Interleaving at GCSE: the spaces between

At the beginning of the year I blogged about the approach that my department has taken to curricular sequencing at KS4. This is an approach which is based on the cognitive science principles which have been recently popularised by the Learning Scientists, among others. Their information on interleaving can be accessed here. Our rationale is as follows:

  • To adopt an approach which takes account of the increased amount of content at GCSE as well as the longer duration of time over which the students will be asked to remember the material. Interleaving allows repeated revisiting of the different modules of a GCSE course and will support retention.
  • To adopt a curricular approach to teaching history at GCSE which seeks to emphasise and make connections between topics. This means deepening substantive and disciplinary knowledge in purposeful ways. While this is being done in the context of a 3-year KS4, this is not intended to reduce or replace the vital place a strong KS3 should occupy. Rather, this is an attempt to reintroduce and revisit prior knowledge at KS4 in a more targeted way. To borrow the language of Christine Counsell’s recent blog posts, this represents an attempt to see our KS4 curriculum as one narrative over time.
  • To provide opportunities to engage students. Engagement is a significant potential issue with a 3-year KS4, particularly if we adopt an approach that is excessively exam-focused and instrumental. Fuelling and maintaining curiosity and love of the subject must be an important goal. James Woodcock has written recently about the way that the additional content in the reformed GCSEs can mean that there is little time for the depth and enrichment that can help to make topics enjoyable and meaningful.

However, in adopting this approach it is also important to consider the following potential problems:

How do we resist the pull of genericism in our application of cognitive science?

As Christine Counsell has eloquently articulated in her recent blog on curriculum leadership, ‘the object being taught is everything’. We must therefore be considering what value interleaving has in relation to the disciplinary structures of history, as well as to the specific historical knowledge and concepts that we teach at KS4. Purposeless carving up of content is to be avoided! To address this issue we have attempted to sequence the topics in a way that facilitates the connections between them. The sequence therefore serves the goal of increased curricular connectedness. We have attempted to ensure that the subject drives the approach and not the other way around.

How do we ensure that we do not dilute the clarity and coherence of the story in the students’ heads?

The approach could have more negative consequences than positive ones if the student’s grasp of chronology is compromised. We have attempted to address this by structuring the topics so that they follow a roughly chronological order. We have also used relatively large chunks of topics and attempted to find natural stopping points. There are points at which we have sequenced them out of order for other reasons but we are hopeful that this general approach will enhance rather than undermine the students’ sense of the big picture as well as the coherence of the overall narrative.

Picture2-interleaving the spaces

The image above illustrates the way that we have taught our Y9 GCSE cohort so far this year. This should provide an illustrative example of what we are trying to acheive. One of the ways in which this approach can offer benefits over a more traditional one is that ‘the spaces between’ teaching the core material can be used to inform both the preceding and succeeding topics, while also informing the overall narrative. This can include deepening student understanding of material that is not directly assessed in the GCSE exam but which informs this core in important ways. Ideally, this should build on the encounters they have already had with this material at KS3 and earlier. The sequence of lessons illustrated above aimed to introduce both substantive knowledge and substantive concepts which relate to the core topics of study. Below is an attempt to express the thinking behind the sequence of lessons that we taught in the ‘space between’ our core units.

Lesson sequence:

Lesson 1

Substantive knowledge: Luther’s 95 Theses and the development of Protestantism

How this informs the core topic(s): Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement and continuing opposition from both Catholics and Protestants are key aspects of the topic. This provides a context for later encounters with Puritan actions and attitudes as well as an early encounter with the range of difficult religious language and ideas that are required. The role of the printing press in the spread of Luther’s ideas also provides a nice concrete example of ideas that they had previously encountered in Medicine in Britain.

Lesson 2

Substantive knowledge: Henry VIII and the break with Rome

How this informs the core topic(s): It gives an introduction to Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn and to the context of the divorce from Catherine of Aragon which is so important to understanding why Elizabeth’s legitimacy would later be questioned. It also builds on the previous lesson in the sequence by exploring the impact of the religious turmoil in England. Study of the dissolution of the monasteries builds on the material already covered in the Medicine in Britain module in relation to the role that monasteries had played as hospitals/places of care.

Lesson 3

Substantive knowledge: the reign of Edward VI

How this informs the core topic: Edward’s religious policy was extremely influential on Elizabeth’s settlement. Exploring aspects of his reforms such as the Bible in English and reactions to it like the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 helps to contextualise Elizabeth’s later choices, as well as opposition to them.

Lesson 4

Substantive knowledge: the reign of Mary I

How this informs the core topic: this lesson provides vital context for the start of Elizabeth’s reign. We consider Mary’s marriage to Phillip II of Spain, the Marian burnings and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as well as the war with France and its financial impact. We also consider this in relation to perceptions of Mary as a female monarch and contemporary ideas in relation to gender. All of this informs later considerations of Elizabeth’s financial situation, the importance of her gender and the issues that she faces in finding an acceptable way forward with religion in 1558.

Generally, I think that adopting this approach has been quite successful. The framing lessons have helped the students to successfully negotiate material that they had struggled with under the old model. This approach has meant that when they encountered a lot of the difficult language or ideas in the Elizabeth topic they were encountering them for the second time with misconceptions already addressed. I also think that it gives the study of Elizabeth a much greater coherence. To study the reign of Elizabeth completely in isolation (particularly the start of her reign) is to never fully understand it. We are planning on using the Western Front/WW1 section of the Medicine in Britain unit to frame the situation in Germany in 1918 in a similar way.

In teaching this sequence I have been provoked into make connections between topics explicit in a way that I did not when teaching them more separately. Exam specifications and concern about what students ‘need to know’ in order to secure outcomes have often obscured this kind of thinking in the past, at least in my own teaching. Even if the interleaving approach described here seems a bridge too far, considering your KS4 curriculum as a unified narrative (something which I think exam specifications and modules play a significant role in discouraging) might be a meaningful way forward.



One thought on “Interleaving at GCSE: the spaces between

  1. Pingback: The importance of being particular – Trying to Make Sense

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