Planning curriculum for linear GCSEs

The new GCSE specifications are arriving with waves of reform. New syllabus, new examination structure and timing, new grading system, new emphasis on skills, absence of coursework, different emphasis on practical skills and literacy… you’d be forgiven for complaining that there is too much change in one go, with little time to prepare. Ofqual are yet to accredit around 2/3 of new specifications leaving teachers with very little time to plan thoroughly for September 2016.

I want to discuss one of the biggest changes we will experience and explore what the best options might be in response: all exams sat in one go at the end of Year 11.

Lots of schools have become used to strategising exam entries in a bid to give pupils a best chance of scoring well. For example, sitting Core Science in Year 10, and siting Additional Science in Year 11. Pathways to plan for this included lots of revision time for each set of exams in the weeks leading up to the exam. However, pupils will now have to remember and revise for ALL of the papers in ALL of their subjects in one go. How can schools best plan to support pupils with this? Not only will this require a re-thinking at the departmental level, but across the school too.

Interleaving

Traditionally, curricula are taught by chunking all teaching for a particular topic together, and teaching various topics one after the other. There is no re-visiting of content once the time allocated for teaching it has passed. Interleaving on the other hand is the chunking of a curriculum to split the teaching of topics over time, to allow time to revisit material over time. The idea is that this will increase retention of the knowledge and allows practice of a skill over time. Read more about it in this post by David Didau. The idea is based on. Ebbinghaus’s ‘forgetting curve’.

Such a big change to curriculum design might be difficult if teachers are are already short on time. I think interleaving will reap rewards when planned carefully, but should not be rushed in its implementation.

Regularly Spaced Revision Lessons

Another idea that is much more easily integrated into existing curriculum planning would be to timetable in a revision lessons every fortnight, instead of continuing to teach the current topic.

This approach is valuable for three reasons: firstly, it allows for pupils to regularly revisit information they come across, fortifying their memory. Secondly, it is a chance to address misconceptions that might still exist in pupils’ minds which you didn’t have time to tackle when teaching the topic. This is especially useful if the understanding from a different topic that has been studied since, supports understating in a previous topic. Thirdly, this approach may serve as an opportunity to make links between new topics very explicitly, which can be extremely valuable in improving understanding as well as improving memory.

One more point – this idea also serves as an opportunity to teach pupils the importance of regular, well structured revision. Our memory gets better with each visitation of the material. This is not to say that these revision lessons should be used to re-teach content – far from it; they are surely best used teaching pupils how they can revise, give opportunity to revisit and apply skills and knowledge and develop good learning and revision habits.

Week long revision between topics

A third option to support pupils to develop understands and retain knowledge, would be to spend a week revising old content before starting a brand new topic. An example from science might look something like this: teach biology 1 (cells), followed by chemistry 1 (atoms) and then physics 1 (forces), but before starting biology 2 (organisation) spend several lessons revisiting ideas from cells. Since the teaching of the second biology module is several weeks after the teaching of  the first, the revision will fall at the right time where not all key knowledge will be forgotten, but the revision will have high impact in terms of knowledge retention.

Other options

The need to revisit prior learning regularly is based on research about how we learn. The key word here is regular.

Regular low-stakes quizzing can help with basic knowledge recall, but also quick application questions. Mixing up starters by referring to older content can work effectively as well.

Whatever is chosen, the certainty is that we need to think differently about our curriculum design especially if we did rely on the modularity of exams before this policy change. Vitally, we need base our ideas on research, which although I don’t explicitly mention in this post, is the basis for a lot of the ideas. Our pupils need to remember more in one go, and that means that we need to support them in their learning differently.

We are still having this discussion in our Science department; it’s an important one to make. What are you considering in your department? What has worked well for you? How might this discussion change when departments within your school discuss this together? I’d be interested to hear your ideas.

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