Category Archives: GCSE

#TLAB14 – my workshop on Creative GCSE Geography & Literacy

Here is the slideshow from my workshop at the #TLAB14 conference yesterday. Although aimed at Geography teachers, it might be useful to others for generic revision games and literacy support.

Here’s a vague commentary for the slides:

Slide 3-5. Messy rivers. In groups, students have a bagful of river sediment, piece of A3 paper and some keywords. They have to create a river cross-section from upper to lower course by putting sediment and keywords into the correct location.

Slide 6: River stories. After the messy bit (or just as another activity instead), get students to produce a written story describing the journey down river having to describe the changes & use key terms but in a creative writing sense (moving from the birth of a juvenile energetic river to sluggish middle age to the very end in old age).

Slide 7-9. Bunting! Not my own idea I confess but I love it. Put topics into a hat, then each student draws one or two out and has to produce a piece of revision bunting to be shared. Gives them ownership & remind them of corporate responsibility. I was surprised at how much the kids got into this last time, they really enjoyed it and produced quality summaries.

Slide 10-13. Cake modelling! Every good geographer has at some point come across the wave cut platform cake model from Tony Cassidy. The only addition here was that I had taught basic wave cut platform theory, then I just gave students some resources and as a group they had to produce a demonstration of how the landform is created. They had: mini whiteboards, paper, pens, mini cakes, sweets. Then they presented to each other and peer assessed. Then we eat cake (new cake, not played with!)

Slide 15-17. Jenga! You can use Jenga (or non brand specific) in lots of ways. For example: 1)Keyword / fact jenga – label pieces and then play the game. Teacher / student reads out a definition, player has to retract the piece that matches the definition. Competition to build tallest tower if played in groups. 2)Use coloured dots / coloured jenga and each colour corresponds to a different theme. Students are given a topic e.g. Hurricane Katrina. When they take out a piece, whatever colour they take they must give an appropriate response. E.g. Red correlates to fact, green correlates to causes, yellow corresponds to impacts, blue corresponds to responses, etc,.

Slide 18-21. Twister! Alternative versions, e.g. 1)Play the game in small groups. Within each group you have a quizmaster. Each time a player moves to a new spot, they have to correctly answer a question (e.g. define a word, recall a key fact, etc,.). If incorrect then spin the spinner again and have to move to a new spot and keep answering Qs until correct. 2)Assign points to different spots. Have differentiated questions worth different points. Students play the game and accumulate points depending on how hard the question is that they answer. Highest points win. Once back in the classroom for whatever option, I always get them to do exam case study questions timed to formalise it – and have been so impressed with how much better their responses have been.

Slide 22-24. Balloons? Various uses. E.g. 1)one student writes a question on the balloon, then throws to someone else who then answers the question and passes on. 2)Get students to draw a world map around the balloon to get across the idea of sphericity / world layout. 3)Create concept maps with lots of interlinking by drawing around the balloon to encourage links right round.

Slide 25-26. Musical chairs. Different options: 1) as the music plays move around and have to read key facts / study a stimulus image…when the music stops they have to answer an exam question. 2) have exam Qs stuck to the back of the chairs (no peeking), keep cycling through and when music stops have to answer the exam Q on whiteboards, etc,.

Slide 27-29. Paper planes. Two versions I’ve used. 1) Students write a question on a piece of paper, fold into a plane, throw at another student, who has to answer. 2) AfL. Fold up an example case study answer (either a model one or one the kids have just written). Throw around room to three different students who then highlight one per go with different colours for use of key terms, developed points, place specific fact. Throw to one final student who gives the question an overall score and final comment.

Slide 32-34. Creative writing & song. Dear John letters to develop explanations and literacy, but with Bingo for keywords. Can be about any topic. Similar for songs, e.g. writing a song to describe tectonic plate movement.

Slide 36. VCOP. Support and guide with literacy. Especially good for lower ability and for structuring extended writing.

Slide 38. PEEL flowcharts. Modelling how to write a 3 developed point answer (like for case study 9 mark questions) through a flow chart built around the PEEL structure.

