Designing and building a GCSE curriculum from scratch – part 1

I work in an academy that is now in its third year.  We are beginning to design what I hope to be an inspiring and expansive curriculum for our students moving into GCSE’s.  Having taught GCSE Geography in the past.  The team I worked with and I were very much going through the motions with student mindset and engagement towards the subject.  The curriculum was ultimately narrow and as a team we became obsesssed with the outcomes in terms of exam results.  By that I mean, the focus on results meant that there was a narrowing in curriculum design and a focus on passing the exam that was ultimately self limiting.  By focusing on the exam factory method, where we regularly assessed students using exam questions and a focus on exam skills, students understandibly switched off and became disengaged.  I want to use this negative experience and my new gained knowledge over the past 2 years to design an authentic and relevant curriculum.  A curriculum that students buy into and are ultimately successful alongside being independent and autonomous learners.  This series of blogposts will document over time how my team and I build a Geography curriculum.

My vision has several aspects to it.  Firstly, I believe in a connected curriculum, that links geographical knowledge and skills to other disciplines.  This has several benefits to students and to the teachers designing the curriculum.  Some argue that there is limited time and a need to focus on subject specific skills and knowledge within their own disciplines and a focus on specification content.  I disagree, I believe that there is a huge opportunity that by connecting the curriculum, time can be saved and students can learn concepts in a deeper and more meaningful way.  There is a need to map the curriculum to show where knowledge and skills overlap.  This requires leaders to facilitate this process and accelerate this change in thinking.  There is an opportunity for subjects to work together on joint curriculum projects and there are opportunities for teachers to explicitly help students to make visible where they are using different skills across the curriculum.  This can only be done with careful and rigorous planning and mapping of skills and knowledge across dsiciplines.

An example is the matching of knowledge across Geography, Biology and Chemistry.  I have conciously decided to use the AQA specification partly because the science department are using the same spec.  By looking at Chemistry and Biology specs, the knowledge can be cross referenced.  Parts of the Chemistry specification is about the earths crust and convection currents, tectonic plates and earthquakes.  This of course matches to the unit ‘Restless Earth’ where students study similar processes, and essentially build on this knowledge through using case studies.  This provides a huge opportunity to both save time across both disciplines, but also to explore the deeper links between the Chemsitry and Geography of the earth through an authentic and rigorous cross curricular project.

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Likewise, in Biology there is a great cross over of knowledge about ecosystems and the potential for joint fieldwork, similarly to what we have begun to explore at A level.

My aim is also for the Geography curriculum to be authentic and experiential in nature.  This can be a challenge when topics can be far removed from the lives of students living in central London.  However, we have to find opportunities to make the curriculum relevant but not contrived.  Sometimes this may not be possible, and concepts simply need to be learned, however, we can be creative in ways to make the curriculum relevant.  Geography is a naturally experiential subject.  Where students are learning about the coast, this is a great oppotunity for fieldwork and designing a curriclulm around students learning about landforms and processes outside of the classroom.  There is opportunity for students to visit Iceland for example and match their learning in Chemistry and Geography in an exciting location.  It is also important for equality and for all students to be able to access these opportunities.

However, in the classroom issues such as sustainability, inequality and asking students to solve problems that are real and linking the curriculum to their role in society are equally powerful.  But across the curriculum, students need to be thinking about their own wellbing and how to live in a changing world.  Our partner university, has a set of ‘Grand Challenges’ that we could potentially build our curriculum around.  These are big issues that the globe faces and we need to respond to as a society.  By designing a curriculum that considers these issues both within curriculum and between curriculum areas and through extra-curricular opportunities, we could encourage students to think positively about their own wellbeing and the planets wellbeing and developing the educated optimists that local and global communities desire.

I want to build a GCSE curriculum that obviously helps students to achieve excellent GCSE results, however, I don’t want students to be of the narrow, limiting mindset of how to achieve a certain grade.  The assessment system would be one that encourages a growth mindset.  We have developed a system of progress grades and ‘I can’ statements that I am keen to further develop.  There will not be a focus on the giving of grades to students, so that they can focus on the knowledge and skills that they need to develop rather than being ‘hung up’ on a grade they are given.

Technology and flipped learning would play a huge role in curriculum development.  A flipped learning approach would be used.  Using the RealSmart learning platform, it is possible to upload lectures, notes and links to videos etc that explain geographical processes and allow students to research a topic before coming to the lesson.  Students are then assessed in the following lesson and can work at their own pace towards the outcomes expected.  Learning can be blended and personalised and essentially, the whole GCSE course can be built online, allowing for students to work at their own pace. Obviously students would be rigorously assessed for mastery as they complete tasks and projects.

Coasts screen capture

Our first GCSE unit is on the topic of Coasts, we have begun this recently to give more time to the quality and depth of work.  We aim to have a project oriented approach to this unit, with the ultimate aim of finding ways to become ‘project based’ where possible at GCSE level.  For example, students must learn about coastal erosion and depositional landforms.  We have designed a project, where students will make a ‘virtual fieldtrip’ along the Dorset coastline.  Processes such as wave formation and types of erosion and transportation are learned online for flipped home learning, while students are assessed and work on project work in the lessons.  We are also embracing technology and digital literacy within the project.  The project will involve stop motion animations of landform formation and using apps such as ‘Shadow Puppet’ or their google slides to present the work.  This will lead onto a separate project where they will be coming up with their own coastal management solutions, linking this to the real work of project management and problem solving.  The ‘I can’ assessment statements based on blooms taxonomy and based on the GCSE specification can be seen below.

We will further assess students ‘when the individual is ready’ by having a set of GCSE assessment questions online that students can complete when they like through the unit, based on GCSE past papers.  Too often students are not ready, so we want to have this aspect of personalisation that will hopefully generate motivation.  There will also be a focus on memory.  The book ‘Make it Stick’ has influenced me to design the curriculum based on spacing and interleaving of knowledge.  Students will be given low stakes tests on a regular basis.  Please see an example below.  These are cumulative and allow for spacing of knowledge of key concepts.  Alongside this, the use of exit tickets to inform teacher planning and a focus on all students ‘mastering’ of the subject is vital.  These exit tickets would form a set of ongoing revision cards.  There will be no cramming in the remaining weeks of the GCSE course, but ongoing revision and retaining of knowledge and understanding.

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