Moving away from GCSE style questions at KS3
Making space for ‘beautiful work’ in geography.

On Saturday morning I was blown away by the commitment of over 900 geographers to improving their practice and engaging in CPD; at one point #geographyteacher was even trending on twitter.

I might get this framed! Seriously though, this shows just how incredible we all are.

I was honoured to be given the chance to share some ideas about how we have tried to move away from GCSE style questions at KS3 and make space for beautiful work in geography. I wanted to write this blog post because I could barely scratch the surface in just five minutes! This is coupled with the fact I was very nervous, so I’m not entirely sure what I managed to get out of my mouth. There is a recording of the morning available which you can find here, but I can’t bring myself to watch it back. All I know is that I spent a lot of my time looking up, as I decided that would be the day I’d try out my partner’s double screen set up. Apologies!

The concept of ‘beautiful work’ is from Mary Myatt’s book – The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence. This book was introduced to me by the inimitable Kate Stockings. If you’re a geography teacher and you have not come across Kate’s fantastic work, then I can only assume you’ve been living under a rock (or perhaps you just haven’t been on Twitter, or to a GA conference, or RGS conference or… nope, I’m going with the rock). I have had the pleasure of working with Kate as part of the Fawcett Fellowship with the IOE and UCL Geography department. Kate raised Mary Myatt’s book in one of our meetings, specifically the concept of beautiful work, and this is my interpretation of it. I hope I’ve done it justice!

It’s important to point out here that using ‘beautiful work’ does not have to replace other forms of assessment. It also does not mean we don’t use tasks that aid retrieval practice and meta-cognition throughout our lessons, nor does it mean we don’t abide by school policy and ignore summative assessments. However I’d argue there is a huge case for ensuring space is made for beautiful work throughout your curriculum, to give students a chance to perform without constraints. This question from Ron Berger and Steve Seidal as part of The Illuminating Standards Project really made me think and reflect:

"How can we use standards to open up and enrich curriculum, rather than narrow and constrain it?"

We need to enrich the curriculum, not narrow and constrain it to exam standards, and I think beautiful work tasks are a way to achieve this.

The following quote is taken from Mary Myatt’s book, although not actually taken from the ‘Beautiful Work’ chapter, it does a wonderful job at summarising my key motivation for finding space for such work in geography. It highlights the problem with a curriculum that translates GCSE assessment to KS3 criteria, particularly if this is the only criteria you are using to judge success or as a basis for assessment.

"There continues to be a problem at KS3… Assessments are linked to the criteria for GCSE. These statements were only ever intended to be used as descriptors for the final exam, they were never meant to be criteria for judging work in earlier key stages… in attempting to prepare younger pupils for the demands of GCSE, there has been undue focus on the generic skills, rather than focusing on the content."

Lots of schools are changing from 2 to 3 year KS3 to ensure they have a ‘transformative’ curriculum, and I think this is a brilliant move and something I feel passionate about. Yet I still often see what looks like a 5 year GCSE. Curriculum is not transformative if we continue to use criteria of an exam as our standards of success, and in doing this, it means that not only do we teach to an exam, but we teach to a specific exam board. In trying to prepare for exam success, we fail at providing students the knowledge and skills of geography we actually want them to know. If we move away from GCSE style questions at KS3, I’d argue that we make space to focus on the geography. I am definitely guilty of talking about exam structure, rather than the geography behind an exam question, when a student in my class asks me how to attempt a question. Moving away from this allows us to develop geographical knowledge, as well as the skills of explanation and evaluation of geographical concepts and issues, which will ultimately mean we have better geographers. When my students finish their geography education I want them to be able to talk and write like geographers, not know how to answer a 9 mark question for a specific exam board. I’m not saying improving exam technique isn’t important, but it’s definitely not at KS3, or at the very least it definitely should not be the focus.

So what is beautiful work? I have taken this to mean anything really! But if work is to be beautiful, it needs to be something students take pride in, work that is honoured, it should have an audience and it is of high quality.

Some examples may include:

However this list is not definitive. Beautiful work is simply work that students feel proud of and something that brings together their learning after a sequence of lessons. In my short talk, and for the majority of this blog post, I’ll be focusing on the use of poster presentations. However I don’t think that work needs to be creative to be beautiful. If you provide the audience and opportunity, any work can be honoured and of high quality. In fact, it also improves engagement even more if the tasks are varied.

Myatt states that ‘underpinning this is the idea that children’s work should be honoured. It should be of the highest quality and it should have an audience’. In a school setting, an audience might be a school newsletter, which could accompany a competition and rewards for having work featured, it could also make up classroom displays, or you could even do a gallery lesson. A gallery lesson requires a lot of structure, but we have found them to be really lovely lessons that gives students a chance to celebrate their work and gives them an audience larger than just their teacher. It also encourages students to produce a quality piece of work, that they know people will see, and so they take great pride in it.