Slide 41. Learning grids. Students roll two dice to get a coordinate, this then randomly selects what information to include in a piece of extended writing. Repeat as many times as you like (I usually do 3-4 times) and then they must include that criteria in their writing. Also good to use in reverse for AfL: get students to mark on the grid which criteria they think they have met and then when you mark the work you can highlight whether they have actually met this criteria or not, then use in your feedback.

Slide 43-44. SOLO structured thinking. The idea of SOLO being a move from simplistic basic responses and understanding to being more complex with interlinks. I tend to rename the different stages to: 1)Unclear  2) One idea  3) Many ideas  4) Interlinking many ideas  5) Analysing and interpreting these many ideas in different ways. This structure can be used to structure notes / plan essays or for AfL

Slide 45-47. SOLO hexagons. Hexagons allow you to tessellate in 6 directions to demonstrate multiple links. e.g. in this example as a group we had blue statements that were the impacts of difficult environments and in red the causes of these difficulties. Then they have to tessellate to make multiple links in preparation for extended writing.

Model the idea of essay structuring to class. Students to write down as much as possible as they can about a case study on each hexagon. Those aiming for B+ should be making multiple connections between these facts / statements. Then use these hexagons to structure an extended writing piece. Remind to use connectives between.

Slide 48. Sentence escalator. Sentence escalation. Kind of like ‘Chinese whispers’ to start then turning into written sentences.

Slide 49. Story cubes. Laminated dice allow you to swap in and out different images / words / facts. Students throw the dice and have to respond to whatever they see.

Slide 50-51. Revision cube. Students roll the dice and have to revise & produce a resource on whatever it lands on. Can make template online here

Getting messy to get to grips with rivers

I don’t know about yours, but sometimes my students struggle with visualising what features and processes look like in real life. Mention a cross-section or long profile of a river and you’re likely to see a mass of blank faces. Having checked through my year 10 books at the weekend I noticed a lot were struggling with the concept of river transportation, how sediment varies along the course, and how the river profile changes. So I decided to get a bit messy.

After a nice walk with the dog, I collected a load of different material from a nearby river (with some substitutes from my garden to top it up!). When students came in to the class they were working in groups. Each group had:

1 x A2 sugar paper

A Selection of felt pens / glue / sellotape

1 x bag of likely river materials (a mixture of sand, mud, silt, shingle, different sized pebbles, twigs)

1 x plastic wallet filled with selection of keywords (e.g. traction, suspension, river cliff, meander, deposition, etc,.)

1 x image of large boulders with a scale (I wasn’t going to carry any boulders in now was I?!)

I set students the challenge of using the materials and resources to create a 3d cross-section of a river, showing how sediment varies along the profile of a river. They had to annotate the cross-section with keywords and describe what happens in the different courses. They then went around and evaluated each other’s work. The follow-up after the messiness was a piece of extended writing with a bingo element.

Some images of their work are below:

‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.’ (Benjamin Franklin)

The data debate

It seems to be the topic that every teacher loves to hate : data. Debates range far and wide as to the purpose, pattern, periodicity, and presentation of data. Now I’m not professing to be an expert (according to one ex colleague you cannot be an expert unless you have a beard anyway 😉 ) but I do have an opinion and some thoughts. And since I seem to be on a very long journey back from Bradford with train cancellations, I may as well put these thoughts down.


What is the purpose of data, and data tracking?
Is it to placate senior leaders, and to ‘cover our backs’ to show we are doing something with our students? Is it information to be pulled out at parents’ evening so we can have something to say? Is it to inform reporting? Is it to meet government requirements, and to give us a folder of data sheets to waft in front of the noses of Ofsted inspectors? Is it so we can compete with other subjects at options time and say ‘we are better’?!

I would say the purpose of data is simply identical to our core purpose. My core purpose (and hopefully yours) is to enable children to make progress and succeed. Data, monitoring of data, and tracking data over time is a key way to secure progress therefore should be fully embedded across all curriculum areas, form part of daily conversation, and be part of the language of the classroom that we share with students, teachers, parents and senior leaders. Yes it is for accountability, and yes we have targets to meet, but at the end of the day it is a key tool to help target intervention and tailor support for the benefit of students.

