Authentic & Collaborative approaches to a 'GCSE' Pedagogy - 5 Design Principles

Within the last five years we have collectively trialed a different approach to structuring and delivering a traditional two year GCSE course. This reconceptualisation of how GCSE could be taught was in response to an exploration of the inherent flaws within traditional approaches towards GCSE teaching and in recognition of the need fro a deeper and more ‘learning led’ approach to planning units of work and individual lessons.

The approach we have developed and applied has resulted in a number of positive outcomes; for both teacher and learner. Above all else the five design principles underpinning this approach, refined in both purpose and process across the trial, ensured that our planning, teaching and the learning did not slip back into the competitive, individualistic, and conformative pedagogies so often seen within the GCSE classroom. These principles held us to account and guided our actions, actions we feel have enabled a balance between preparing individuals for ‘exam success’ (with successful outcomes evidenced in the summer of 2017) and preparing them for ‘life success’. We elaborate below on one case study undertaken within a History GCSE classroom.

The 5 Design Principles 

Design Principle 1: GCSE Learning Teams (Engineering Collaborative Group Learning)

Purpose: Using all available data students should be organised into teams, in adherence to Learning Team construction principles outlined by Rob Gratton’s work: 5/6 members, heterogenous, sustained (Constructing a Collaborative Learning Group). In terms of heterogeneity, competency in subject specific skills should be considered to ensure a rich mix within each group. Aspirational grades, where applied, may be a useful means of constructing the group to cover a range of working towards grades and/or trajectories. Groups should be sustained for the length of at least a unit to enable the emergence of interdependence, generosity and socio-emotional stability. With such in place learning can be further enhanced with the group becoming the epicentre of the learning process.

Process: the learning cycle and pedagogy outlined below is significantly enhanced when delivered through a group construct which adheres to the principles of collaborative group learning. This creates the means of role and task division, facilitates skills share and enhances academic competency of students at all levels especially when a Collaborative Group Learning pedagogy is also applied. 

Design Principle 2: Learning Cycle

Purpose: A learning cycle of Entry point/hook – knowledge harvest – activities – formative assessment – summative assessment – exit point/product generation should be applied to GCSE level teaching, reconfiguring the GCSE course into 1/2 termly learning cycles rather than one seemingly endless trudge through to exams. This applies principles of best practice in terms of learning design. Reconstructing a GCSE course and its components into cycles allows not only for better organisation for both the teacher in terms of delivery and learner in terms of cognitive association/location for later recall and application. It also allows for the maintenance of an authentic learning experience with a clear beginning and end epitomised by the generation of products of value to the learner. 


1: Enquiry Question. Each unit is unified by an overarching enquiry question which is open, evaluative and has a clearly identifiable topic ( linked to the unit material) and focus. Students seek to address this question through individual lessons, with smaller questions (lasting 1 or several lessons) being answered along the way building up an individuals capacity to address the enquiry at the end of the unit. This creates a logical structure to the unit and ensure students are actively engaged through enquiry rather than passive recipients of instruction. It is prudent to use exam style questions at the lesson by lesson level to provide pragmatic rehearsal opportunities.

2: Knowledge Harvest. Identify what the students already know about the material to be studied within rather unit. Centre this around knowledge which is testable and quantifiable. This could be knowledge of subject content, skill and conceptual knowledge. A knowledge harvest serves as a baseline with an application of the same test at a further point within the unit serving as a means of revision, retention and a measure of progress within this realm. Knowledge Harvests can be designed by teachers and students alike, for example individual- learning team – class construction of knowledge questions. This process enhances learning and acts as a process of Assessment as Learning. 

3: Exit Point/ Product generation. Students should be working towards the generation of an authentic and personalised product as a group and as an individual. Such products can be varied and highly creative ranging from a completed exam paper, an address to the enquiry question, a podcast, speech, video, selection of slides, posters e.t.c. The goal is to create products which feedback and forward into the learning process i.e. can act as revision materials. Products when for the benefit of a wider audience and group have increased value to the individual. Such authenticity increases engagement and quality thus individuals benefit from high quality materials created by their peers. 

Design Principle 3: Pragmatic Rehearsal (formative and summative assessments) 

Purpose: Recognising a single session or part session as Pragmatic Rehearsal highlights the importance of the process of deliberate practice. Rather than burying  this within a lesson signposting this mode of learning gives it greater value. This separation between modes of learning contributes to an increasing metacognitive awareness of different processes of learning. Mapped Pragmatic Rehearsal ensures a careful consideration of when students should apply and practice KUS under controlled conditions across a unit, term and course. This also provides an opportunity to map out impactful feedback, feedforward and further action such as follow up time as part of the course. For example over three sessions within a week one session may be designated for Pragmatic Rehearsal. This is of particular value when providing a means for students to practice exam specific skills and to do so in an exam like context e.g. under timed conditions. 


1: a controlled exam style question against exam criteria

2: a controlled full exam against exam criteria 

3: question deconstruction and response planning

4: do – review – improve 

5: a separate book for pragmatic rehearsal enables students to better identify and evidence progress across time. 

Design Principle 4: Collaborative Enquiry

Purpose: With a subject specific learning team in place this creates the opportunity to engage in cooperative and collaborative enquiries and with this collaborative knowledge construction, a deeper understanding of subject material and peer-peer support in skills development. This approach enables there to be as many teachers as their are learners, benefiting both student and class teacher in terms of the management of learning. This approach also supports the development of the prized attributes associated with collaboration including communication, interdependence and increasing levels of independence. This pedagogy promotes the traits of the ‘future-ready learner’ rather than a competitive and grades driven compliance often associated with a traditional approach to exam classes. 


1: the division of enquiry questions into group and then individual research questions. With each becoming expert in the first and then all areas in order to address the enquiry question as an individual.

2: knowledge collation and transference through each individual playing their part in the construction of a group and class synthesis sheet. 

3: working together collectively to produce products which can educate others and can later be used as revision materials. e.g. podcasts, video presentations, performances. 

4: co-construction of exam style question planning and completion supporting skills development.

Design Principle 5: Master Classes (direct instruction) 

Purpose: When a didactic and Expert led input is required designating this process as Masterclass enables students to recognise the mantle of the expert. This approach enables professional expertise existing within a team to be fully harnessed. This  separation between modes of instruction contributes to an increasing metacognitive awareness of different learning processes and practices. Experience of direct instruction of this nature is an effective means of developing University readiness. Mapped masterclasses across a unit, term and course ensure foundational content and skills are addressed as and when required at the level required. Responsive masterclasses enable ‘just in time’ teaching and authentic personalised instruction to be put in place. 


1: WAG/Predicted Grade targeted 25 minute teacher led skills session

2: 25 minute teacher led Knowledge session 

3: 55 minute teacher led lecture

4: student/group led presentations to class on Knowledge & Understanding

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