The GCSE Frenzy

I don’t think anyone in the UK can have missed the media frenzy over the first Edexcel maths GCSE paper of this year. For example see here and here.

Having done the paper I don’t think it was particularly unfair or hard. There were plenty of standard, well trodden questions aimed at the C/B range. The questions targeting students looking for an A or A* are designed to stretch the most able and should be hard. I think there was a clear change in how se of these questions were written and I suspect this is a reflection of questions to come with the new GCSE. 

One of the questions that has gone viral is the “Hannah’s Sweets” question  

 

Apart from the pseudo-context (I don’t see how you could know this probability without knowing how many sweets we’re in the bag to begin with) I quite like this question. It brings together probability and algebra, using algebra as it was designed – a tool for solving problems. In fact, as long as a student writes out what they know from the question it is in fact fairly easy. At A Level I emphasise writing out what you know from a question if you don’t know where to start, but in the past I haven’t really done this to the same extent with my GCSE classes. 

This question, however, is unlike any of the probability questions on recent year’s past papers and this is, I think, where the problem lies. I try not to teach to the test, but the fact that some of my students struggled with this question shows (depressingly) that to some extent I do. A lot of my revision lessons, probably like most teachers, have focussed on past paper questions as a way to prepare students – for this question this approach has failed. 

From what I remember in one of the new specimen assessment materials there is a tough looking probability question involving a spinner similar to this… To prepare our students for these new exams I think I am going to need to change how I do exam preparation at GCSE. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, maths is a problem solving tool, students shouldn’t just be expecting to see the same style questions year in, year out. I suspect that past papers for the new GCSE won’t be able to be used to coach pupils into the question style, at least not for the high attaining questions. 

This is a good thing in my opinion, but my main concern though is the time necessary to build this deep understanding, especially for the first couple of cohorts for the new papers who won’t have had the required preparation at Key Stage 3. For The new Year 7 we are going down the mastery route and this should allow us the time to build this deep conceptual grasp of topics and how they inter-relate which will be good. 

Going back to this year’s Paper 1 another question that a lot of my students were talking about was the “conical grain store” question. I loved this question, nice numbers to work with and it essentially boils down to a pair of simultaneous equations to solve using substitution. Substitution is a method that in hindsight, I strangely down do enough of at GCSE, but would use almost exclusively with an A Level group. The question concerning the perimeter of a shape made up of 4 congruent triangles and 4 congruent rectangles was also nice – just Pythagoras in disguise. I’d wager a bet though that a large portion of students didn’t even attempt these questions due to the unfamiliar context. 

All in all I think it was a completely fair paper, and I’m looking forward to seeing tomorrow mornings paper. I wonder if there will be another Twitter frenzy…. 

Update: Ed at Solvenymaths (@solvemymaths) has written a fantastic post with some thoughts on how to address the gap between current student’s problem solving skills and what will be required for the new style GCSE questions. 

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