Yet you still hear teachers nationwide complaining about data entry, monitoring, logging, progress checks, etc,. My opinion : if you can’t see the value of knowing where every student is, where they are going, what they could aspire to, and be able to communicate this with them so that they know how to get there…then maybe you should have a deep think about your career. The purpose? It makes you a more effective teacher.
I could end the post there I suppose!

Pattern & Periodicity?

What does good data, and good data reporting and monitoring look like? This isn’t something I specialise in; I speak as a teacher and Curriculum Leader not any kind of senior leader. But I have still seen plenty of attempts at data reporting in my 6 years, have seen new initiatives come and go already, and a lot of time and effort has gone into this. However I can still share what we currently do, and what I think is working reasonably well.

On twitter the other week, there was somewhat of a debate / discussion on the role and frequency of data reporting. I hope those involved won’t mind me including screenshots of the chat, but hey – it was a public domain. It’s always good to have a healthy debate on matters.

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To some, there seems to be indecision or lethargy about the periodicity or frequency of data recording and reporting. But surely assessing progress, recording this, and monitoring is the bread and butter of the teaching world? Haven’t teachers for centuries had a log of what scores a child got for their spellings that week, or how many words they can read, or whatever challenge is being measured?

Education is a quantifiable science in essence. You take an input (child plus educator), follow some processes (which are hopefully engaging and challenging, and aimed not just at passing exams but at lifelong learning and the whole child), and at the end there is a final output (the product in this sense being – hopefully – a well rounded, well informed, suitably qualified and enthusiastic student ready to go out in the big wide world). So like any flow system, there is something to measure. So that means some kind of data. I can’t imagine many teachers actually disagree on the value of data and measuring progress, but where we disagree is maybe on the pattern and periodicity of recording and reporting and tracking.

I would argue that you can’t have too much data in many ways, just like a doctor collates a wealth of tests and results in order to make an informed diagnosis. Sadly, my dad has cancer and this is something we as a family are always thinking of, and wanting to keep track of. I am grateful that the medical profession constantly measures, tracks, reports, monitors and re-evaluates because it potentially means changing his life. Now aren’t there some parallels in education? We change lives don’t we? Hopefully.

The debate seems to be whether data should be formal or informal, reported on or not. To me, data and tracking does not have to always be in a formal reporting sense. It is something to inform my teaching practice and to inform students on what they need to do next. So data in my department is more often used as a conversation tool. Yes, we have school policy on recording and monitoring on a regular cycle which is used to report to parents and for formal progress review / achievement for all sessions with students. But if we only use data on these occasions, what happens in the interim? Ask any of the students in Geography and I would expect them to know their ‘should be’ grade , and their ‘could be’ grade and to be able to articulate where they are now and what to do for the next step. This isn’t because we scribble across every book a scary red number or grade every page, but because it is an intrinsic part of conversations in each lesson with our students.

Within the department, we track progress for GCSE on a google docs document that anyone can access, and which is colour coded to highlight those working at / below / above target and a comment by their teacher saying what is going on for that child, what intervention is in place. This document is living, evolving. I expect staff to refer to it and to update it often. It forms the starting point for each department meeting and every line management session. It doesn’t need to be lengthy, but it does need to be a conversation between me and the team, and to be discussed with the students and parents. I was at a school helping another Geography department ‘in distress’ earlier and we were talking about improving monitoring and tracking so I loaded up the tracker – I was pleased to see that when I did I could see both members of the team back in school were ‘viewing’ and editing the tracker at the same time even though I wasn’t in school. I hadn’t told them to, hadn’t set a deadline. It is just expected. And all this is a legacy from the improvements made by David throughout his time there.

It is up to each department to track and monitor progress their own way at my school, an element of independence so long as you still complete data entry at appropriate times and can show evidence it is being done. Personally I would like more transparency : I would love it if each department (as some do) actively shared their data and intervention documents with the rest of the subjects. This way, we could easily cross-reference students and see if Jimmy who is struggling in Geography due to literacy is also struggling in English and History, and in which case what interventions have they already tried. Then we could coordinate better rather than all try our own thing.


