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The reformed Science GCSEs have presented many challenges. In my presentation, I shared just nine of them and looked at how my team and I have addressed these issues over the last three years.

1.       Increased focus on Maths in Science – we found that students struggled to make the link between what they learnt in Maths and the skills we were asking them to use in Science. With 20% of marks being allocated to assessing Maths skills we needed to overcome this issue. We developed an Introduction to Science unit and taught this at the beginning of Year 9 from September until October half term. This unit is made up of two strands, one being the Maths in Science aspect and the other being Practical Skills. In the Maths in Science strand, we build maths skills into Science contexts with as much practical work as possible so that students can see how maths is used in these situations. We also have a closer working relationship with the Maths department. They have been given a copy of our equations which they can use in lessons and we have also discussed when skills are taught in Maths versus when we will reach them in Science. Another beneficial activity has been to look at the language used by the Maths department so that we can mirror this. For example, we used to talk about rearranging equations but the Maths department teaching students to “solve equations” or “make x the subject” which is a subtle but powerful difference and has broken down some of the barriers we were facing when rearranging equations.

2.       Equations not provided in the exam –  students are now expected to recall 21 equations and may then have to rearrange these equations and complete multi-step calculations. We have been completing weekly equation tests, checking whether students can recall them in either symbol or word form. We also teach students how to rearrange equations during our Maths in Science work.

3.       Terminal exams – students and teachers must get used to having a huge body of knowledge that will be assessed at the end of the course and this has a significant bearing on the messages we give to students about revision. As a school, there has been a drive towards distributed and interleaved revision. Based on the theory of Ebbinghaus and his Forgetting Curve, we need our students to continually review the work from previous units, terms and years so that they don’t forget and don’t have to cram at the last minute. We have produced and provided knowledge organisers for every unit and we have given students access to unit checklists which they can refer to regularly to check their learning. We complete knowledge tests frequently which included interleaved content. Tests may be a simple 10 questions each lesson or may be a full one-hour test. Questions may range from multiple choice to short or long answers. I am also trialling interleaved homework for Year 11 with 10 questions taken from across the whole range of the course.

ebbinghaus

4.       Tiers of entry – the boundary between higher and foundation has shifted from the old C/D border and now lies closer to the B/C border with Foundation papers covering grades 1-5 and Higher covering 4-9. With a 5 being the highest possible grade on the Foundation paper, we have to ask ourselves whether students will have a better chance of getting a 5 on the Higher or Foundation paper. Given the fact that the Higher paper will begin with standard demand questions (approximately 40% of the paper) and will then ramp up to higher demand questions (the remaining 60% of the paper, many students may find this challenging. On the Foundation paper, students will be faced with around 60% of questions at low demand and 40% at standard demand. We have decided that if students are not a confident grade 6 then they will sit the Foundation tier as we believe this gives the student the best chance of achieving a grade 5 which may be the best outcome for them. Between now and the exam entry deadline we will be analysing the common questions on the Higher and Foundation mocks very closely to help inform these decisions.

5.       Uncertainty about grade boundaries – with the removal of UMS and the introduction of 9-1 grades, nobody can categorically say what is required to achieve a specific grade. We know the exam boards will use a method called “comparable outcomes” but they can’t begin this process until the exams are completed and marked. We also know that grade 9s will be awarded through a statistical calculation which we cannot replicate. Therefore, we have decided not to apply any grades to work or exam papers at all. Percentages are given so that we can make comparisons and students are encouraged to work towards as high a percentage as possible. This also applies to KS3, so students are moving through the school they are not expecting to receive grades, so the focus can be on improvement of their knowledge and understanding.

6.       Increased amount of content – with a reduction in teaching time at KS4 and a Year 9 programme which lacked purpose, the decision was made to start teaching GCSE in Year 9. We mapped out the curriculum from October Half Term of Year 9 and aimed to finish by Christmas of Year 11. We are approaching this finishing point now, so this will allow us to have a significant period of revision between January and May.

