The Big Picture


One day, as an adult I was listening to the radio and a piece of classical music came on that I somehow recognised. I knew how it went and unexpectedly realised how.

When I was a child, I used to have flute lessons. I was fairly rubbish. Every week at my lesson we’d go through the same pieces of music. I played the notes as I could and tried to play each of them for the right amount of time. However I didn’t have any idea what those notes were doing all together. Once or twice my teacher would play it for me but not enough to give me a sense of what the whole piece was about.

This made me wonder, why hadn’t she played the whole thing to me? Why didn’t she let me hear how my flute part fitted in? How the notes could’ve been interpreted into the whole piece? Why didn’t she show me the ‘bigger picture’?

I’m an advocate of giving students a copy of the specification at GCSE/A level. It gives them a sense of everything that is needed as a minimum. It’s not everything but it is better than them not being aware of the minimum requirements. However, are there other ways we can do this to help them makes those links and understand something as it’s whole?

Concept maps

At ResearchED Ipswich last week I had a fascinating discussion with Oliver Caviglioli. He reminded me of how important the bigger picture is and it’s important role in learning. He is a huge advocate of concept maps as a tool to enable this.

So, another one of the plans on my long ‘to-do’ list is to create these concept maps for GCSE. I can really see how they can allow students to see how Christianity and Islam function and the connections between key concepts.

Concept maps differ from mindmaps as they have words linking them (usually verbs) to see the relationship between them. They’re actually very difficult to make as it’s easy to over complicate straight away and there are so many links between concepts it can become spaghetti like.


In our whole staff CPD this week I shared how one of our principles for learning, ‘transform’, includes ‘model’.

We discussed that we often learn by seeing something in its final and completed form. It gives a sense of what we’re trying to achieve and what it ‘looks like’. Examples of how to do this are numerous and depend on the subject:

  • Giving an essay to students writing an essay
  • Showing a completed product in DT
  • Hearing the word/sentence in MFL
  • Worked examples in maths
  • Demonstration in PE
  • Using a timeline in History/RE
  • Exam question answers (all subjects)

Without these, how do we expect our students to understand what they are working towards? Lessons and homework are mainly spent on the key concepts and the detail within these. It’s easy to forget how they all link up. Some students may do this themselves when they start to make the links but many won’t. We need to provide them with the means to ‘see’ this regularly throughout their learning. We now plan to show model exam questions at least once a half term and have created these centrally so we use the same resource for all students.

  • How do you show students the bigger picture?

  • How often do you reference back to it?

  • When do you reference back to it?

  • How do you know all students are getting the same ‘bigger picture’?

  • Sometimes the exam ‘big picture’ isn’t how it ‘really’ is, how can you approach this with students.


Ditch ‘revision’ – A trial of Independent Review from day one


Revision in Secondary schools is usually perceived as something that is either done before a test or towards the end of year 11. Both of these can be considered as cramming or ‘massed practice’; doing all the revision at one time. Annoyingly, it does has an effect on results and it’s this last minute ‘hit’ that people attribute to success in exams.

I have argued for a long time that we need to ditch this idea and teach well from day 1. I have blogged on this here but essentially it means that subject material is reviewed and tested on from day 1, in order to remember things long term. This is known as ‘spaced’ or ‘distributed’ practice. Research suggests that this far outweighs massed practice yet schools around the country continue to spend hours in teacher’s lunch times, after school and holidays to complete massed practice. Safe in the knowledge it will make a difference.

Roediger, H. L. III, & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242-248.

I strongly believe that telling the majority of students to do this themselves is nonsense. Telling students to ‘revise’ is as effective as telling children to ‘behave’ ; they can’t, they need structures and modelling. Most adults wouldn’t have the discipline to organise it. We need to do it for the students, whilst modelling it for them to do independently. Which leads me to our current trial…..

Independent retrieval practice

I think we’re probably now sorted on doing everything we can in GCSE RS including curriculum design, the things we do in lessons and how we structure the homework to ensure that retrieval is distributed. This alone will have impact. However we also want students to do some of this themselves, so we are in the process of setting up a system for independent retrieval practice.

Retrieval checklist card

These cards will be issued to GCSE students from year 9. They have the specification (and more) on them and then a set of possible tasks to complete that require retrieval or processing of content.


We will probably add to these cards the page number for each topic. They then can go to the page and read the content and/or read their own notes. However this isn’t enough, they must process it in some way. We will make suggestions, for example create a mindmap or bullet notes.


They will need to quiz themselves. This will mostly be using our in house created quizzes which are online marked on google forms. They access these via our subject website. If not they can also use Seneca Learning as it specifically has AQA GCSE.