The format and style of data and tracking does not have to be identical, in my opinion. What is important is that it is easily accessible and that staff can identify trends quickly and clearly without having to flit between tabs or screens or programmes. I would argue that each teacher should analyse data themselves, although to some this seems an admin task. I wouldn’t say that every teacher has to input data in a meaningless way, or to produce graphs or whatever pretty spreadsheet. A data manager could present a summary to each teacher that had the numbers crunched and whittled down to the key components, in the form of a ‘context sheet’ like many schools have. However, even with this I feel each teacher should spend time analysing and interpreting the data. To look for trends.

Just like with students. If I mark a child’s book and I correct everything for them, and lay out all the answers, then they most likely won’t really read it. They might scan, but they are unlikely to analyse or learn from it. But if I give them the raw information, or ask a question from the information, then it forces analysis and that triggers learning. We all know this. Otherwise we are being passive. We don’t want passive learners, ergo we cannot be passive teachers.

Personally I still have times when I disagree with data, or I don’t see where a target grade has come from or what FFTd thinks a child should achieve…but I will still analyse it, still use it to inform. I might just subvert it a little. Like with target setting. A piece of paper in my hand says a child in front of me, whom I have taught for three years and who has a fantastic attitude to learning, and who was already level 7a in year9, says they are only targeted a C for GCSE. Do I tell them this bluntly and quash their progress so far, demotivate potentially? No, I’m a professional and I use my discretion. I say that grade was based on data from back in KS2 and that they’ve already proved they are capable of so much more…so therefore their aspirations should be higher.

How do we present data to students? At GCSE we give our students a ‘should be’ (minimum expected grade) and ‘could be’ grade, alongside a percentage chance for each based on the Fisher Family Trust data. We share this at the beginning of the year, and they have a progress tracker that they regularly update based on assessments to plot their progress over time. But every lesson at some point will involve a discussion with students about their current progress, just verbally at least. Just a reminder of what they are currently working at. We still need to build on this, and to give more time over to self-assessment/reflection and students responding to marking but it is getting there. During controlled assessments, progress and data is shown at the start of the lesson in the form of a colour coded spreadsheet that ‘names, shames and celebrates’ progress through the project and students see it when they walk through the door and can compare to others. Likewise following key assessments like a recent mock, we update the intervention tracker progress spreadsheet on google docs to reflect their current working grade, and then this is displayed at the start of the lesson too. Although some students may not like this, at the end of the day there aren’t really any secrets in a class – they very quickly know who got what anyway. And this means I can inform the whole class, if not the whole year group, that although their predicted percentage A*-C is X% they are currently only working at Y% so I better see them all at workshop. This had quite an overwhelming impact this week and ended up with having workshop attendees after school every day – but that’s all good 🙂

Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough. But it is interesting. I didn’t think I’d be the girl to write about data and enthusing on its virtues on a late evening at end of term, but I guess I am growing up. And that’s learning for you isn’t it? 😉

‘Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability’ (John Wooden)

Coastal cake craft challenge

We kick off GCSE Geography with the Coasts unit and study the OCR B course. Although doing this unit first gives us the opportunity to get out in the field and practise fieldwork skills, students (and maybe teachers!) can sometimes find it quite dry and repetitive. Not much chance maybe for different activities, more just learning a lot of processes and landforms and keywords? I would always class myself as a physical Geographer first, but I can see that it might seem repetitive or dull just learning step-by-step how something is created. Maybe more interesting once you can put all that background theory into context when visiting real places, or by doing decision making exercises about coastal management. Anyway.

We’ve always done the tried and tested (and tasty) Angel Cake wave cut platforms suggested by Tony Cassidy which works a treat. Model the step-by-step erosion and creation of a wave cut notch / platform with cake and show this under a visualiser to the class. Then if you’re feeling kind let them have some cake. Works!

This year we thought we’d let students have a go themselves. Classes worked through the theory as a class first, following traditional exam questions / discussion / explanation from teacher and group enquiry (see lesson powerpoint below – NB, this isn’t all done in one lesson!). When we got to the wave cut platforms part we just discussed the process as a class briefly, showed an animation and then I set the challenge.