The following pictures are some outcomes of our beautiful work task. These are the outcomes of a poster presentation with the focus ‘Can there be a sustainable future for our planet?’. Let me explain how we got there…

It’s probably important to point out here that for us the beautiful work will be the consolidation of a sequence of lessons with an overarching question. All the learning is used to produce this piece of work. Since it’s not focused on one aspect, it reinforces the importance of all learning and also gives higher attaining students to make synoptic links. Moreover, it emphasises to students that all their learning is important and will help them succeed. We also have an ‘open book’ approach, taking pressure of the students to remember and allowing them to make a really quality piece of work. This does not necessarily mean students are copying notes, but they are reorganising and consolidating information that they have previously learnt. Given that it was not ‘copied’ in the first place, I don’t see this as an issue. The creating and reorganising process helps students to consolidate knowledge further, and they are applying this knowledge to a question that gives opportunity for explanation and evaluation. In Mary Myatt’s words:

"Are they capable of producing something worthwhile as a result of acquiring knowledge? In other words, are they creating something with what they have been taught or are they consumers of worksheets?... They are unlikely to have really learnt something unless they produce something worthwhile the material they are studying… we need to move away from the temptation for children to complete work which might not be original to them"

Please see the lesson sequence that led to this poster presentation below:

It is key that students have time for planning. In the first lesson, the task is introduced and students have time to draft. They can come to the next lesson with resources from home, and given time to plan before they start on their ‘final piece’. This time to plan is important, as we want it to be good quality. You could give time at the end of the initial planning lesson for peer assessment on the plan. Scaffolding this task well is also really important to make sure all students are able to access it and take pride in their work.

There is a danger that a poster presentation can turn result in students spending too much time on the presentation, which will inevitably result in less focus on writing. We get around this by starting the lesson with two paragraphs of writing (as above) linked to the question they will be answering in their beautiful work. We really spend time pulling both apart, discussing which one is more geographical and why. This sets the standard of what we are expecting of the students, and goes alongside work we do in lessons on extended writing which I won’t go into now. We then talk through what is required and their criteria sheets and I also show them examples of academic posters. This shows students this IS a rigorous exercise – they are used in universities, so why shouldn’t there be space for them in KS3?! It’s not just a pretty picture, but something that academics use too.

Students are given clear instructions, key terms to use to ensure they are using geographical terminology and they are able to tick these off, and also a criteria sheet. This is really clear and descriptive and we go through this in detail. As students know they will have an audience, they all strive to do well. I’ve had a few questions about how long students are given to complete this. We give students one planning lesson, planning homework, one final lesson and time to complete at home. It takes some time to produce, but it’s important not to rush it if you want the students to buy into it!

I know some people will be apprehensive. The concern about ‘visible progress’ comes up a lot – where is the purple/red/green pen that shows improvement? Firstly I’d argue that we shouldn’t be doing things for O word, which in many cases this is where the coloured pens came into play, but also that this piece of work would NOT be achievable without progress and learning before it. In terms of school policy, we still have to do exams in KS3 twice a year as per our school policy. If students are confident in writing from practice in lessons, and in tasks such as these, this should not be a problem. You can do both, and I’m not suggesting beautiful work should be used for every single unit of work or assessment. For me, it’s just about making some space for students to show what they know without constraints (and not falling into the exam factory pit). Finally, marking. People have commented that this increases workload, however criteria sheets can double up as marking sheets. We highlight what they have done, and give one or two focused targets to make improvements in their writing. We’ve found that actually this is very quick, and it’s also much more enjoyable to mark work like this rather than regurgitated exam answers based on sentence starters and structure strips – although I do appreciate there is a place for these at some point in their geography learning.

And let’s not forget, peer marking is our friend! We model what good marking looks like on the board, and the criteria sheets are detailed so students are able to make constructive comments. If used consistently, students are trained to give meaningful and valuable feedback to each other which is beneficial at whatever key stage they’re in! It can also be used in gallery lessons, which can also be a huge time saver for you as you can circulate and mark at the same time as the students. You might not get through all of them, but students receive a huge amount of feedback from others which is beneficial, and you can finish the rest outside of the lesson.​

Phew, thank you if you’ve made it this far. I’ll leave you with this quote again:

"How can we use standards to open up and enrich curriculum, rather than narrow and constrain it?"

I firmly believe you CAN meet standards, whilst also creating authentic work. This is only my interpretation of Mary Myatt’s writing about beautiful work, so I urge you to read her book yourselves – it’s super useful and covers so much more than the short chapter on this. Any feedback on these ideas would be warmly welcomed, and please do get in touch if there is anything I can help with – although I should say I am no expert!


The assessment lesson for ‘Can there be a sustainable future for our planet?’ can be found here.

Our marking sheet with targets can be found here.

And finally, if you want some ideas for other tasks we do:

Both of which will be set after a sequence of around 10-12 lessons, which I have added in a slide at the beginning of each Power Point to show you what they would have learnt.