History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

A Traveller’s guide to planning for success in the 9-1 GCSE

guide GCSE

A Traveller’s guide to planning for success in the 9-1 GCSE:

I have recently become fascinated by the history of the American West.

There are so many great personalities and stories when you start to look. Visiting a number of these sites in the summer really made this history resonate to me.

HomesteadsA  holiday in Montana, visiting relatives, saw me drag my family away from the theme parks and onto the historical sites.

We visited spots discovered by the amazing  explorers Lewis and Clark, saw loads of original homesteads and cabins, had a tour of the Battle of Little Big Horn battlefield…

Butch CassidyWe even stood at the same bar that Butch Cassidy frequented (with bullet holes in the door). For a kid bought
up on Westerns in the 1970s this was particularly enthralling.

The Donner Party

One depressing yet fascinating story that got me completely hooked was that of the Donner Party – the group of pioneers looking for a better life in the West.

It is a story of bad planning, disaster, death and endurance.

In a nutshell, they set off  too late in the year, didn’t have a mountain guide to help them across the treacherous Rocky Mountains, decided to take a ‘short cut’ which ended slowing them down and bought them into treacherous terrain.

Not making it far enough and with little food many of the group bedded in for the Winter (the worst in American history). Consequently, some slowly starved to death and those who didn’t, survived by eat the corpses of those who did.

If only they had set off earlier. If only they had had a decent mountain guide. If only they hadn’t lost so many days in the Sierra Nevada. If only they had planned their trip better.

The Story of Donner Party is  a chilling tail. It is also a good analogy for those of us teaching and planning the new GCSEs. In essence:  Be prepared!

You don’t want to enter that data meeting in the early Autumn Term of 2018 with your line manager ready to eat you alive because of poor performance.

The Prairie Traveler: The Classic Handbook for America’s Pioneers.

prairie-guideIn 1859 one of the ablest officers in the American army swapped rifle for pen and wrote The Prairie Traveler: The Classic Handbook for America’s Pioneers.

Captain R. B. Marcy’s  book proved to be a godsend for any would be pioneer travelling west by wagon. The Prairie Traveler was, hands-down, the best “how-to” of its day and remained so for years.

With his handbook, even the most bumbling city-dweller had a chance.  As a history nerd, I have my own copy and am hooked.

Marcy stated that organisation is essential. Without it, he warned, it is impossible for a party of any magnitude to travel together for any great length of time.  Those planning for success at GCSE should be warned!

Other tips included which tree bark and leaves could be smoked if tobacco ran out, whether to use mules or oxen to pull wagons (depends on the length of the trip), why mules sometimes won’t cross rivers (if they have water in their ears) and which gun to pack (colt revolver of course).

Clearly knowledge is power when travelling west. The same applies to the new 9-1 history GCSE.

Planning the new GCSEs is like planning a trip West, so here is our traveller’s guide to planning for success in the 9-1 GCSE:

A Traveller’s Guide to Planning for Success in the 9-1 GCSE 

1. How much curriculum time should I spend each unit?guide GCSE

This is clearly up to each department.

As a rule of thumb, I would use the percentage marks for each of the five units as a guide. So, if the thematic study is worth 20% of the final GCSE, I would devote 20% of the time I have available over the two or three years to teach it.

If you are a real geek like me, look closely at the content prescribed in the spec as some topics seem more content heavy than others.

Medicine for AQA has much more content listed than the AQA Elizabethan British Depth. This insider knowledge would also be my guide.

I could steal from Peter to pay Paul and spend a little more time on Medicine although it is worth the same as the British Depth Study.

2. How will I organise the content to ensure my course has coherence and makes as much sense as possible to my students?

It is tempting when you first start teaching a new course, where much of the content is new to you, to start by teaching the topics that you feel comfortable with.

Avoid this if possible. You should be brave and plan for coherence.

For Edexcel I would recommend teaching the thematic study, the environmental unit then the British Depth one after another.

The thousand year thematic study will give your students the overview of time they need. Then you can dive into the environmental unit immediately afterwards as it links to the thematic. You can draw on the knowledge they have from the overview course.

  • If you study crime and punishment you ask questions like:
  • ‘Tell me what you know about policing in the 19th century’.
  • ‘What can you remember about living conditions at this time?’
  • ‘We are going to be looking at policing in Whitechapel in more depth.’

This will help the Whitechapel unit fit into the big picture.

You can take exactly the same approach with the British Depth Study. Use the time periods from the overview, then ask them what can they remember from the thematic study about this time period. Then, ‘what were punishments and policing like during Elizabeth’s reign?’

By taking this approach you are giving your students a framework to help them make sense of the past.

I would also be inclined to teach the period study immediately before or after the world depth. If you aim to cover  Germany and the Cold War, then perhaps approach them in chronological order.

If you want to teach the American West I would again use the thematic study as a way in. Establishing what was going in the Britain at the time then starting by comparing life in America in the 19th century is a good idea.

