Insights from the 2012 A level General Paper essay questions

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These were the essay questions from the most recent (2012) A level GP exam here in Singapore.

  1. Is there any value in preserving minority languages in the world?
  2. ‘People in the Arts, living or dead, receive far more recognition than those in the Sciences, even though it is less deserved.’ Consider this claim.
  3. Should people be allowed to have children by artificial means?
  4. To what extent are the rights of animals protected in your society?
  5. The most influential individuals in history are those who have caused the most harm.’ How far would you accept this view?
  6. Is violence ever justified?
  7. Consider the view that mathematics possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty.
  8. In your society, how far is equality for all a reality?
  9. Should everyone be expected to donate suitable organs after death?
  10. Can humour ever be serious?
  11. ‘The key criterion for good government is how well the economy is managed.’ Is this a fair assessment?
  12. How far is it acceptable for technology to be used only for financial benefit?

Though it is dangerous to go “trend-spotting”, there are things we can learn from each year’s paper.  Here are some thoughts on the 2012 questions.

i. Fairness and Ethics

One major global concern in recent years has been “inequality”.  Measures of income inequality suggest that the divide between rich and poor has been growing, even in the “developed” world.  Anecdotal observations speak of the middle income squeeze, wage stagnation, hollowing out of middle income jobs, and calcification of social classes.

Inevitably, we are influenced by the world we live in, and this probably goes for the people who set the questions too.  I think concerns over equality, ethics and fairness are quite clearly reflected in this paper.  Have a look at the questions and see if you can spot the “equality, ethics and fairness” angle.

By my count, a majority (75%) of the questions are at least partially touched by these sentiments.  These are questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12.  Good answers to these questions would certainly include specific domain knowledge (in linguistics, the arts vs sciences debate, and the ethics of organ donations, for example).  But they should also consider society’s moral standards and obligations.

ii. The Humanities!

Students often hope that their year’s paper will be “kind”, in that favoured topics will appear.  And indeed, a broad range of questions is usually set, with something for everyone.

The official General Paper syllabus, which can be downloaded here, notes that questions can include historical, social, cultural, economic, political, philosophical, and scientific topics, among others, and “will not necessarily be set on every topic area and will not be set in any particular order.”

Still, there are some recurring topic areas.  It’s just that these tend to be the ones shunned by a large section of the student body.  I’m talking about the “humanities” type questions.  These encompass issues related to:

  • Arts vs Sciences (question 2)
  • History (question 5)
  • Role of government (question 11), and even
  • Usefulness and peculiarities of academic subjects (question 7)

Many students would likely roll their eyes and look away, upon reading these questions.  They’re certainly neither easy nor popular with the average student.

However, those same students might also have committed time to memorising facts about the environment or instances of media bias, only to find that the relevant essay questions don’t actually show up that often.

So perhaps it’s time to consider reading up a little on humanities issues, if only because they could be suitable (and frequently recurring) backup questions.

iii. Blast from the past: resurgence of philosophical questions

To some observers, the 2012 essay paper had more philosophical questions than those in preceding years.  It felt like a GP question list from perhaps ten to fifteen years ago.

Philosophical questions can be difficult to grapple with.  They definitely go beyond “literal” interpretations.  For a question like number 10 (can humour ever be serious), trying to find examples of “serious jokes” is unlikely to yield a good essay.  We might want to think about the less lighthearted purposes of humour, like political caricatures and social protest slogans that use humour to convey serious messages.  We should also analyse why there are times when humour can so effectively convey a point.

Questions 2 and 5 can definitely be answered literally, but they would have far more impact if students dwelled on what it means to be “influential”, and how we know if recognition is “deserved”.  Neither question holds immediate “correct” answers.  They will have to be pondered over the course of the essay.

We will explore philosophical questions in future posts.  But for now, a recognition of the sometimes unsaid and barely implied elements in questions can go a long way toward helping a student secure a good grade.

6 thoughts on “Insights from the 2012 A level General Paper essay questions”

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