'What I've learned from this year's GCSE'

Following the first GCSE paper of the new specification, one teacher reflects on his approaches to revision

Geography GCSE

Last year, following the final exam of the old geography specification, I wrote a piece for Tes looking at the lessons we could learn, ready for the first year of the new specification. I suggested that there was a limit to how much we could prepare pupils for particular exam questions and that we needed to focus instead on ensuring they had a deep understanding of the subject and could draw on their knowledge about an array of different topics, case studies and examples.

Having finished teaching the course, and following the first exam, I hold with this conclusion. The questions on the exam didn’t contain any huge surprises. Unlike previous exam papers, they didn’t ask detailed questions on small and easily overlooked parts of the specification; the format was very similar to those of the specimen papers and the longer questions were very clear in terms of what they were looking for.

However, the knowledge pupils had been taught needed to be applied in very specific ways. They couldn’t prepare an answer they had worked on about hot deserts and just adapt it slightly to the question. Instead, they needed to be able to think on the spot and form an argument there and then.

The same was true for the question on tropical storms. Working on perfect model answers might have led to them to try to reproduce an answer in the exam and therefore fail to answer the question.

Better approaches to revision

The six-mark questions were in a wide variety of styles: responding to sources, assessing extent, making suggestions. They really were assessing the depth of students' understanding of the subject, rather than just how well-prepared they were for the exam.

In hindsight, a better approach to revision would have been to focus on pupils being able to recall specific information (key words, information on case studies and examples, the sequence for the formation of landforms) and then to develop their conceptual understanding by applying it to broad, “fertile” questions.

The question “Why was the response to Tyhoon Haiyan criticised at the time?” won’t come up in the exam, but being able to answer it requires students to recall and apply different pieces of information they have been taught in a way that will allow them to make sense of the topic. And we know that this recall is critical for learning to take place.

Making links between topics

The problem, of course, is time. There is a temptation to see the specification as a long checklist and to base the curriculum on simply working our way through it and making sure we get to the end in time for the exam. The issue with this approach is that it ignores the links between topics that you see when you look back at the exam paper. A question on climate change links to that on food production, another on deforestation links to economic development and industry and so on.

I know one thing I will be working on in the final few weeks of this year is clearly mapping the links between topics and rethinking how we approach planning the curriculum. We need to move away from simply covering the content of the specification and towards a scheme of work that more naturally uses the synoptic links within our subject.

Overall, I was very happy with the exam paper, and most of our pupils went in and came out feeling confident. I hope that now we have worked through the course once, we will be able to find ways to teach it that allow us to explore the topics in depth, rather than in a frantic dash to the exam.

Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is out soon. He tweets @EnserMark

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