Sunday, 20 March 2016

New GCSEs in Science: teaching them!

The new science GCSEs are starting to be accredited. This is a relief, but not good enough. We should have had these specs a year before first teaching. What makes matters worse is that pretty much everyone is accepting that we need to start teaching them in Year 9. So very many schools are teaching unaccredited specifications right now. I know the argument about the content being fixed, but it's the principle.

There are several things that I am considering currently as I plan how to get the best possible outcomes from the new GCSEs.

The first is the non-spiral curriculum. Pre-2006 when I first taught edexcel modular GCSE and it was spiral I didn't like it at all. And to be be honest even now I am not a huge fan. However, I have learned to make the most of revising ideas to revise what I have taught previously. I want to consider how I am going to help students remember previous ideas. I do hope that teaching a topic as one will help better conceptual understanding though.

Electromagnetism is a good example of this. At the moment I teach generators and transformers independently and with no reference to electromagnets and motors. I don't even tell the core science students how a transformer works unless they specifically ask. When I do I certainly don't get them to write it down. What I want to do is what I did pre-2006 when I taught the AQA specification. Teach electromagnets and how to make them stronger. Then teach motors (effectively that two magnets attract or repel, but one is an electromagnet, and knowing how to make it faster is easy if you know how to make an electromagnet stronger). Then teach generators because physics works backwards as well as forwards, the idea of generators translates well to transformers then.

I feel like low stakes testing is another answer to this. Multiple choice tests using zip grade to check what students know and what they are, in general struggling to remember from topic to topic. We will need to identify fundamental ideas that we want all students to remember. I suppose the things that I feel will have to be taught well. Hopefully by reviewing the previous topic during the current one will keep the learning fresher than it would otherwise. However, too much time doing low stakes tests will impact on the second issue.

Secondly, I am struggling slightly with the format of the specification. During my teaching career I have always found the GCSE specification to be useful in setting the level of expected understanding. Teaching the post-2006 specifications has always felt like an exercise in ensuring the students were using the right words in the right order. Whist it looks like we are stepping away from that, I would imagine that we won't be in reality. There has to be a 'right' answer. Even A-level physics has that. A-level physics has a lot of past-papers though to help with the wording of an expected answer. (At least help the teacher). This is issue will be on going. I hope that the GCSE textbooks we have going back to when my husband started teaching will help. But if GCSEs are getting more difficult then old textbooks might not be useful... I will be looking at all the specimen assessment materials to help establish level of difficulty.

Now, you can argue that we should just teach the content to the most difficult level we can. This is exactly what I have said in meetings in the department. But, I still want an idea.

I do want to look more closely at questions that require application of ideas in the current specifications and for other exam boards. I do think that this has been done well in the current gateway specification, but our students have also found it challenging. It is an area that we need to look at and improve in our teaching. However, it is easier said that done when I consider the shear vastness of the content.

Then there is the pace we'll be teaching at. The content is vast. Our students are not happy when they don't feel they are confident in an idea. I imagine we're not alone. But we're going to have to keep going if we are to get through the content. I do agree that it is better to 'teach some of it well than all of it badly'. I actually hope that the non-spiral nature of the content will help with this. I can spend more time on the basics if necessary and the should help understanding of the more difficult concepts. (Even if the more difficult concepts end up having to be taught by chalk and talk due to time). Hopefully I can use my pre-2006 experience to pick the concepts that will allow students to access maximum number of marks.

I will plan out a lesson by lesson break down of the content to ensure that it fits within the time we have to teach it. A tight rota will be necessary to ensure we can keep on track. Hopefully there will be the chance to build in some slack in case of absence for class or teacher. We need to be allowed to be ill.

As part of homework/prep I would like to encourage students to think about the topics and concepts they should have met at key stage 3 so that when they come to the topic we can quickly review the underpinning knowledge and then move on to new concepts. This won't be straight forward as I can imagine that there will be a lot of 'I didn't understand it' and a few excuses. But hopefully by setting the expectation they will see the benefit and it will be easier to enforce as time goes on.

I also want to encourage the students to make Q&A flash cards as we progress through the course. This will hopefully allow them to spend time revising and reviewing rather than copying when we get  to Y11 mock time and Easter of Y11. I think giving a selection of questions will help scaffold this activity.

This holiday I am going to evaluate our key stage 3 offering to ensure that we are getting across the key ideas that will be fundamental to the new GCSE. I hope that OUP are doing the same!

Lastly is the practical aspect. The monitor who visited for the A-level practical endorsement suggested having some fold out information sheets in the back of the practical books with advice. I want to do something similar for GCSE. I have been looking at the GCSE specification and what is expected. I think if we get the students into habits it will help.

These would be making a prediction, writing a results table, drawing a graph identifying anomalies and writing a conclusion. Yes, we'll need to look at practical techniques and evaluations too, but I think that I want to teach that for each experiment rather than make them come up with things totally independently. The worksheets that we use for the A-level practical endorsement have instructions to follow and questions at the end that make the students evaluate the specific data collected and methods. Something like that would be useful. It probably means we will have to try all the experiments.

To make practical work efficient I will probably create instruction videos for the practicals. (Without giving away the conclusions if I can possibly help it. I usually try and obscure the readings during filming or speak over still photographs). It is very satisfying watching the student watch and pause video instructions. I have said this, but it does make a difference.

We are debating if we get students to only 'write-up' the PAGs we have to do in a practical book, or all the practical work. Or whether it should just be in their files.

The GCSE changes are becoming pretty real now.


  1. Don't get them to 'write ip' practicals more than a few times to ensure they have the skills - move on to writing about different aspects - what I have learned - how I would improve this - why are results variable in this practical etc. Getting students to formally write up practicals as a matter of routine is deadly boring and unnecessary, and will kill the opportunities we have of engaging pupils through practical work stone dead.

  2. I agree. I should have said 'write about' in that second last paragraph. We had to write up everything, very long winded and didn't really focus us on the key aspects of that particular practical activity.

  3. Thank you Helen. Your blog was really interesting. I am in my third year of teaching. The change in spec is daunting just as I was getting used to my materials for the old spec. I have mapped out lessons and available teaching time and we are about 20 sessions short over the course of y9, 10 & 11, from our current y9 start point (Nov ) to Easter y11. We will probably have to start teaching New ks4 in September of y9.

    Which exam board are you using? We have just tested year 9 on the content they have done so far. It will be interesting to see how it goes and how the students manage the harder tests.

    1. We are doing OCR Gateway. You are not alone in struggling for time. The only thing that cheers me is that we are all in the same boat.

  4. Old O-level textbooks might be useful! In terms of review, at the beginning of each lesson put up three questions: one about the previous lesson's work, one from work a couple of weeks ago, and one from the previous term. Encouraging long term recall, and an expectation that they can't just forget from topic to topic.

    1. This is a really good idea that I will make clear in our start of term meetings next term.