4/5/12 marks

These are GCSE exam questions. They need to complete a question on the topic. This helps them to transfers the knowledge into a specific type of skilled question.

There will be several ways to access exam questions. The revision guides have suggested exam questions for each topic on each page. Secondly, we will have an exam questions area in classrooms where they can come and take a paper which has several optional questions on it for that topic, and choose one to complete. Finally, we have these questions on our subject website.


I think students will need some accountability on these. What stops them from just ticking everything? Firstly, we will be very clear that the reward here is learning itself. Extrinsic rewards can undermine learning.

If they complete a quiz I get an email. We can then sign the card if needed. If they complete an exam question we can mark it and check the card. If they create notes from reading+ we can check these. I think we’ll give them a small retrieval exercise book to use to keep these safe.

It will be light touch. A public ‘well done’ or an email home is all it takes. This is supposed to be independent and not create much work for us teachers. We’re supporting their independence and self-regulation. We need to praise completion for the sole reason it will benefit them and the reward will be on results day and well beyond. This structure can be used beyond their time with us. If we show them the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, they can use these strategies in all further study.

Cumulative cards

The year 9 card will have highlighted the topics we cover in year 9 so they can focus on those. They also will only have certain exam questions covered in year 9 so their card won’t have them all.

This will increase with the year 10 card and finally the year 11 card is everything.

The year 9 card won’t have 12 mark questions as we teach that in year 10

I’m adamant we will not be running Year 11 ‘revision’ sessions; these are often just re-teaching with pizza. However we will provide students the space needed for this independent study. Thursday and Friday lunchtimes they can come to a quiet room, with their lunch and choose to do any of these or their RS homework.

However this isn’t just for year 11, it’s for all GCSE students. They need to realise it starts from day one. This is a structured system from the start of their GCSE study. We need them to understand that the best learning happens over time. We need them to appreciate that every single lesson counts, so does homework. We’ve put in retrieval for them and now it’s time for them to try it out themselves.


So this is our trial. We will tweak the cards etc as we go along. We will ask the students what works and what doesn’t. All we need now is a name for it. Independent revision? Retrieval practice? Suggestions welcome.

Curriculum intent & design – how not to do it


Whilst curriculum design may be the remit of subject leaders, how much training and guidance do they get? How much time do they get to really think about the principles and values they want to underpin their subject?

From a discussion with a colleague about curriculum, I thought I’d ponder those things that in themselves may not be good rationales designing a subject curriculum or processes for creating schemes.

So this list is intended to support thinking more deeply about what we do. This is in an ideal world of course; we all have limiting factors in decisions we make.

Some are deliberately ambiguous but included to encourage thought and discussion.

How not to do it….

Design & Ordering

  1. Choose the most ‘fun’ topics first
  2. Choose topics in pre-GCSE year just to get students to choose the subject (and then wonder why the GCSE isn’t always like that)
  3. Put topics at the start that need foundational knowledge to understand when they don’t have that knowledge
  4. Design them on your favourite topics
  5. Design schemes that are completely linear and don’t develop skills and knowledge over time
  6. Asking someone else for their curriculum/schemes on a forum and using that (without any thought to the underpinning principles and values)
  7. Teaching a series of stand alone units with no links between units.
  8. Have no consideration of how students will remember over the long term
  9. Trying to include everything and anything to tick a box when it might not be appropriate (literacy, numeracy, SMSC etc)
  10. Designing it for a particular group (that may be underachieving) e.g boys, Pupil Premium.
  11. Design the curriculum around a data collection system (or any other accountability system)
  12. Teach a course following through a text book from start to finish (without consideration if order is appropriate)


  1. Making up assessments after you’ve taught the topic; an after thought
  2. Creating assessment tasks that don’t assess the things you’ve taught
  3. Asking on a forum for an assessment task (when no-one knows what you are going to/have taught)
  4. Designing an assessment task for its engagement/fun with little relevance to outcomes of learning
  5. Think that written assessments are bad
  6. Put in assessment points just to meet data entry requirements
  7. Assess using just GCSE exam questions at key stage 3

Subject content

  1. Teach GCSE specifications at key stage 3 as the curriculum
  2. Teaching knowledge and no skills
  3. Teaching skills and no knowledge
  4. Allow each teacher to decide what they’re going to teach from a subject, so students in the same year group all learn different things
  5. Including ‘everything’ at a superficial level without depth
  6. Choosing ‘easy’ topics that lack rigour
  7. Have no awareness of how your subject links to other subjects
  8. Choosing topics solely due to the existing books/texts you have


  1. Limiting your curriculum it for your ‘type’ of students (e.g. perceived ability, socio-economic status etc)
  2. Ask students what topics they want to learn about and only include them
  3. Designing a curriculum based on skills of the future; preparing students for ‘life’