Teaching to the test vs Teaching for the test (and beyond)


These thoughts are from an INSET day a few weeks ago when I wanted to focus in our department on ‘What is learning?’. We had some good discussions and one of them was about key stage 4 and GCSE teaching.

I have blogged before on how I ‘Teach to the test‘ by arguing that students need to see exam papers well before they’re faced with one in their final exam.

Our discussions focussed more on the teaching that takes place over the 2/3 years. We came up with two potential models for teaching for GCSE? (For ease I will use hand drawn diagrams – apologies for the presentation/quality)

Model 1 – Teaching to the test


This model is when a teacher only teaches the content of the GCSE. Everything that a student needs to know as a potential exam question is taught. It is often taught in the ‘units’ or ‘modules’ that the exam follows, so student know that today’s lesson on ‘Islam and marriage’ will be in Paper 1, unit 3. They are taught the correct amount and level of knowledge and understanding needed to be able to answer any exam question asked on the topic. In my current spec that is four different teachings. These two elements, subject knowledge and exam structure, fit together neatly.

All students need to know is a minimum of four correct answers to the question. Their notes can follow this format. Revision can be done in nice chunks.

However, if you then asked a student, a question about Islam and divorce, rather than considering the teachings behind these beliefs, they would go to their notes on Islam and divorce and find the four correct points. Whilst there are important connections in teachings between these two, they’d been learnt as a separate ‘chunk’ that few students can transfer knowledge from one to another.

Similarly, if you asked them to compare Christian and Muslim teachings on marriage, they wouldn’t be able to. It’s not an exam question they’ll be asked so they don’t know how to do it. They have no skills beyond what they’ve been taught for the exam.

This is how I’ve taught for a lot of my career. I used to teach compulsory GCSE RS short course on one lesson a fortnight. Imagine if a students was off ill, then it was the Easter holiday. I wouldn’t see them for potential 6 or 8 weeks. It was the only way to teach. They needed to know what could be on the exam. There wasn’t time for anything else.

But most subjects are not in this position. Whilst many teachers will always say they need more time (yet some are happy to waste time on the last day of each term…..) there is enough time to teach. And if you consider secondary school as a 5 year learning process (NOT a 5 year GCSE) then there is time not to resort to ‘teaching to the test’.

Importantly, model 1 works. If they know all the possible questions and all the correct answers, they can do well on an exam.

Model 2 Teaching for the test (and beyond)

I’m not sure this diagram truly depicts this model so hopefully my explanation will do it better.

If we consider our subject to be a minimum of 5 years learning, we can begin to teach beyond the test.

Instead of teaching for what is needed directly for the test, we can teach what is essential for students to understand in our subject to have the ability to answer any question on any topic. (I think some might call this ‘mastery’).

To help explain, I will take the new GCSE RS course. In a bizarre decision, students have to study Christianity, yet there is no requirement for them all to know and understand the Bible. There won’t be any questions in the exam about the Bible. If we were to follow the model above, they would never have a lesson about the Bible. They would have to reference it for its teachings in moral and ethical areas, even know about some miracles but not what it is, how it is formed, and how it is interpreted by different Christians.

So I decided, that I would sacrifice time to do a few lessons on this with them. From this it helped them understand: Biblical interpretations, Christian denominations and crucially why there is not agreement amongst Christians on key moral and ethical issues. Of course, when I get to teach abortion, I would then have to teach them the differing opinions amongst Christians and the biblical references they use to justify their position. But I would then have to do this again for Euthanasia, and war and capital punishment etc etc Instead, giving them a foundation in Biblical interpretations means they can apply it to anything, even topics beyond the GCSE. We’ve given them the foundations to answer any, not just the four possible answers for an exam answer.

This diagram attempts to show this. They may well have the same exam question as in model 1, but because they’ve learnt all the foundations in Islam, they have an array of sources to pull from to write an answer. The focus in this model is learning the essentials in order to be able to apply to all situations. The second circle shows that the same foundations are there for a completely different question, that wouldn’t even be in the exam, but they would be able to have a go at it from their foundation knowledge.

We do, of course, teach them what the exam questions will look like and how to do well in them but in theory, they could take a different exam board specification and equally be able to answer those questions as the basics and foundations are the same for Islam.

The other benefit of this is there is less ‘unit’ or ‘module’ learning. Students don’t learn an answer for unit 3, they apply their knowledge to unit 3. I’ve heard teachers criticise interleaving because their students would get ‘confused’. I’ve even heard stories of their students writing about the wrong concepts in an answer because they had got confused. I strongly believe that in this model, that wouldn’t happen. My students wouldn’t confuse Muhammad’s last speech with what Jesus said on the cross. They know both so well it won’t be confused. Yet they can apply both of these to any context and to any moral/ethical issue. I’ve been interleaving all this academic year and thus far I haven’t had any confusion between key concepts.

This model teaches outside and beyond the exam. It prepares them for A level and beyond, if they choose to.

My students have learnt some Arabic; it’s certainly not in the exam but now they know the root s_l_m they have range of applications in their exam. And they remember it. They remember the core stuff because it’s ‘deep’ and helps to explain some of the unexplainable.

Skeptics of this model will always claim the time issue will prevent them from doing it. There are four responses to this:

1) It doesn’t take up the time you think it does. Because you focus on the core ‘stuff’, it’s the foundations that are needed. No foundation, no independent application.

2) It will work better in the long run. Learn a few things in-depth that apply across the syllabus or lots of things that can only answer one or two questions?

3) You can start students on these core issues before GCSE. I certainly don’t believe we should teach the GCSE in key stage 3 but we can start those foundations.
Using model 2 has changed how I teach GCSE and I also think it makes them better students of religious studies. I know they’ll be going into key stage 5 with a much better grounding of studying religions.

4) Be brave. Change your mindset.

This model can work in any subject but it takes a mind shift away from what is needed for the exam to what learning is needed to understand topic X, that can be applied in any exam.

Oh and I think that model 2 will work….better than model 1.


3 thoughts on “Teaching to the test vs Teaching for the test (and beyond)

  1. Pingback: The marathon of assessment | missdcoxblog

  2. Hello Missy,
    I’ve been feeling very much the same way and am trialling this with my year nines starting Islam. Is there any chance I could see how you taught the Arabic and sources elements to start the foundations?

    Many thanks Shell (Holyrood academy – shell171@live.co.uk)

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