F is for … Flash Fiction

Assessing what pupils have learnt in ICT is important, obviously. Why shouldn’t it be enjoyable as well as necessary? One approach you might wish to experiment with is flash fiction.

“Flash fiction” is the term given to incredibly short short stories. How short varies according to whoever is setting the rules (ie the editor of a magazine or the architect of a writing competition), but the average is probably around 500 words, with a range of between 300 and 1000 words. In general typing terms, 500 words takes up around two thirds of a side of A4. In that relatively short space, the story has to develop, have character(s) with whom the reader can identify, and have a proper ending. In other words, having only a few hundred words to play with does not exempt the writer from creating a readable short story.

Lightning in Paradise, by Poorboy1225 http://www.flickr.com/photos/20144155@N00/The reason I am talking about fiction at all, let alone flash fiction, is that stories can be a really good way of finding out how much pupils have understood about a particular topic or set of concepts. (Note that I am not talking about digital storytelling, which is a whole different ball game.) The reason, I think, is pretty simple: it’s possible to learn what concepts mean almost by rote. It’s even possible for many people to go through the motions of applying a concept with really understanding what it’s all about. Having to demonstrate your understanding in a fiction context makes it less easy to (for want of a better word) bluff.

There are two ways to approach this. One is to write a short story and have the pupils answer questions on it. Depending on the pupils’ age and ability level, the questions could be fairly simple (“How could Fred get the word out about his great new invention?”), or quite thought-provoking (“What do you think could be the long-term consequences of Janet’s doing ‘X’?”). For a very young group, for example, you could insert deliberate errors into the story, and have the pupils write down as many as they can find.

The other way, of course, is to ask the pupils to write a story of, say, no more than 500 words which addresses a particular ICT-related issue (e-safety, perhaps), or which includes references to a particular concept, used correctly of course.

So why flash fiction as opposed to ordinary fiction? Because there is a word limit which makes the task both achievable and, paradoxically, more difficult. Writing about an issue or concept when space is no object gives you plenty of room to ramble and waffle. A space which is less than a side of paper is rather less forgiving. There are three disadvantages of the flash fiction approach. One is that it can be time-consuming, both for the pupil to write and the teacher to assess. Another is that there is a danger of assessing a pupil’s fiction-writing skills rather than her knowledge and understanding of ICT. And there is the possibility that such an assessment approach would favour some pupils (the more creatively expressive ones) over others.

To be honest, I have tended not to lose sleep over that last one because every mode of assessment favours some kinds of pupils over others.

All the more reason, perhaps, to include short story writing, especially flash fiction, as one instrument in the ICT assessment toolkit?

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