New term, new A Level : How will my lessons change?
I may have stuck my head in the sand
When I heard that the A Level was changing, I was reassured by many teachers that the changes would not be huge. Most of the content would remain the same, and I clung to that stability.
Fast forward 8 months; my day job consists of researching the new A Level specification and writing exam style questions from scratch. These questions need to fully represent the changes in content as well as the expectations that the new reforms bring.
Clinging to familiarity is a risk
Having just covered most of the first year’s topics in the new spec, I can see how there is a lot of the same old content, there is familiarity. The biggest change comes from a turnaround in tone. Looking through all the specimen papers and hearing the exam boards speak, I could see how my commonly used teaching routines could stifle creativity and how some strategies I used sparingly in the past would need to be consciously showcased in the day to day.
Where unfamiliarity comes from
The overarching themes are the common glue across the entire specification, no matter which exam board you follow.
Problem Solving - a big familiarity trap
Relying on recent past papers entirely will not be enough. By removing separate parts from exam questions and mixing multiple topics in one question, the new specification goes above and beyond just ‘tougher questions’ as seen in recent papers. Here’s more on where to find such questions.
Mathematical Modelling - familiar exam questions do not live up to this theme
If we relied solely on old spec papers, this theme would be grossly under practised - we need to actively prepare students for this so they are not blindsided. Here’s an example of how this is done in Quadratics.
- Mathematical Proof - ‘Show that’ questions are not enough
The old spec is riddled with ‘Show that’ questions and we can and should use these. The new spec goes above and beyond by including proof by exhaustion and contradiction. Most importantly, proof is can be tested across all topics, as well as being topic agnostic and more abstract. You can see some examples here
The coping mechanisms I will need this year
I think of these as ‘small cost now, high reward later’ endeavours that will have sustainable impact on preparing students for the unfamiliar. In the hope that you are not blindsided, I am sharing what the my research has taught me.
Things I would do more of :
Translating routine Maths into English (Coping with Modelling)
Bringing meaning to routine mathematical process does not always require a complex model to be present. For example, while completing the square on a Quadratic and using the result to extract a vertex, I would not stop at coordinates. “ 8 is the highest/lowest value of y and it happens when x= 5. So if y was the number of cars sold and x was the price - how would we interpret this? ”
Bring back old baggage (Coping with Problem Solving)
At the end of every topic, find or create exam questions that bring back previous topics. Having to wonder ‘What am I being tested on here…?’ is a huge part of building that problem solving muscle. Sketching curves is a great example. If you have just covered the factor theorem, set them a question where the only way they can find a roots of a polynomial is by actually sketching the curve - it will throw them off in ways that mimic the challenge of the new exams perfectly.
Getting students to criticise (Coping with Proof)
Proof requires solid mathematical argument - getting students to find flaws in arguments is a great way to get them to create solid arguments themselves. There are actually exam style questions in specimen papers that do this. Doing this more regularly in lessons will encourage students to strive for accuracy and ‘completeness’ when presenting their own work. Personally, I would take old ‘Show that’ questions and compose incorrect solutions to put up for criticism.
Things I would do less of :
Categorise exam questions into ‘types’
There is deliberate shake-up when it comes to predictability no matter which exam board you go for. Talking about ‘types of questions’ is something I have been guilty of in the past. I need to refrain from hinting at any kind of predictability and focus more on teaching students how to cope with unfamiliarity, even if I know that the question we are covering is extremely typical.
Stop at the final answer
We as teachers are far more enlightened about how an exam question could be taken further by examiners, especially given the new themes. I would use old epic questions and really drill down on the final answers by exploring questions such as ‘What have we just found?’, ‘How would we interpret this?’, ‘What if the question had said something different?’, ‘How could we have made a model out of this?’. This is a great way to recycle old spec questions while still raising the bar for the upcoming exams.
Rely solely on familiar question banks
If I did every single Solomon, Elmwood and IYGB paper for any exam board from the old spec, I would still struggle to get an A on the new spec. I would not risk overly relying on these question banks. Having studied the new styles being adopted by exam boards, I would tweak these questions or use them sparingly. Pick your favourite questions and remove the parts so students have to Problem Solve more - here is an example I used myself.
A checklist that ticks all the boxes
The overarching themes apply to every topic on the new spec - any changes I make are driven by these at the core. As mentioned before, I think of these as ‘small cost now, high reward later’ endeavours that will accrue over time to make students embrace this new style of exams. As part of an earlier post, I wrote a ‘Checklist for Every Topic’ - do have a read and good luck with the start of term!