7.       Required practicals assessed through exams – 15% of the marks on the final exams will assess student’s practical skills so it is vital that students realise the importance of the required practicals. However, it is not just the required practicals in isolation that students need to be confident with. They also need to be able to apply knowledge of the apparatus and techniques to different contexts. We have issued all students with a separate lab book for work on the required practicals to ensure students recognise the importance of this work and this makes the work easy to find for revision. Relevant exam questions are used alongside the practical work so there is exposure to plenty of examples, some with slightly varying contexts. As a team, we have departmental sessions where we trial run every practical and work together to identify issues or pitfalls and to try to identify the types of questions that may be asked in each scenario.

8.       Application of knowledge in different contexts – there is an increase in the weighting of AO2 (Application of knowledge) and there are fewer examples stated in the specification. This means there are potentially many more wider contexts that exam questions could focus on and students must show that they can apply their knowledge to these unfamiliar situations. We try to ensure that students are exposed to lots of examples and a wide range of exam questions. This also gives us greater freedom to explore lots of different contexts as part of “normal teaching”.

9.       No single science option – with a huge amount of challenging content and the removal of the “core only” route, low ability students have limited options. We have found it beneficial to deliver the Foundation content via the Entry Level Certificate scheme of learning.

In summing up these challenges, I do feel that they present us with a great opportunity to reflect on what we have always done and improve our daily practice.

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Keeping HODs and parents in the know.

As Subject Leader for a core subject (Science) and a relatively big department (10 members of teaching staff) it often seems an impossible task to know what is going on in every corner of my department.

Following the exam results analysis in September, I also realised that as a department we needed to communicate with parents more, and earlier when students were not meeting our expectations.

So, it seemed clear to me that we needed a clear strategy for dealing with concerns and when to contact parents and I needed a simple way of keeping a handle on what was happening across the department. I introduced the following steps to give a structure to our approach when addressing concerns with behaviour, attitude to learning and progress:

  1. Teacher conversation with student
  2. Teacher conversation with parent
  3. Subject leader conversation with student
  4. Subject leader conversation with parent
  5. Subject leader passes concern to Year Team Leader

Ok, so it’s not rocket science! It’s a very simple set of steps but the impact of having this structure in place has been very interesting. Far more emails and phone calls have taken place and issues are dealt with quickly.

We also have a fortnightly information request under the heading “Students Causing Concern” whereby I ask for a simple summary of any students (not just Year 11) causing concern and staff are asked to indicate the steps (from the list) that they have completed so far. This means I get a regular overview of the students who are not performing/behaving/learning as expected and I can identify when an issue needs to be picked up by me as indicated by step 3.

What has also been interesting is that I have not been required to speak to a student because of step 3 being reached. We also have not seen more than 2-3 students appearing on more than one “Students Causing Concern” request.

Feedback from my department has been valuable. They say that this makes them think carefully about what THEY have done before passing something on to me and it helps them to sift out those issues that are a real concern versus those that are just an annoyance.

Having shared our approach with my middle leader colleagues and seeing how positively it was received I thought it was worth sharing here as it may provide some simple ideas for you and your department. For me, it is a definitive thing that we are doing differently, with every hope that it could help improve student outcomes for many years to come.

Why I love…Walking Talking Mocks

I first became aware of Walking Talking Mocks (WTM) through a colleague but my understanding of them developed further when I started attending the PiXL Science Conferences as a newly appointed subject leader.

The idea is to walk students through a mock exam paper whilst explaining the thinking that is going on in your head as you approach each question.

To start with I tried this on a relatively small scale looking at individual questions during revision sessions and showing students how to annotate their papers. The students loved it! They seemed to have more confidence in their own ability to answer the question in front of them.

I introduced this way of approaching exam papers with classes during “normal” lesson time. Again, the students were very positive and they started to use the techniques (annotating the questions before answering them) whenever they were given a mock paper to complete.

The only difficulty I found with the WTM idea at that point was the fact that I was having to read out exactly what I was annotating as I did not have access to a visualiser in my classroom. The students didn’t mind this but from the examples I had seen at the PiXL Conferences I knew that students really needed to see what I was writing and how the paper should look in order to get the most out of it.

My line manager and I also felt that we needed to maximise the impact of this activity by involving bigger groups of students. We had identified two classes who really could go one way or the other in terms of their results and decided they would be ideal candidates for a large scale WTM.

