Sunday, 11 July 2021

Breaking the exam’s hold on us

The problem we have in teaching is the exam system’s hold on us. The GCSE years could, if we are not careful about it, be littered with constant exam papers. Let’s look at Paper 1 Question 4 this lesson and we will look at Question 5, tomorrow. We could easily go through the year as a constant rotation of past exam papers. We know students need to be familiar with the exam paper, but, seriously, do they need to be constantly working through them? They are monsters to mark and to respond to. They take hours to teach to. Hours that we could easily be working on something more meaningful.

As a result of Covid and lockdowns, I wanted try something different with Year 10: how to approach the exam papers differently. Instead of doing the typical lesson where I introduced the exam paper, I just approached it as if we weren’t doing an exam paper. We were reading extracts and exploring them in detail. I just said to students they were building up their skills an stamina for the papers next year. We spent two lessons a term looking at one extract, so that students had in effect covered six papers. However, the emphasis was on the reading and exploring rather than the doing and writing. That’s what Year 11 will be about. Without having the freedom to explore and discuss, student will see our subject as an endless conveyor belt of exam questions. For this year, we looked at six different Paper 1 extracts. All were not past papers. They were extracts to cover a range of voices, styles and genres.

The first one I did was based on the opening of Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton. I shared a copy of the opening page with the following sets of questions on A3 sheet. As a class, we read the extracts using the Reciprocal Reading strategy and then simply we discuss the text one task at a time.

Task 1 – Checking you understand what is going on

1.       Where is the story set?

2.       How long does the attack take place?

3.       What is the time at the start of the story?

4.       Who is injured as a result of the gunshot?

5.       What must students learn in Year 12?

6.       How many adults are there in that area?

7.       List the places where there are other students in the school.

8.       What do the two students do to help in this situation?

9.       In what year group are the two students in?

10.   How long has the school been open for?


Task 2 – What is going on in the reader’s head – our reaction to the text

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Then the subtle press of a fingertip, whorled skin against cool metal, starts it beating again and the bullet moves faster than sound.



Their medals turn into shrapnel; hitting the headmaster's soft brown hair, breaking the arm of his glasses, piercing through the bone that protects the part of him that thinks, loves, dreams and fears; as if pieces of metal are travelling through the who of him and the why of him.

His pupils' faces look ghostly in the dim light, eyes gleaming, dark clothes invisible

His damaged brain tells him the answer lies here, in this day, but the thoughts that have brought him to this point have dissolved.


The question in my head:



The question in my head:


The question in my head: 


The question in my head: 


What makes me think this?








What makes me think this?


What makes me think this?


What makes me think this?



 Task 3 – How is the extract structured?

How does the writer introduce us to the characters?


How does the writer introduce us to the place/setting?


How does the writer connect us to the characters/events ?


How does the writer introduce a conflict?


Task 4 – Explore how the writer uses language in one of the following phrases

[a]Their medals turn into shrapnel

[b]hitting the headmaster's soft brown hair

[c] piercing through the bone that protects the part of him that thinks, loves, dreams and fears

[d] tearing apart any sense he'd once had of a benevolent order of things.


I have chosen the following phrase:


The word I am going to pick out in the phrase is:


The word means:


When the reader reads this word in the phrase, I think they are meant to feel:


The reader feels this because:


I think it is important that the reader feels this because the writer wants:




Task 5 –  What is really going on in the story? What is the subtext?

Which of these statements explains what is really going on in the story?

Decide on which statement you agree with most and explain why.

[1]The duty a teacher has for the children in his care.

[2]The frustration men have in not being strong enough to fight.

[3]The selfishness of people who want to protect themselves rather than other people.

[4]Teachers treat their students like they are family.

Your explanation


 Task 6 – Exploring an interpretation of the text

A student read the extract and said the following: ‘ I think their opening is powerful yet confusing. It is like you are there and seeing things for real.’


What evidence do you have that it is confusing?

The story

The way it is written


What evidence do you have the reader feels like they are there and things are realistic?

The story

The way it is written


 Yes, there are elements and  components of the exams in there, but we didn’t even have a sniff of an exam paper. All targeted discussion around the text, building their confidence around facing extracts like this.

Our obsession around the exam paper dominates our thinking. We drag out the exam paper too soon and don’t give space for students to develop their ideas and understanding of key concepts. It ends up being all about how the paper looks, what you must write, how you must write, what you mustn’t write and what you mustn’t do. These last bits are important, but do we get students to run before than can walk? The key answer to that will probably lie in when you introduce students to the exam paper and how you introduce them to it. What if students had a whole year of reading texts and exploring concepts before they event write a Question 2 response for Paper 1? Year 11 can be the time to refine the writing, but it would have more impact if students had the core understanding and principles in place. Then, Year 11 is the time to work on explanation and clarity in their explanations.

I have uploaded an Oliver Twist example for people to use here.

I genuinely think  we have to fight the way the exams dominate the way we teach.  We are often led by the exam rather than the thinking. This way the emphasis is on the thinking and the idea, and  not solely on answering the question in timed conditions. Thinking before writing.

As I read more about Cognitive Load Theory, the more I think that some of the things we do don’t support students. How many times have we give students an exam paper and they have left it blank? Or they totally got the wrong end of the stick? That’s because we have overloaded things too much and the writing is at odds with the thinking. We need to get students better at the thinking so that when we get to the writing the thinking isn’t the onerous and dominant process. Writing anything is hard, but add to it the strange hoops to have to intelligently jump through and you make the process even more challenging. It isn’t high expectations expecting students to write a decent exam question response from the beginning of Year 10. That’s crazy expectations. The end point of Year 11 is when they should be doing that. That’s why I think we need to look at Year 10 more in the way we structure things and support students. They need the thinking time. The thought space.


Thanks for reading


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