One of the most notable trends in educational discussion over the last few years is the increased emphasis on the importance of memory. The brilliant work of groups like the Learning Scientists has helped to bring ideas such as dual coding, interleaving and spaced practice into the educational mainstream. This has been sharpened by both the increasing prevalence of the 3-year Key Stage 4 and the increased content amount of content contained in reformed GCSE courses. Schools and teachers are increasingly realising that planning for how and when students encounter and recall knowledge is a vital concern. Key here is the idea of creating ‘desirable difficulty’ and forcing students to revisit material that they covered earlier in a learning sequence, leading to a greater likelihood of that material being transferred to their long-term memory.
My new school have sought to address this issue by adopting a whole-school policy of interleaving topics at GCSE level. I think that this is a far-sighted approach which, if implemented properly, has the potential to far surpass the ‘race through the material and then cram’ model which has predominated at GCSE. As Christine Counsell beautifully articulates ‘we need to move from an intervention model to a curriculum design model’.
As a result I and my department have been giving a lot of thought to what an interleaved GCSE might look like in history and considering the key issues in designing a three-year sequence. My school follows the Edexcel specification and teaches the following modules:
-Medicine in Britain 1250-present
-Early Elizabethan England, 1558-88
-Superpower relations and the Cold War 1941-91
-Weimar and Nazi Germany 1918-39
In seeking to interleave and space these modules successfully, two key issues presented themselves:
- How could we divide and space the topic without diluting the coherence of each story? As Richard Kennett passionately argued at last year’s SHP conference ‘stories are psychologically privileged’. We needed to make sure that our division of the content did not fragment and reduce the clarity of the stories that we were telling. As a result we decided to use relatively large chunks and tried to find natural stopping points for the changes in topics so that taking up each thread would not be too difficult for either teacher or students.
- How could we divide and sequence the topics so that the knowledge in the different topics informed the others and linked together?
As we discussed and started to plan the sequences, I began to realise what a deeply exciting question the second one was. Curriculum design is not something that I had ever really considered at GCSE level. Beyond consideration of how the different units informed each other when choosing them, the only model I had ever encountered at GCSE was simply to teach one topic, then the next, then the next. It was as if the exciting curricular thinking which I often saw in KS3 was abandoned as soon as the students entered the GCSE classroom (I cringe to think of how many times my students said ‘I don’t remember any of that’ when reminded of an earlier topic). Designing this sequence has felt like something of a reclamation. It has forced me to think carefully about the detail of how the substantive and disciplinary knowledge we teach at Key Stage 4 is sequenced and links together.
The sequence that we have decided upon is below:
Y10/start of Y11
In planning this sequence I have been struck by the many ways in which we will be able to have the topics inform each other. To discuss but a few:
-We have deliberately placed the thematic study early in the sequence. This will help to give the students a coherent chronological overview. We have also used the Renaissance section of Medicine in Britain to frame the start of the unit on Elizabeth I which will allow us to explore the context of Elizabeth’s reign in ways that will inform both Medicine in Britain and Elizabeth.
-We have also placed medicine in World War One before the start of the Weimar and Nazi Germany unit. This will help to frame the shattering human cost and psychological impact of the conflict which is the defining feature of the early part of the Germany topic.
-We have placed the early sections of the Weimar and Nazi Germany topic before the Cold War. This will help us to communicate the roots that the Cold War has in World War Two and also allow us to use the political polarisation of the early years of the Weimar Republic to introduce the political literacy which is so vital to a proper understanding of the Cold War.
-We will study medicine in the Industrial Revolution just before Elizabethan approaches to the issue of poverty. This invites comparisons in how authorities approach problems of public health and welfare, as well delving into the key issue of the ‘deserving and undeserving’ poor and laissez-faire attitudes.
I could go on but I think that the point is clear. The process of planning this sequence has forced me into a genuinely curricular approach to GCSE teaching. That is a very exciting thing.
The challenge now is to translate it to the classroom. So much of the value will come from the specificities of the way that we communicate these threads and connections in the classroom. I am looking forward to the challenge!