How I Teach Students to Explain and Assess in GCSE Geography
GCSE Geography exams demand an array of skills to succeed. Geographers must apply understanding to data in order to make clear judgements
Explaining and assessing are worth many marks on a GCSE Geography exam paper. Teaching our students to use these skills effectively helps them to access those marks more easily. It also teaches them to become more fluent geographers.
STEP 1: Defining command words
Have you ever asked a class of teenagers what ‘explain’ means? I have. They usually tell me it means to describe. At that point I try not to look too pained, as I remind them describe and explain are not synonyms.
I usually follow this up by standing at the front right in the middle and saying ‘Describe me!’. I do then add a belated caveat of ‘Please be nice!’. After a few seconds of eyes staring at me someone will say ‘You’re tall!’ followed by ‘You’re wearing glasses!’ and ‘You’re wearing a black top.” etc. and I nod: they know how to describe.
I then follow up with ‘So what does describe mean?’ and we get to ‘say what you see, say what something is like’. Then we can draw parallels to other subjects like English and the skill of describing a character or a setting in a story which they are familiar with.
Then we’re back at ‘explain’ and by now they realise they do know it is different. I ask a few fun ones like: explain why gravy is the best thing on chips or explain why school has rules. When they give an answer it starts with because. We’ve made it:
Describe = say what something is like
Explain = give reasons why
I introduce assess/evaluate a little later as we need to have built on explaining first. I often find that my classes are used to the word ‘assess’ as they have regular assessments. Students are aware that a classroom assessment is how it is decided how much they know so far about something. The teacher uses them to weigh up and decide what students know and what students don’t. So I signpost to this and we have an understanding of a more abstract word.
Assess = weigh up and decide
I find that these definitions need teaching explicitly multiple times. Especially as these command words are not tier three Geography vocabulary – rather they are used in everyday life and most other subjects. It really does require practice for students to remember what is being asked of them and applying it to the situation.
STEP 2: Modelling and practice
When teaching Geography from Year 7, I like to use a consistent approach to teach explanation. I use the following modelling process as a scaffold which can be removed steadily or added back in.
I introduce Explaining Phrases. Explaining phrases are exactly what they say on the tin – phrases that mean you are explaining. I purposely call them this so students more easily know that when they see ‘explain’ this is what comes to mind.
In my classroom ‘explaining phrases’ is one of my most used displays. I have about 8 printed out and stuck on the wall. Students know where they are and refer to them until they don’t need to and can remember ones that work.
For the first introduction I model making a point and explaining it using I do, we do, you do. It’s important at this stage I narrate my thinking so students can learn how to make their own decisions. I want them to use their Explaining Phrases as a tool to develop their own writing.
“I’ve given one advantage of solar energy, that is my point. But the question says explain so now I need to explain it. I need to choose one of my explaining phrases, which one follows this sentence I’ve written well? Hmmm, ‘this means that’ or ‘as a result’ both work well. I haven’t used ‘as a result’ in my writing yet so I’ll choose that one.”
When they have independently practised, I can build on this to practise chains of explanation. It is a necessary exam skill and is needed to develop extended geographical writing. For example, explaining how improvements in water supply can impact school attendance in Mexico City’s squatter settlements requires connections to be made between water supply, health, disease and access to education. If a student can explain well and is familiar with the skill, they will have a framework in which to seek links. Therefore knowing how to explain well enables young geographers to make connections and understand the world better.
STEP 3: Self-review
Another benefit I find is that students can self-review or peer-review more easily. I ask them to go through their work and underline Explaining Phrases. Depending on the task, I might provide a success criteria, or at GCSE, a mark scheme. If the success criteria isn’t met or there’s a whole paragraph with no chains of explanation, they know where to improve and importantly, how to improve their writing. By building in the checking step to the teaching process, we can begin to develop this as a habit in our students. This helps them to produce better writing but also to understand the skill better.
How does this apply to assessing?
I teach assessing in much the same way by explicitly teaching useful phrases and then modelling them into written tasks. A key difference is that I call them Concluding Phrases. I have found this allows students to see where they fit into their longer written work more easily.
For KS3 and KS4 questions where students are asked to assess or evaluate something, they need to weigh up options and decide using evidence. The commonly used paragraph structure is Point, Evidence, Explain, Link – but I often change the Link to Mini Conclusion. This encourages students to give their opinion on the paragraph they’ve written and justify it instead of repeating the question again. It also provides a reminder that these mini conclusions and overall conclusion are where Concluding Phrases go.
I again have a simple list of suggested Concluding Phrases displayed in my classroom which is there to be referred to. However, when discussing how to answer a longer assess question, I will often brainstorm others that are more relevant to the question being answered with the class before starting. This modelling with the students shows them my thinking and gives them the tools to be able to be more resilient when faced with an unfamiliar exam question.
“This question is asking about the sustainability of transport systems in a UK city, so after I’ve explained each strategy with my case study evidence I will need a mini conclusion. If it’s about sustainability I want to be assessing how sustainable they are, so Concluding Phrases like ‘I think this is quite environmentally sustainable because…’ and ‘Overall this is…’ could help me. In my overall conclusion I need to compare so ‘more sustainable than…’ will be useful.”
Students’ conclusions are often a one line ‘I agree because…” which usually repeats something already said rather than summarise or further the key geographic themes being discussed. By using Concluding Phrases we are giving students other ways to develop their writing and show their understanding in a more nuanced way.
As geographers progress past GCSE there are many opportunities for their writing to develop beyond the short-form essays I’ve referred to here. However I am finding that these basic building blocks of geographical writing help them to not only achieve at GCSE but also have the tools to move into their own style and know which skills they are using when doing so.
This is because…
This means that…
As a result…
…which leads to…
I believe this is…
Based on the evidence…
This is more significant/important/sustainable/_______ than… because…