With over 45 students involved in one go we needed a bigger venue so I organised to have the Main Hall set up with exam desks and asked the English Department if I could use one of their visualisers so I could project the exam paper onto the screen in the Main Hall. Every student was given a copy of the exam paper I would be going through, a red pen (to help their annotations stand out) and any other equipment they might need (rulers, data sheets etc). The idea behind using the exam set up in the Main Hall was that it would help students visualise themselves in the actual exam.

I knew that I’d need “on the ground” support with this activity since it would be difficult to manage behaviour issues or queries whilst also going through the paper so another Science teacher (who also taught the classes) and a member of SLT provided this support.

And off we went…over a period of 3-4 weeks we conducted 5 lessons in this way and were able to complete 2 and a half exam papers, one for each Science specialism.

Feedback from the majority of students was very positive. They reported feeling more confident, believing they could answer the papers and could see how straightforward it would be. They were also keen to tell other students and as a result I was asked to run an afterschool session by a group of students whose timetable made it difficult to run a WTM in the Main Hall during lesson time. We had 3o triple chemistry students attend a voluntary afterschool WTM!!

To try and gauge the impact the WTMs were having, I gave the groups “proper” mock exams in exam conditions and it was really interesting to see the improvement for some students. Class level analysis showed that the average grade increased on the Chemistry unit from an E to a D with some astounding individual successes – students who had been just short of C or D grades in previous exams were now hitting those grades confidently. I hope to see a similar picture on results day!

Next year we will be planning in more WTM for larger groups (I’m thinking half a year group at a time!) and having shared my experiences with other Subject Leaders I can see students getting this very valuable experience across many different subject areas.

Have you used Walking Talking Mocks? What has been your experience of them?

 

 

#29daysofwriting Day 19

So the final weekend of half term is nearly here and it’s back to work on Monday.

I started half term with a lovely morning sewing and made this sewing machine cover…

 
I’ve been cooking a lot this week too! Chicken casserole, chicken and potato curry, fajitas! I actually really enjoyed it!

 
I have found a new appreciation for our house and the stunning surroundings. I don’t usually get to see this when I head out to work in the dark mornings and arrive home in the dark too.  

 It’s been a productive holiday in terms of work. Revision sessions at school and mock exam marking at home.

I’ve spent quality time with my husband. We’ve been out walking, browsing round garden centres and had a lovely meal out tonight.

So how am I spending my last weekend of the holiday…I’m off to Manchester for a girly weekend with two great friends! 

Hope you have all had a lovely half term!

#29daysofwriting Day 18

If I had five minutes to tune out from everything going on around me, I’d pick up the phone, call my mum and dad and tell them how much I love them. 

Moving to the South West was the biggest decision I have ever had to make and whilst it has certainly been the best thing I’ve ever done, it was by far the hardest too. For me and my parents. 

I’m thankful for Skype. It helps bridge the distance between me and home. Sunday Skype gives me a small window of time to chat to my parents as though I’m sat across the kitchen table from them. 

My next trip up North is just round the corner (8 days and counting) and I can not wait…Mum and dad are pretty excited too!

#29daysofwriting Day 17

Managing my time effectively…

Writing lists – I find this essential in helping me prioritise tasks. If I can see everything set out ahead of me I feel much better prepared to get jobs done. I have no system to how I write my lists, things get added as I remember them. There is something very satisfying about crossing things off a list!

Booking time in my diary – if I have a specific job I need to get done, booking it in to a clear spot on my timetable helps me focus. I used to use Outlook calendar all the time, I’ve moved away from this and I’m not sure why. It’s something I’ll try to get back to again.

Clear and realistic time frames – starting at the beginning with a sensible time frame is sometimes all it takes to help me manage my time. There’s no point telling yourself that you can get a job done in an hour if it will realistically take two. Be sensible from the outset!

Just a few ideas that might help!

#29daysofwriting Day 16

So I’m a little late with this post but I’ll catch up now and Day 17 will be out later!

I am loving #teacher5adaysketch!! I didn’t think it would be my thing but I’m really enjoying taking some time to sketch/draw/be creative in a different way! It’s reminded me of how much I used to love drawing and colouring when I was little. I’m starting to think I could keep this going, get myself a sketch book and find time to draw.

I could even use it as a way to plan my sewing makes. Get them down on paper and refine my ideas before I sit at the sewing machine!

Day 3’s challenge will require a bit of thinking…