“But my weak students struggle with it” – Why the new GCSEs are needed

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Since the start of the new GCSE specifications, I’ve heard this several times. My view on this isn’t a popular one.

They ‘should’ struggle.

Whether we like it or not, GCSEs are essentially a ranking of all the students that take that exam in that year. We can argue for a long time whether this is fair or whether it’s the purpose of education but the longer we spend on this, the less time we spend on giving our students the best support and opportunity to achieve their best.

Here are some grade boundaries for Religious Studies GCSE:

img_2041-1There are three marks between an A and an A* and seven between each of the ‘good GCSE’ grades. You’d hope that those would differentiate between students e.g a good student, an excellent student and an exceptional student. They don’t. Those marks could be achieved from many things that aren’t good subject knowledge.

Students in legacy specifications are also tested on their own opinions. How is that testing if they are a good religious studies student?

None of these really tell me that one candidate is more skilled in religious studies than another. In fact, if a student understands and applies the ‘rules’ of the exam, they can achieve a ‘C’ with little knowledge of religions. When my boss asks me what grades students will achieve I can tell him about the quality of their writing but I explain that the difference between the grades and the margins for error in marking make it almost impossible.

There are, and will be students who get surprise results, not because they worked hard or know any more religious teachings but on the day, gave their opinion with reasons whilst those who studied hard may have had a wobble and forgotten something ,yet they come out with the same grade.

The current system isn’t fair.

So, to the new GCSE. It mainly tests knowledge and evaluation. There are not any specific marks for their own opinion (although some teachers are still using it as part of evaluation). A student has to have studied and learnt a lot about religions to answer the questions. They need to be able to plan and show the higher skill of evaluation to get the top marks. This is where the differentiation begins. Students will be ranked according to their religious knowledge and skills. Evaluation is difficult. It’s supposed to be. Low attaining students WILL struggle with it. They’re supposed to.

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Don’t confuse what I’m saying with high expectations. I’m not saying that initial starting points defines a students’ final attainment. I’m not. It’s my job as a teacher to stretch and challenge all students to do the maximum they achieve at the time. They can all achieve a 9. But the reality is they won’t. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s reality. We all want the best for our students but is it really good if all students achieve a 9? What does that tell anyone?

These GCSE reforms were really important, especially for RS. It was becoming silly. We need to accept that challenge is a good thing and will help us become ‘equal’ to other subjects instead of being the subject that can be done on one lesson a week. Times are changing.

It’s my job from now on to develop my students to out-do any data and excel in the study of religions. Bring it on!

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“But we need to finish the course” – What if we plan NOT to complete the specification?

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On Saturday, at #SASFE17 Matt Pinkett tweeted this from session two with some sixth formers:

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I had planned to suggest something similar in session 3 so they beat me to it.

Teachers seem to be very concerned about ‘finishing’ a course. Understandably, they want to be sure they’ve covered everything that could possibly come up in an exam with the students to give them the best possible chance. Even if this means racing through content on a lesson by lesson basis and doing this until the last lesson before the exam; if they’ve covered it, then they know it.

But we know this isn’t true. Just because you’ve explained something or dedicated a lesson to it doesn’t mean that a) they understood it or b) they will remember it in 2/3 years time. Instead of quantity of learning, should we look at the quality of learning?

In my session at #SASFE17 I shared a model, based on cognitive science that might be an alternative to the model above.

I used a very unscientific method to share my hypothesis. I suggested the following:

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If we rush through content without considering what students have learnt or using any methods to help students to remember long-term, they might only remember 50% of the content.

However, if we spend time using strategies that cognitive science suggests helps with long-term memory (spacing, interleaving, recall, testing etc) this might mean that we don’t have enough time to fully complete covering the content of the course. I propose that this might not be disastrous as it sounds.

Here we can see that only 75% of the course was covered and if it was all then remembered over the long-term, they will ‘know’ more than if everything was rushed through without any embedding (only 50%).

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Of course none of these numbers are accurate but I use the illustration to show that using strategies for learning that may take more time might not be at the cost of learning.

Let’s assume that my hypothesis is correct. What does this mean for teachers?

They need to decide which aspects of their specification are core concepts that are essential for understanding the most of the specification. Are there key theories that are the essential basics of the subject, through which, lots of other concepts connect?

For example, in GCSE RS, if students understand the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus it also helps understand salvation, incarnation and resurrection.

Might this change the order and the detail in which teachers teach content? Are there some topics that would be best taught early on so that the planned recall throughout the rest of the course can embed them fully?

It will mean that the time that we have with students in class and what we set for HW/prep is key. We need to consider what methods we will use to help with spacing and recall. We need to plan this all carefully and well ahead of time.

Do we need to differentiate between classes and/or students on what will be missed out? Might students that are working towards level 3-5 at GCSE have a different ‘core’ selected to those working towards 7-9?

Finally, do we tell students if we don’t plan to cover the specification? How might this be framed? Do we tell them from day 1 what it is that won’t be covered so they have 2 years to work on it themselves?

Teachers are scared not to cover the full specification, but if hours are limited and not enough to cover all content, the logical solution might be stop trying to squeeze it all in and think strategically about the time available.

 

Exam stress

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I love this term. It’s when all our hard work comes to fruition. However it’s the time of year when the stress begins for year 11 students. The first written GCSE is next week and teachers are trying to squeeze in all their last minute tips and go through a whole course in the final few lessons. Teachers are tense, students listen and the stress is passed on. Teachers suddenly expect students to be spending 2 hours after school each day on their subject. It’s totally understandable. Some teachers’ pay progression relies on it.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.*

I had my last lesson before the first written exam this week. Essentially it was the same as every lesson I’ve taught them since day 1; I knew what I wanted to cover with them and we did a practice exam question. We played a game (which I rarely do). I didn’t mention anything like ‘remember to do X’ or ‘in the exam…..’. Their exam could’ve been next week or next year.

This is because I’ve been planning for this for two years. We’ve spread out that stress over two years. My expectations and sense of importance started from day 1. ‘Revision’ started from HW one; I’ve not set any ‘revise’ homework in recent weeks. I do think these exams are important for them and I expect them to work hard, take them seriously and do their best, but I’ve expected that all along. Not in the last few weeks. Nothing’s changed….in my classroom anyway.

I deliberately don’t make a tense atmosphere or present a sense of urgency to them. In fact I’ve set minimal work for them to do as HW in the past few weeks. No holiday sessions or after school ‘revision’. I’ve never told them to spend hours on my subject; I’ve interleaved all they need in lessons and HWs.

If we want a calm and positive learning environment we should be teaching and training our students how to plan and prepare for something in the long term, not resort to last minute, short term gains. Our professional stresses don’t need to be shared with them. I am still accountable for their progress and results but I have planned and prepped throughout. I have no doubt they will all do well on the day. We’ve covered all bases for a long time.

This time should be for them to be proud of what they’ve learnt and want to get on with it. I believe that if teachers spoke about the importance of exams throughout and planned a careful curriculum then any last minute interventions or assemblies wouldn’t be needed. The skills of the teacher is not to offer more interventions it’s to carefully and strategically know their specification and the time they have and plan a course that benefits long term learning. Moaning about not having enough time is pointless.

All of this shifts the rhetoric around exams from an urgent, stressy, fearful experience to a satisfying recognition and denouement of all their hard work.

 
* I understand this only applies where a class has had one teacher for the entire course. Classes that have had multiple/no teachers over the GCSE may need special provision.