This Friday saw the culmination of two years’ worth of Friday afterschool lessons, as I sat the Geology GCSE exam with another member of staff, Jonty, and about 20 year 10 students. The course was run by Tom, the Head of Geology, and offered to motivated learners from the start of year 9. They had to write a letter to get a place and he was inundated with keenos. Jonty and I decided to join the course too.
It was quite a learning curve for me. The course is meant to build on KS3 Geography and Science curricula; I teach Geography when I have a year 7 class as we do combined Humanities for that year group, but I dropped Geography myself at the end of year 9 and had not had any interest in it; and although I enjoyed Science at school, that was a while ago now. This meant that grasping some of the basics took me a little longer and I was consistently foxed by little things like the wording of questions and how to draw diagrams &c. Fieldwork was particularly difficult.
I also found it difficult to stay on top of the homework. A GCSE in an hour a week is always going to involve quite a lot of homework and, although I managed to find time to put plenty of effort into some pieces (see below) I was embarrassed by the number of blank spaces in my exercise book when it got to revision time.
(People who know about these things will be able to spot the glaring error I made but rest assured – I fixed it before I handed it in).
In spite of the glitches, the positives of doing the course were huge, and far bigger than I first anticipated.
1. Ongoing observation
In order to ensure I could have cover to take the exam, the course had to appear as a performance management target this year. The target was for me to feed back successful strategies to the Humanities department from ongoing, long-term observation in another faculty. Science has achieved great success at school and so watching a Science teacher regularly, especially a well-respected one like Tom, was very helpful.
2. New ideas
Following on from (1), I got some great tips on laying out my whiteboard (I now use a much smaller font, knowing it to be readable) and some really good ideas for homework. “Research xyz and present your findings in an interesting way” has led to some of the best homeworks I’ve ever seen this year (pinata of Civil War facts, anybody?) and there are also group work activities that I have used successfully in my own classroom after seeing them modelled in Geology.
I vow never to say in front of a student, “That exam was easy!” because it made me feel like crap! Having misunderstood one of the questions on the paper and written a long and well-crafted but completely incorrect answer to it, I also vow to offer more exemplar answers to my GCSE students before they sit their paper.
4. Higher expectations
The kids on the course were all in the top half of the ability spectrum, but not all AG&T. However, they were all extremely conscientious and motivated. Some dropped out when they realised actual work was involved, but the rest really rose to the challenge and worked their socks off. It taught me that I can have much higher expectations of the majority of my pupils and still not be disappointed.
5. Exam boards need to get it right
WJEC offered this exam online. I got two-thirds of the way through, and my exam crashed. I had to complete on a paper copy, and then go back and fill in the rest of the paper copy just in case, which meant asking for a pencil and a ruler. This affected maybe a quarter of the class, one of whom is entitled to a scribe for written exams, which meant somebody had to run off and pull a TA in at short notice. It was a debacle. I was very annoyed. I’m not sure if they’ll mark all the paper answers or some online, some paper; I wasn’t able to go back and check my online answers.
Luckily, the outcome of this exam is not important to me in the grand scheme of things*. For the year 10s, this is their first GCSE and they have worked hard to make sure they’re successful. I’m appalled WJEC offered an online exam that their systems were clearly not up to supporting: we were not the only school who had problems. I feel that they have been badly let down.
6. Modelling lifelong learning
At first the kids thought it was a bit odd that Jonty and I were always in the lesson. We weren’t very good at following the usual rules: I used my phone quite regularly to look things up. I found it intensely frustrating not to be able to tell the chatty boys to be quiet, but mostly I managed to keep my trap shut. After a while, they got used to us, and I think we both served as good role models for lifelong learning. We got it wrong; he never had a pen; I was stupidly anal about keeping my notes neat; they had to help us at least as much as we had to help them; and, perhaps most importantly, we went the distance. I didn’t think I would manage to stick with it for two years but for a variety of reasons this was not difficult. When we were all hanging around outside after the exam discussing the technical issues, I had to pause for a moment and say, “Wait wait…garnet: crystallisation from a melt, right?” and was greeted by relieved faces and lots of nods**. The solidarity was good for all of us. I think they liked to see I was as nervous and unsure as they were.
I can also add to that fieldwork trips to Durdle Door, Iceland and Vallis Vale but I think there’s quite enough here to convince you it’s a great idea!
Now begins the agonising wait until August….
* I really, really wanted an A*, having missed out first time round, but I don’t think I did enough work to deserve one!
** although actually, I got this wrong!