, it all depends on what you mean by ‘hard’.

As far as examined subjects go, hardness may be defined in several ways. The first is size – the sheer volume of content covered in the syllabus. This should, in theory, be constant across a suite of subjects, and at A level the required number of ‘Guided Learning Hours’ is consistent across the suite. (This is no longer true of GCSE, since the reformed maths specifications are a lot bigger as well as harder than before).

Then again hardness might be found in the administration of assessment – particularly the criteria used to allocate marks; and, once the marks are in and added up, the decision on where to draw the grade boundaries. An interesting feature of essay-based subjects is the capacity to ask the same question at different levels, and to expect answers with different levels of sophistication. The causes of the Second World War could be analysed at any number of levels. Plate tectonics, once cutting edge and taught in revelatory style to avid sixth formers, quickly became a staple of lower school geography.

As long as it is possible to rank answers, then the establishment of grade boundaries becomes, in a sense, an entirely arbitrary decision. If you want to make an exam hard, ask a difficult question. It’s not unknown for a very tough maths exam to have grade boundaries set very low, so that a mark around 40% can still get you a good grade. Alternatively, ask a perfectly accessible question and then set the top grade boundary really high.

Can a subject be considered harder if fewer candidates get an A*? The opposite appears to be the case. At A level in 2016, the highest proportions of A*/A grades were recorded in maths, followed by natural sciences and MFL. Top grades were less frequent in English and history, and rarer still in drama and media studies. But it is difficult to read subject hardness into these figures. Many more candidates gained at least an A in French than in biology, but A*s were less freely awarded in French. That seems to say more about the incommensurability of the assessments than it does about the hardness of the subjects.

Studies by CEM at Durham University have found that the natural sciences are consistently harder than English or RS, and much harder than drama, sociology or media studies. A more recent Ofqual study finds that among the harder A level subjects are chemistry, physics, biology, maths, French, German and history. The hardest of all are Latin and further maths. The easiest subjects include film studies, media studies, photography, drama, English literature and geography.

Those statistical analyses were based on the probability of a student of a given ability (as defined by prior achievement and other subject scores) gaining a particular grade in a given subject. It may well be that in these terms a high grade in one subject is easier to get than in another, but this has to be balanced by the differential value that universities place on some subjects over others – as evinced by the lists of preferred subjects published by universities such as LSE. In any case, even if it can be shown that it is harder to get a top grade in one exam compared with another, that does not mean that the subject itself is harder.

The locus of hardness surely lies in the level of demand of the content and concepts in the syllabus. Yet it is difficult to compare subjects when an individual’s capacity to master a discipline depends on factors that are not easily weighed, or readily related to any commonly accepted definition of ‘intelligence’. Proficiency in a foreign language depends on background as well as brightness. A maths or a music prodigy will, by definition, find her subject pretty easy, but might struggle in constructing an essay.

The ‘Go Compare’ focus on the relative hardness or softness of school subjects seems to be driven by one of the peculiarities of the English education system – in particular, the way that the curriculum is dominated by high-stakes exams, and the fact that the exams are of a size that only allows a handful of subjects to be studied post-16. The need to adjudicate on the competing claims of physics, French and photography only arises if students are forced to choose. A broad and balanced pre-university curriculum, modelled on the components of a properly liberal education, would find no difficulty reconciling incommensurable epistemes.

Kevin Stannard is Director of Innovation and Learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust

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  1. james_wilding

    The hardest language in the world to learn we are told is Finnish. Funny how every one born in Finland speaks it though, and from an early age. Immersing children in a subject deemed important by their peers, and voila, as if by magic learning happens. Breadth within a liberal curriculum is a prerequisite if we wish the society beyond to value every new member. Narrow the curriculum, give false importance to subjects at the new core and guess what,  standards drop and the society beyond becomes polarised and broken.

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