Students had at their disposal the following resources: cake (ideally layered cake like angel cake or mini slices cakes), a selection of sweets, paper, pens, mini whiteboards and pens, a flip camera or tablet or mobile, and textbooks. The challenge was to create a resource that demonstrated the creation of a wave cut platform and evolution of a headland to then be recorded somehow and shared. Students were not allowed to eat anything until they had completed the resource, shared, and completed a follow-up exam question. Mean I know.

Two classes were doing this activity in parallel so myself and Sam Atkins were flitting in between, cajoling and cheering students on, adding an element of competition as to which group would produce the best resource and checking on knowledge.

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Some examples of videos produced are here (apologies for the sideways angle!) :

Once the students had completed and shared their resources they had to be able to explain the process step-by-step and complete an exam question. This will also be followed up again with a starter exam question next lesson asking for an annotated diagram to explain the process. We did note that the lower ability children in particular seemed to grasp the overall process better following the making of their resource, whereas we had to push higher ability learners to remember to still use keyterms even though they were playing with cake! Overall, some great results and better quality answers.

NB – it was pointed out that I forgot the customary quote…so, far be it from me to not learn from constructive feedback! Here goes:

“Learning is more effective when it is an active rather than passive process” (Euripides)

or, if we feel less cerebral…

“My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it” (Boris Johnson)

Revision games #ukedchat

Tonight’s #ukedchat focus on the role of play and games in learning was really interesting. Some quite polarised views on the validity of games and playful learning, and perhaps some misconceptions by others about what is meant by play. Anyway, this isn’t to discuss all that. You can read the thread on twitter. My view is that there is a role for games and play in learning, just as there is a role for pretty much anything. My mantra : learning, by any means. Games and play aren’t the destination, and should not be the focus, but they are can be a means to an end. Whether those games be simulations, trading games, xBox, dice, snakes and ladders, whatever – if the focus is on clear learning outcomes, and if expectations are high, then there’s nothing to lose. Well, except the game itself. And that in itself is a learning tool. Learn by failing or fail to learn.

So, here are some games / play type activities I’ve used for GCSE revision. I’ll also happily crack out the playdough, or dice games for learning grids and literacy etc,. but this is revision. In our classes, we teach A*-G in the same group. Quite a challenge. How do you differentiate? Simple: jenga, twister and bunting 😉

This was from the last #tmpompey where I shared the story.


Keyword Jenga

So how does it all work? I have to admit I got the idea from the fabulous work of John Sayers during #TLAB13 (an awesome event in itself, get yourself along to #TLAB14  – sign up here) when he spoke about using jenga at times. And in true professional manner I just took some genius idea that somebody else had, and (to quote Louis Walsh) made it my own.

I used this with my GCSE classes, and with a class I taught at another school whom I had never met before. Trialled it and then bought sets of the stuff off eBay for the department. The basic principle is keyword practice. I used stickers for keywords and stuck them on the ends of the jenga pieces. Since the nature of jenga is to remove pieces and then rebuild the structure you need to think about making the game last – it would be somewhat demoralising and pointless for it to be over in seconds with it collapsing. To help with this, repeat the keywords about 3 or 4 times throughout the box. I use about 15 keywords for each set and just repeat them. Then make sure they are muddled up when the set is built!

The first time I used this game was to revise coastal processes and landforms. We had keywords like ‘stacks’, ‘hydraulic action’, ‘longshore drift’, etc,. There are two ways you could run the game that I’ve tried.

1) Students work in a group (about 4-6 ideally). One student is the quiz master and has the list of keywords. On rotation, a word is called out and a student has to remove one of those keyword pieces and then define the word out loud. Another student has the proper definition and acts as the checker. If the player defines correctly, move on to the next go. If not, they may ask for help or attempt again. Keep going until the structure collapses!

2) Alternatively. Students are still in groups. You are the quizmaster general. Games are being played by the groups concurrently. You read out a definition or description of a word, being as vague or specific as you wish, and students can work on their own or discuss as a group to define and choose the correct word and then remove it.

revision jenga

Either way, it works well if you have simultaneous games going on around the room as you can act as the compere and provide more competition between them – “Team 1 have built to 17 stories high – can you beat them?!” or “Team 3 is struggling to define X, bonus piece if you can define it for them”. I tried this with both year 10 and year 11, and then the following week’s lesson started with a keyword test – with significantly better results! Students said they felt much more confident.


