Making the Learning Leap: KS4 to KS5

In Research Evidence, Teaching English by Alex Quigley1 Comment

(Apologies if you we’re expecting an album full of images that have students leaping holding their GCSE certificates – I think we have had enough of those this week!)

In the midst of the media melee about exam standards, results fervour and what is seemingly an unwinnable battle for teachers and school leaders to succeed in such high-stakes circumstances, the important stuff about learning gets rather lost. As students excitedly open their GCSE results, I can’t help but consider the gap that appears for students between sitting their GCSEs and then undertaking further study at KS5 and beyond.

Schools are under often crippling pressure to get results and such an outcome can drive the curriculum, with students becoming dependent upon the many GCSE interventions schools undertake on their behalf. Almost all schools are affected by this pressure, with floor targets, unreliable OFSTED judgements, league tables and narrow performance measures collectively instilling fear and loathing in teachers and school leaders.

Even without the more obvious ‘gaming‘ practice of multiple entries and more, a succession of controlled assessments and clumsy GCSE curriculum models lead teachers toward an assessment focused approach that doesn’t always translate well to further study. The problem is that with each intervention and support mechanism, with the tacit understanding that students won’t be allowed to fail, students become less prepared for the expectations of greater independent study at KS5.

E.M. Forster famously said: “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” Most teachers, I count myself included, teach effectively to the GCSE controlled assessment requirements and the exams. Sometimes it feels like they are learning little more than the GCSE shaped spoon. Individual students must be cumulatively sitting over twenty controlled assessments in different subjects – not to mention retakes etc. Failure isn’t an option for most. Even when these assessments go, other methods of ‘gaming‘ will exist if we continue to run a system with such narrow and flawed judgements, in what is a punitive and divisive fashion. That is a political debate for an other post – I am interested here in the learning stuff.

We are moving towards a system with students sitting one set of exams at KS5. I am largely for this move (however I think we should retain AS examinations), but a reality looming for many students is that failure will begin to exist in a visceral and shocking fashion as students are unprepared because of our flawed GCSE model. Jerome Bruner said that we want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information”. Most of our students are denied this crucial information until it is too late – often in their AS examinations. With their likely removal students may well flounder still further.

At KS5 students narrow down to a handful of subjects and have fewer assessments. This is an undeniably good thing. That being said, it takes a real shift in learning style. It requires a different structure for learning to ensure knowledge and skills are retained over the longer term. Students need to work much more effectively in these more independent independent circumstances. They need to learn knowledge and retain it for lengthier periods, therefore we need to seek out the best way to learn so that students can succeed.

There is a great deal of interesting research provides a starting point for the study methods we need to encourage and for the curriculum we need to construct to increase the likelihood of success for students making the leap from GCSE to A level. Cognitive psychology research has gone some way to identify the most effective learning methods for students – see here.

Concepts like ‘spacing‘, timely repetition of curriculum content and ‘interleaving‘ need to be considered as part of our KS5 curriculum structure (of course, better that we begin this as early as possible from when students begin secondary school). Put simply, the ‘spacing‘ effect is increasing the intervals of time between revisiting material so that it can be remembered most effectively. How and when we repeat curriculum content matters, therefore the annual structuring of our courses matter – particularly when students are moving to two year courses. ‘Interleaving‘ is when a teachers switches between different topics (in English Literature A level, this could mean switching the focus from narrative style one lesson, character the next, before returning to narrative style at the end of the week). This makes it difficult for students in the short-term, but it is what is defined by Robert Bjork as a ‘desirable difficulty‘, as it helps students remember stuff better for longer. David Didau has written with characteristic clarity on the above concepts – see here.

In my experience I have found that there is a growing divide between groups of students at KS5. There is a profile of students who are resilient, literate and less dependent upon external motivation who make the leap and thrive. They envision their future lives and where their hard work will take them. They have good habits and they are willing to practice and work to deepen their knowledge beyond the classroom. Crucially, however, there is also a significant group of students who flounder at KS5. Of course, the goal is to narrow these achievement gaps and make KS5 a success for all.

We need to foster reliance and grit in the students who are flailing in the gap (I have written on fostering grittiness here, whilst encouraging ‘deliberate practice‘ from all our students by adapting how we teach and how students learn. There are a host of socio-economic factors, gender issues etc. that directly impact upon how students achieve, but these do not and should not stop us from reflecting upon how we can better adapt teaching and learning to make the learning leap between KS4 and KS5 less perilous for many.

I would like to see many more students, beyond the classic profile of the typically successful A level student we all know and love, make that newspaper image of leaping joy and onto further success in university and in life.

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