Teaching International GCSEs: it's all in the planning

Teaching International GCSEs: it’s all in the planning

As teachers, we know that effective planning leads to successful outcomes. Planning the learning journey of our students is an important part of the teaching and learning process, but sometimes the task before us seems overwhelming. Breaking the task down into simple steps can help...


As teachers, we know that effective planning leads to successful outcomes. Planning the learning journey of our students is an important part of the teaching and learning process, but sometimes the task before us seems overwhelming. Breaking the task down into simple steps can help you to establish a robust routine, and one which will become increasingly familiar with practice.

Here are five steps to use when planning your International GCSE lessons.

Step 1: Identify a starting point

Identifying a starting point for learning is essential: it is important that tasks are set at the correct level and lead on meaningfully to the next step to engage students. This will ensure students are sufficiently intellectually stimulated, but not inundated with too many new concepts.

Here are a few ideas for identifying a good starting point:

  • Determine what has been covered at Lower Secondary and make sure you build on from there. Look at the concepts that students have learnt about the topic in the previous year/term/lessons.
  • Think about concepts that students will have encountered from other areas of the course and across the curriculum.
  • Ask yourself what you can reasonably expect the students to already know.
  • Recap the key skills students will need to engage with the topic, perhaps through a short introductory task.
  • Plan the language you are going to use, ensuring it is accessible to all. Identify any new vocabulary, or revisit vocabulary that is not regularly used in the vernacular.

Step 2: Identify your learning goals

Look ahead, what is coming next? Think about where students’ work will lead them next, including thinking about contextualising any abstract concepts. Giving meaning to learning, showing its application to the real world helps students engage with the content, and ensures that they are motivated and assists with the retention of ideas. Point out to the students the concepts that they are going to need in the future, for example when studying the subject at (International) A level or A level or in employment.

Step 3: Delivery – encourage motivation

Ultimately, we want our students to become independent learners. However, learners do not switch from dependent to independent, instead they are likely to be somewhere on a scale between dependent and independent. In some instances, learners will move along this scale depending on the topic or subject being taught, or even the mood of the learner. As teachers, our role is to facilitate the students’ propensity to become independent learners. (For more on this, you may wish to explore Boekaert’s paper listed below).

With this in mind, think carefully about how you will deliver a new concept. If possible, initially engage students through problem-solving and reasoning activities such as discussions, independent investigations or hands-on practical activities. Give students opportunities for success, provide scaffolded support where required, and gradually step back, allowing students to develop their own ideas and solutions. The concrete – pictorial – abstract (CPA) model of representation, based on Bruner’s modes of representation (Bruner, 1966) might be a starting point for learning new concepts.

It may not always be possible to use concrete representations but encouraging students to visualise a problem or concept will support understanding of new ideas. Again, the importance of contextualising a concept is important; if students can visualise the problem, they are far more likely to be able to engage with it. You can support students in this process simply by asking them to close their eyes and picture the problem or imagine the scene, to draw a diagram or carry out group activities like ‘hot seating’, in which one student plays a character or problem and the rest of the class ask them questions.

Step 4: Plan the activities

Encouraging students to work in lots of different ways boosts engagement and allows them to identify how they learn best. Remember, you are striving to develop independent students who will be able to direct their own learning. Vary the activities used in the classroom. For example, you could ask students to:

  • plan a lesson on a topic or concept
  • write a mark scheme for exam questions on a topic
  • design a textbook page or quiz for other students to answer
  • create a short video
  • explain to a partner how to solve problem

Vary the way in which you wish the task to be completed, independently, in pairs or in groups. Plan a variety of activities, such as:

  • written tasks
  • discussion tasks
  • investigative tasks
  • creative tasks
  • exam style questions

Problem-solving skills are developed by applying known skills to unfamiliar situations. Ask a variety of questions during tasks, encouraging students to explain and justify their thinking at each stage to increase understanding.

Step 5: Ensure retention

How do you make sure that the concept you taught today is not forgotten tomorrow? Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of teaching is ensuring that students do not forget the ideas they have learned. Three ideas for improving knowledge retention are given below. Try to include these strategies (or similar) in your planning.

  • Spaced learning: the repeated revisiting of concepts with other, non-related content covered in between, has been shown to be a highly effective strategy by several studies. Consider incorporating revisiting ideas previously studied at the beginning or end of a lesson.
  • Repeated practice tests: we all know that repetition leads to improved knowledge retention – consider the basic skills humans use every day, which become so well engrained as to be automatic. Think about embedding short practice tests on topics into the lesson, if they are unrelated to the lesson then they are both spaced learning and repetition.
  • Knowledge organisers: a knowledge organiser is a single (A4 size) sheet of information on the topic. The creation of these requires the student to identify the most important aspects of a topic and record them effectively, thus thinking deeply about the concepts and identifying what is important and what is superfluous. Discussing with students what to include on the knowledge organisers will develop their critical-thinking skills and provoke lively debate!

What about planning for exams?

While the steps above still apply when planning revision sessions and mock exam papers, you will need to ensure that you manage students’ time effectively:

  • Don’t try to re-teach the concepts in full: revisit main ideas but be brief. You may wish to create mind maps or knowledge organisers of topics to support students in making connections between concepts.
  • Give students plenty of opportunities to practise exam style questions. Start by grouping questions into topics then move on to more formal papers. You could even run mock exams in the classroom so that students know what to expect in the real exams. This may help to mitigate for some of the anxiety students experience when sitting formal examinations.
  • Provide students with mark schemes for exam questions, pointing out where marks are awarded and the importance of showing workings and demonstrating logical thinking. Understanding how an examiner awards marks will improve students’ chances of success.
  • Discuss
    – strategies for tackling unfamiliar questions encourage highlighting of key words and breaking the question down into smaller steps.
    – what to do if students can’t answer a question, encourage them to move on and revisit the question later in the exam.
    – coping with exam anxiety, reminding students of self-calming techniques.
    – how to prepare the night or morning before an exam, the importance of a good night’s sleep and having a sensible meal!

These steps are by no means exhaustive, and no matter how well you prepare, it is impossible to plan for every scenario. However, by thinking carefully about where the learning fits in to the curriculum, how students can best engage with the concepts, which activities students should complete and when and how to revisit ideas and encourage retention, you have an excellent starting point for delivering highly effective lessons and preparing students for exam success.

Further reading

Boekaerts, M. (1997). Self-regulated learning: a new concept embraced by researchers, policy
makers, educators, teachers and students. Learning and Instruction, 7(2), pp. 161-86.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. MA: Harvard University Press.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), pp.

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