The introduction of more rigorous GCSEs has understandably been challenging for teachers. But if they try to teach them in the same way as the old exams, they risk not only doing a disservice to their students but also short-changing themselves, argues Danuta Tomasz

For the past two or three years secondary teachers in England have been grappling with the logistical and mental challenge of introducing the new, linear GCSEs. This has not been easy. The revamped curriculum has been deliberately designed to raise the bar. It asks far more of students – and their teachers.

Much of the external debate around its introduction has inevitably focused on the mechanics – what grade constitutes a pass, how do the new boundaries map onto the old, what exactly are the exam boards looking for? While in the classroom, teachers have expended a great deal of mental capital trying to keep abreast of developments and one step ahead of their students.

Faced with the unknown it’s understandable if teachers reach for a familiar approach

As teachers digest the first completed cycle of the new GCSEs and say goodbye to the last of the old ones, a lot of that doubt and anxiety will naturally, and thankfully, diminish. But there is a danger that teachers may be managing the new curriculum rather than exploring it. That may work up to a point – but at the risk of capping student potential and severely curtailing professional satisfaction.

A generation of teachers has spent their professional lives teaching a modular curriculum. We are used to serving up six-week, bite-sized, discrete chunks of knowledge. It was formulaic and predictable – if students could answer a limited number of questions in a certain way there was a good chance they would get the requisite mark. Superficial skimming over a subject and teaching to specific questions would usually get a student through an exam.

To let go of that is unnerving. Faced with the unknown it’s understandable if teachers reach for a familiar approach. There is an additional pressure. Linear exams demand greater powers of recall. So teachers are only too conscious that they have to revisit material regularly.

Yet just because the exam is linear, it doesn’t follow that the curriculum is. Quite the opposite; it was designed with exploration in mind. It invites students to roam widely, take detours and disappear down rabbit holes because that is the best way to acquire a broad and deep knowledge of a subject. Purposeful peregrination, it turns out, is also an extremely effective friend to memory.

Many of the questions in the new exams invite complex answers. They require imagination, evaluation and inference. Fewer marks, especially at the higher end of the scale, are awarded for correctly identifying context, labelling diagrams and so on. But students will only learn to answer open-ended questions and craft extended responses if they are encouraged to read around, excavate under, experiment and double back. Wandering off topic isn’t an indulgence it’s a necessity.

The beauty of it is that the new curriculum has the potential to be much more enjoyable to teach. I appreciate that, after the stresses involved in bringing this particular horse to water, joy isn’t the emotion uppermost in teachers’ minds. But once the curriculum beds down the opportunities it offers, the chance it gives to connect with the subjects we love should become more apparent.

The tragedy would be if teachers focused obsessively about the exam at the end of the process rather than realising how much fun the process itself should be. If teachers resort to that, follow set texts slavishly without venturing more widely, and squeeze a rich curriculum through a narrow modular funnel their students will end up with lower grades and they will probably have had a miserable time helping them.

Odd though it may sound, to arrive at their intended destination teachers would be well advised to go off-piste.

Danuta Tomasz is assistant director of education at Europe for Cognita