For AQA I would keep the period study and the modern world depth together in one year. I would then teach the thematic and British depth in another year. Remember that the British Depth has the environmental unit attached to it. The site changes every year.

Resource Cupboard Full or Schools Members can download some examples of 2 year planning documents at the end of this guide. They give some alternatives ‘routes’ for you to ponder. It will also stop you over packing or under packing for your journey (teaching too much or too little content).

3. Will the Assessment Objectives used to assess the different topics affect the order in which I teach the course?

If we were to hold a quiz on the new GCSEs, could you tell me:

  • What are the main 4 Assessment Objectives  9-1 GCSE?
  • Do you know how much each AO is worth?

Easy!  You cry:

  • Assessment objective AO1: Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the key features and characteristics of the period studied. This is worth 35%.
  • Assessment objective AO2: Explain and analyse historical events and periods studied using second order concepts. 35%
  • Assessment objective AO3: Analyse evaluate and use sources (contemporary to the period) to make substantiated judgements, in the context of historical events studied. 15%.
  • Assessment objective AO4: Analyse evaluate and make substantiated judgements about interpretations (including how and why interpretations may differ) in the context of historical events studied. 15%.

Ok, good start. But what is the answer to these questions?

  • When it comes to the second order concepts (AO2) do you know which topics / units: similarity and difference, change and continuity, cause, consequence and significance are examined in?
  • Which unit(s) do the sources (A03) appear?
  • What about interpretations (AO4) what topic(s) does this tricky concept appear in?
  • What types of exam questions are being asked to assess each of the  different AOs?
  • Where does the dreaded / confusing narrative account style question appear?

Knowing the answers to the above questions make you a history teacher geek and an able traveller. This is a good thing. It will give you power to plan your course for maximum impact. After all, teaching some ‘skills’ are our bread and butter, elements of other second order concepts are much harder.

AO4 (interpretations) is hard.  For Edexcel interpretations is only assessed on the Modern Depth Study paper. For AQA it appears in the British Depth Study and the Period Study. For more help here read our guide to teaching interpretations at GCSE.

Teaching similarity and difference, change and continuity and causation is pretty straight forward as we have been through this before.

Teaching the topics with the assessment foci that we are comfortable with early in the course, is probably a good thing to do. This is because you can build your own confidence. You can show your student’s how to master these questions. This will build their confidence too.

It must be noted that this is easier with Edexcel than with AQA simply because the way the AOs are distributed across the units.

Remember, you can only make these decisions if you know the spec inside out in the first place!

Resource Cupboard Full or Schools Members can download  a clever one sided document that answer all of these questions and will act as a useful planning tool to show you what topics focus on what AO.  It also shows you what exam questions are asked for each unit.  In the download there is also a useful exam question card sort for you to use in your department meeting (if you ever have one).

4. When I teach individual units should I just focus on the AOs that are tested in that particular unit?

 This is a really interesting question. Let’s take the British Depth Study.  For Edexcel the assessment objectives mainly focus on substantive knowledge and cause and consequence. Does this mean that I should only teach cause and consequence style questions when I deliver this course?

My answer is that you should definitely be teaching cause and consequence style questions here.

But, to develop the skills for success needed for the whole GCSE you should find opportunities to teach AO3 (sources) and A04 (interpretations). This is because these are skills that some find hard and we should develop these skills over longer periods of time.  The more we re-visit and embed decent historical thinking the better

If you just focus on the style of question and AOs that are examined in one unit, your curriculum could become turgid. (‘Not another exam question sir/ miss! – we did a causation question last week, and the week before…’)

5.  How do I ensure that the course remains rooted in good history and doesn’t become death by exam question?

This is an important point. Let’s face it no matter what they say, the bottom line is  SLT are mainly interested in results. If you do well, great. If you don’t you are put under the spotlight.

The temptation therefore is to just teach to the test, show your classes the assessment criteria and get them to practice exam style questions as much as possible.  Right?


If you do this all of the time, your KS4 curriculum will be boring and kids will not enjoy your lessons. Fact.

You have to ask yourself not just what grade they will get but what will be remembered by these students when they leave school? The formula for answering a causation question? I doubt it.  Teaching engaging fun yet rigorous history is key to success.

Memorable lessons will make learning stick.

Of course we should be pragmatic and show our classes the secrets for success for each question type. But not all of the time.

We should take an enquiry based approach. We should base our work on some core principles, plan using clever enquiry questions and teach our students the unique skills needed to inquire. Ian Dawson argues that these are highly valued in adult life.

Experience tells me that if we teach an engaging curriculum that shows the secrets of exam success AND teaches engaging and intriguing history  we can have the best of both worlds where we are raising attainment and achievement levels AND engagement levels too.

Let’s face it, we have got to be true to ourselves as well as helping our students pass the test.

I don’t want to work in an exam factory. I want students to love history as much as I do.  I want them to have a memorable, enjoyable, intriguing and successful journey across the new 9-1 GCSE course.

We all need to remember,to make it safe and sound across the prairie and have success in 2018, we need to plan for it!

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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