Revision twisterOk, I suppose this game should come with a health warning. No students were harmed in the process. I fully risk assessed the area and chose a suitable location. Promise.

Now I’ll assume we’ve all had a flirtation with Twister at some point? So how can you make this relevant to revision? Simple, link short answer exam questions / case study facts / keywords to the spin of the dial. For those of you who don’t know, Twister is a mat with dots on it of 4 different colours. There is a spinner dial with the command ‘right hand’, ‘left hand’, ‘right foot’, ‘left foot’ and a corresponding colour.


A games-master spins the dial and reads the command to the victim, sorry, player. So, for example, it could be Right Hand on Red. Players then take turns to follow commands and gradually become more and more muddled and twisted until someone drops out. Survival of the fittest.

Again, this is a team game. You can choose to give more or less support depending on your students – differentiate. Students can either figure out answers alone or with help, and you can provide tips or suggestions to help out as needed.

So, in groups of about 4-6 again, you need a games-master in charge of the spinner and a quiz-master to pose the questions and judge answers. The quiz master is given a set of questions, and some possible answers. This could be definitions, factual recall of case study detail, place specific information, processes, etc,. For example, Q1) What term means the proportion of a population working in industries such as mining or farming? A1) Primary employment. The games-master spins the dial, the player moves into position, the quiz-master poses the question, and the player has to answer.

Twister Q+A

If they answer correctly, move on to the next player’s move. If incorrect, spin and quiz them again or they can ask a friend for a clue. This works simultaneously with ‘Taboo’ really as you don’t want other students giving the answer away by saying the actual words.

I built my questions so that the were a range of either short factual recall style questions, or case study detail questions. You, as the overall Quiz Master (or Mistress) supreme, get to move around each group checking answers are up to scratch and reminding them of how many marks each question would be worth in an exam or what grade they equated to.

Of course, this gets messy. And loud. We took over the dining room during the last lesson of the day and I’m not sure the Head was entirely convinced at first but he did visit them in class the next week and seemed satisfied.

Now, I like games and playing as much as the next girl, but there was a moral to the end of this story too – they had to learn! I took them back to the classroom with 15minutes remaining and they all thought that the working was over…until I presented them with a timed case study exam question. questionsThey had 12minutes to complete, and had to include as many of the answers from the game as possible – games building on top of games because now they were kind of playing Bingo (which is also another great tool to include in helping with extended writing and developing literacy, but that is another topic). They moaned and groaned at first, but then produced great quality answers. And it wasn’t just short term either – they still remembered the case study detail the following week. Hoorah!


Ok, maybe not a game as such but still playful learning. I fully expected this to only be popular with some students and was surprised when they all got into it. Must be the vintage / retro era we are in! The basic premise is just to make revision a bit more interesting, and to share.


I did this with my Year 11s when they were starting to get a bit frazzled, and some were in and out doing exams elsewhere. I put a selection of processes, case study names, landforms and topics into a hat (literally) and then students pulled a piece of paper out and were then in charge of producing a piece of revision bunting on that topic. They could use any resource they wished in order to complete the mission (textbook, mobile device, internet, etc,.) – the only rule being that they were now in charge of helping someone else’s revision and so it must be good quality. Corporate responsibility. The one example of a poor piece of work (from a cheeky lad who decided he’d try to be daft) I hyped up as being a fine example of what not to do, and told him I’d be leaving it on the wall all year as a reminder to others to do better. The boy was in my tutor group and I knew him very well so he could take the banter, and proceeded to then produce two quality pieces and proved himself (but I still left the original shameful piece on the wall as a reminder to him to not cut corners!). As I said, I was surprised at how they got into this and the bunting went on display around the room for them to all visit and learn from. Most of them took photos of sections to take home with them. It could be a good little end-of-topic piece to do.


That’ll do for now. As I said, the games and the playing are a means to an end. But a very welcome one and some relief to students who are getting stressed or struggling with concepts. And for those visual and kinaesthetic learners out there! But keep in mind there always needs to be a clear focus, clear outcome, and some sort of follow-up in a more traditional sense. At the end of the day, they still have to sit a written exam!

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.” ~ General Colin Powel