Going on a sequencing adventure

In The Hobbit, the titular character of Bilbo Baggins loves the peace and quiet of his own home. Despite this, Bilbo (somewhat reluctantly) agrees to go on a grand adventure. Perhaps due to a sense of duty, the offer of treasure, or adventuring for its own sake. And what an adventure he goes on!

I was inspired to write this blog post by two recent sources: an article by Mark Enser for TES (It’s on! Ofsted vs the GCSE exam machine) which pretty much summed up my views on the curriculum, and a Twitter poll from @WRBdB who asked “what order do you teach topics at GCSE”. Here are the results from that poll:

Mark Enser wrote about smashing the specification, and a few years ago I did exactly this with the GCSE Physics specification. I completely smashed it up into little pieces and reordered it, and only 20.1% of the people that responded to the above poll appear to have also done the same.

I’m sharing my thoughts on why and how I reordered the sequence of the Physics specification to help out others who might currently be looking to do the same.

Why I did it

To put it simply, I didn’t like the order my school used to teach Physics, which was to go by the order of the textbook we had in our department. This is also the order of the AQA specification, and the most common way that Physics GCSE resources are shared online.

These are the main reasons why I don’t like teaching by the specification order:

  • If you are an AQA Physics teacher you will know that the specification starts off with Energy and then on the first page you will see a bunch of energy equations. And they’re not just straightforward equations, they have a squared value in them! I’m not against teaching equations in any way, but to start off a GCSE course that way seems very uninspiring. If you teach by the order of the specification, students come across some relatively complicated equations early on in their GCSE course, ones which in my opinion are much better suited to later on in the course.
  • If you teach an entire section in one go and then don’t revisit it again, the students will most certainly have forgotten it in a short space of time. Spacing and retrieval practice will go some way to alleviating this, but I found that my year 11 students had forgotten a lot of the deeper concepts within energy and electricity because they hadn’t studied it in almost two years.
  • The level of difficulty feels too stuttered throughout the course. If you go by the order of the specification then you would teach an entire chapter on Energy over many weeks, starting with some complicated equations, then some simpler concepts, then some more complicated bits, and then simpler stuff etc. Once that’s all done the next topic starts, and again this will follow a similar pattern.

How I did it

Before I start it must be stressed that what I created is not a scheme of work. It is not a complete course and certainly not a curriculum. Neither is this a resource for you to just take and use.

First thing I did was to print out the specification and cut it up into small chunks. This is simple to do with the AQA Physics specification as each chapter is subdivided into smaller sections. Of course this may or may not be the case for the specification you work with.

I then mixed them all up and went through each piece separately. I wrote a “1” on the parts that I considered to be good starting points and fundamentals, “3” for the most complex and intricate parts of the specification (the parts that you can’t understand without a lot of prior knowledge), then finally a “2” for the parts in between.

I then piled the 1s, 2s and 3s together.

Now for the really fun part! This is the bit where you start seeing your specification in a whole new way, without the restriction of the spec points being under the same old headings and original order. Suddenly you will see links between two completely separated parts of the specification, and you will see things that flow together beautifully. Obviously some parts of the spec that were originally together anyway will naturally fall together again, and this is okay. Also, some parts will naturally fit into multiple places, and this is also okay.

Go through each pile and place the pieces in an interesting order that you feel allows your subject to come alive. This is not a quick task, but it’s so enjoyable!

You will then have your section 1 order, which you would teach first, then onto the section 2 pieces and finally the section 3 pieces to round off the course just before the GCSE exams at the end of year 11.

When placing the pieces together I found it was also good to be mindful of the examinations and how they are arranged for my subject. In Physics there are 8 sections:

  1. Energy
  2. Particle Model of Matter
  3. Atomic Structure
  4. Electricity
  5. Forces
  6. Waves
  7. Magnetism and Electromagnetism
  8. Space

Now for the finer details part. For example, in Physics sections 1 to 4 are examined on the GCSE paper 1, and sections 5 to 8 are examined on paper 2. If I was to completely strip away the section headers then it would be very difficult to tell students which part of the course will be tested in which paper. So in my new arrangement, I was careful to not lose too much of this as it is an important part of the GCSE.

So my new teaching order over the course of the Physics GCSE goes more like this:

  1. Particle Model of Matter 1
  2. Energy 1
  3. Forces 1
  4. Electricity 1
  5. Energy 2
  6. Particle Model of Matter 2
  7. Atomic Structure 1
  8. …….. Et cetera.

I am sharing my teaching order here for you to have a look for yourselves. This is a starting point for you to consider a different order for teaching the Physics specification, to get some ideas going for you and your department. As I said before, it is not something for you to just take and use without extra thought.

Tips for thinking about sequencing

  • Don’t chop it up too much. For example I kept all parts of a spec point together, because in Physics this works. I wouldn’t chop up within a spec point add them to lose some of the already existing flow.
  • Keep topics flowing in a logical order, don’t just jump from one spec point to another without any clear link between the two.
  • Do it once and leave it for a few days. Then do it again. Go over it until you are happy with the final order. I looked at the order and tweaked it many times before rolling it out to my department.
  • If you can have someone else to help you with this, great. I’m a firm believer in collaboration to reduce teacher workload and for something like this you definitely want it looked through by at least a second pair of eyes before unleashing it.

Drawbacks to doing this

  • Thinking about the sequencing of your specification takes a lot of time. It is not something you can do in a couple of days. I really enjoy thinking about sequencing and making links, and I worked on this project during the summer a few years ago.
  • Once you have changed the sequence, the way you teach won’t quite fit in with textbooks or revision guides. This can be a little confusing for the students if they are not guided effectively, and can also be tricky to set cover work.
  • Resources you find, or already have, won’t fit as nicely into each folder on the shared drive.
  • Your current schemes of work will need rewriting/restructuring, sometimes to a large extent.
  • It can be difficult for other teachers to get on board, and without guidance they might not understand your order. Plan in some time during department meetings to discuss this.
  • There will be a period of time, depending on which year group you start teaching the GCSE specification, where different year groups will be following different teaching orders.

But it’s worth it

This was one of my favourite projects I’ve done since becoming a teacher. I’m so much happier with the teaching order now, and (anecdote alert!) students seem to remember more because of this new sequence. There is now a real flow to physics, while the difficulty ramps up nicely throughout the course. My order is not perfect and may not work for you. However it is now appropriate for each year group, and allows for some fascinating links to be made within lessons.

So whether it’s because of a sense of duty, the treasures you will be giving to your students, or adventuring for its own sake, I strongly urge you to go on this adventure with your own subject.

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