Planning for memory: Interleaving at GCSE

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

Picture 2-interleaving

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!






Video feedback: an efficient solution?

video-feedback-screenshot.pngThe subject of how to make feedback more time-efficient for teachers and useful for students has been one that has seen real innovation over the last few years. This discussion has been enlightening for me, having previously struggled with the (seemingly) mountains of essays and the borderline unmanageable expectation that I would mark them all thoroughly. The problems are well documented; fear-driven marking policies with little value, large amounts of colored pen with limited student thought in response and the resultant shift in focus away from the core issue: what do students need to do, see or think about in order to progress?

The strategies presented around whole class feedback by the Michaela School are articulated clearly here and there is a wealth of other useful material around (notably here). This method has been widely influential and has been very useful for me this year, resulting in my marking of books taking significantly less time and being more oriented towards student response.

One principle that I have always tried to stick to in giving feedback is to ensure that students respond (and have time to respond) to their feedback. As Dylan William eloquently articulates ‘the first fundamental principle of effective classroom feedback is that feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor’. I have also always tried (and sometimes failed) to keep in mind his maxim that feedback should always produce thought. Based on these ideas I tended to follow the following process when feeding back extended writing to my students:

1) Students read their feedback (whether typed, mail-merged or written by hand)

2) Students read their work and highlight and annotate what they have done well

3) Students read a model answer (with success criteria) and highlight what it does well. Often this process is modelled or guided by me from the front

4) Students rewrite all or part of their answer and improve it, acting on their feedback

The reason I have stuck so trenchantly to this process is because of the power of students engaging with exemplars of quality, in addition to their feedback, before using these exemplars as well as their feedback to improve their work. Ideally, the exemplar should be used to direct student thought at the specific issues that the teacher has identified. The exemplification is the vital step in showing them what the improvement looks like on the page. The use of visualisers (which I have yet to try) fulfills this function in the Michaela method of marking, with specific modelling and exemplification happening in lesson in response to common failure modes in student work.

At last year’s Schools History Project (SHP) conference I attended Dale Banham’s (excellent) session on teaching Richard and John at GCSE level. After the session I happened to be there when he demonstrated how he was planning to use the simple app Screencast-O-Matic (downloadable here) to capture the screen on his laptop as well as record his voice. It offered the potential to quickly and easily model, with explanation, in a format they could keep and replay. I am generally sceptical of much of ‘edtech’ as it often seems to be a more elaborate way of accomplishing something that can be done with greater simplicity and in less time. However, this seemed like something that could genuinely be transformative in terms of packaging the feedback, exemplars and teacher explanation in one place while also allowing students to go back over it if necessary. It also seemed to offer an efficient way to combine the Michaela method of whole class feedback with my existing emphasis on exemplification and student response.

Below is the process that I have developed for whole class video feedback. I have tried to maintain a focus on efficiency and to make sure that there is minimum wasted time here. There is little point in a solution that adds more to workload and offers only the shiny allure of being technological and ‘21st century’! I would love any feedback here too as I am sure there is much that I could be doing better.

1) I read a class set of extended writing. As I read I note down common issues that I see in the essays that I think need to be addressed in feedback. This is very similar to other whole class feedback strategies.

2) As I read I also use the smartphone scanning app Cam Scanner (downloadable here) to collect examples of where students have not fallen prey to these common failure modes and written particularly impressively. These will then act as my exemplars in the video. I try and link the collection of examples and the identification of common failure modes in my mind as I read.

3) I have a simple PPT template that is already set up. It contains a title slide, list of issues to be addressed and then slides for each of the issues. I then screenshot each of my scanned exemplars and add them to the correct slide (depending on the failure mode they are addressing). I can use coloured boxes and coloured success criteria to quickly set up highlights on the areas that I want the students to focus on within the exemplar (see example above).

4) I then use Screencast-O-Matic to record the screen and my voice as I talk through each of the issues and explain how the exemplar illustrates what it looks like when that issue is corrected. I use a simple headset and microphone (£9.99 on Amazon) to record my voice. Once I am finished then I save the video file and I can share it with my students through Edmodo or email. I could even show them the video in the lesson!

5) The ways that I have asked my students to engage with the feedback have varied and I am still experimenting a little here. I always ask my students to rewrite all or part of their essays in response. I have also used feedback tasks which target particular failure modes and nominated which task I would like students to do. Finally, I have also tried giving the students blank copies of the exemplars and asked them to highlight and annotate what is good about them as they watch the video, ensuring their engagement with the content of the explanation.

I have found this to be a very useful process this year and the feedback from my students has been very positive. It allows me to package the feedback, explanation and modelling parts of the process together. A particular benefit of the approach is that it allows the students to go back over the video and the explanation as many times as they need to. The permanence of the format gives it a real advantage over explanation in class in that sense. It also means that they can go back to the videos during revision if they so choose, as well as meaning that any students that miss the lesson can watch it at home. It is not as flexible or responsive as modelling in class but it does have the advantage of boiling the feedback process down into the period immediately following reading the essays (when it is freshest in my mind). It is also, crucially, not particularly demanding in terms of time and can substitute efficiently for written feedback on every essay in much the same way as the Michaela model. I will be continuing to hone the method and make it more efficient over the next year but I think it has real potential as an effective mode of feedback.

There is an example of my feedback to my Y13 class below. Any thoughts would be welcome!