Posted by: markhowell101 | April 26, 2014

IGCSE Geography – A perspective from a 1st time teacher

Having just planned my last lesson for year 11 I though I would reflect on my first time teaching through the IGCSE course and offer some comparisons with the UK GCSE’s that I have taught previously. I know a lot of UK schools are moving towards the IGCSE and my view now is that it has it’s pros and cons.

My first comment is on the content of the course. There is a lot of it and there is some difficult stuff. I found that coming from the UK GCSE’s, this felt more like teaching a watered down A-Level than a GCSE in terms of the amount of content and the number of topics covered. There was also content which previously I had only taught A-Level students, concepts like underpopulation and the Hjulstrom curve immediately spring to mind. I was expecting this as I had heard that the IGCSE was held in higher regard than the standard UK GCSE as so was expecting more content but I found it a lot to get through. Indeed with my first cohort I have failed to teach the entire course, teaching only Tourism and the Environmental Issues sections of Unit 3. This may cause problems for them in paper 2 and so I have elected to start teaching the IGCSE half way through year 9 for future year groups in order to get the course done.

Having said the amount of content is perhaps too much, I do like the range of content. I think the UK GCSE’s have become too narrow and it was nice to teach a much broader range of content than I have been used to in the last couple of year. In particular I became frustrated in the UK with the emphasis on sustainability in all the GCSE courses I encountered. Whilst sustainability is a ‘buzz’ concept right now and of course it should be covered, I felt in the UK that we had to link everything we taught to this concept and this became dull and repetitive. It was nice to get away from this and teach a course which includes the issue sustainability and includes environmental issues but does not have this running through the entire course. Geography is about more than just ‘global warming is bad’ which I felt was the message of some UK courses.

In spite of my like of the range of content, I do feel some of it is a little archaic, a view shared by my colleagues in other subject areas. This is most strikingly the case in the skills which the students need and the most obvious example is that they need to be able to read and interpret analogue weather equipment. We had to buy this equipment (barometer, max/min thermometer, hygrometer, rain gauge, anemometer) and it was a lot more expensive than buying a digital weather station, harder to read and far less accurate. Which begs the questions, who uses these analogue devices these days? – answer, nobody. I know the board has to consider parts of the world where digital equipment is not available, but I teach on a small island in the Indian Ocean, there can be few places harder to get this equipment than here. We had few recording the weather and interpreting it but how relevant was it?

We elected the coursework component and it was refreshing to do coursework again and not controlled assessment. It was also nice to have a free reign on this, able to set my own title and let the students come up with their own route to enquiry rather than having to use set titles suggested by the board. Cambridge require you to submit a proposal to confirm that your title is appropriate, but I found this a straightforward process. You simply have to prove the link between the work you will do and the specification, which is simple enough. The students engaged with the coursework process and the weighting of the work (27.5%) seems appropriate for the amount of work that went into it. I personally think that fieldwork is a vital part of geography and for that reason I avoided the alternative to coursework paper.

My biggest complaint, and I may be complaining even more about it in 2 weeks, is with the main paper, paper 1. In particular I take issue with many of the big, 7 mark questions that have come up in recent years. As part of any geography course it is necessary to teach case studies and expect students to recall key information about them, however Cambridge do not make it clear what case studies you need to teach. I have come across a number of 7 mark questions on past papers which refer to small bullet points, or even half bullet points on the specification and it is not feasible for teachers to teach meaningful case studies that cover every point on the spec. A recent example occurred in one of the paper 1’s in 2013 where students were asked to describe the distribution of population in a country and draw a sketch map to show this. The specification requires students to: ‘Identify the major influences on population distribution. Reference should be made to the physical, economic and human factors’. The specification suggests you should teach a case study for each point so of course I did. However, nowhere does it suggest that students should be able to sketch a map of the case study. Do we now assume from this question that students should be able to sketch a map of any of the case studies? They are told they should be able to recognise a pattern on a population distribution map but not to have to draw one. Certainly my students would have been unable to do the second part of this question, I wonder how many would be able to. This makes the exam somewhat of a lottery as if you just so happen to have taught the right case studies the students will have a good range of choice on what questions they answer, if you don’t teach the right ones their choices would become more limited. This second guessing about case studies seems unfair and I noticed it has been addressed by the new new specification for 2016 teaching which does specify the case studies. A big improvement I hope.

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