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'After 14 years teaching much the same course, this year's exams are a reminder of the scale of the GCSE changes'

A head of geography gives his view on the changing GCSE courses 

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A head of geography gives his view on the changing GCSE courses 

GCSE geographers have just sat their first exam paper and it has put me in a nostalgic mood. This is the last year of the current specification and, for us, a move from WJEC B to AQA. After 14 years of teaching much the same course, it is a reminder of how much is changing. 

It is strange thinking about that final exam paper. I automatically find myself wondering about the lessons I might take from it to teach the next year group, but of course there is no next year group; not for this syllabus, at least. 

However, there are lessons about my own teaching that I can learn when looking at recent exam papers from this old specification. 

A focus on skills 

The main thing that strikes me is how skills-heavy the paper has often felt over the years. This is something that only looks set to increase in the future with more of a focus on some of those skills we used to teach at key stage 5 coming down to key stage 4. One thing I keep meaning to do for the new specification is to carefully review the teaching of geographical skills, to ensure they are taught and tested as comprehensibly as we teach and test content  knowledge. 

What did my students think of the exam? When my class came to see me afterwards they were not impressed. Not with the questions themselves, but with the fact that there was a spelling mistake in the paper that they had been told to correct before starting the paper.

The other point that seemed to have worried some is that the paper looked a little different: the format had changed slightly. It is often these little things that have thrown them over the years, but it always affects those lacking in confidence the most. The more self-belief they have, the more they are able to shrug off these minor hurdles. 

There are also those questions that catch pupils by surprise. Things that seem to focus in on one small aspect of the course and carry a far higher tariff than you’d expect. It is a reminder that there is only so much that you can do to prepare pupils for the test. The only solution is for them to have a deep and secure subject knowledge that they can then draw on, and apply, to any question they are asked.

As ever, it seems worth looking up a key stage and seeing what you can bring down. Geography pupils at A Level are expected to think synoptically and are assessed on their ability to “think like a geographer”. We need to make clear links between topics and make them explicit for our pupils.

Before we pack away our overflowing cupboard of dusty past exam papers, I think it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the lessons we can learn from the old and take to the new. The specifications may have changed but, I am happy to say, if we create excellent geographers they will thrive regardless.

Mark Enser is Head of Geography at Heathfield Community College. He blogs at teachreal.wordpress.com

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