What CrossFit tells us about preparing for GCSEs.

I promise you this will get to the bit about teaching and learning but first I need to talk to you about running. Stay with me.

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Being mercurial by nature, I am somewhat prone to obsession. My latest one is CrossFit. Not doing it (not yet anyway) but watching the many, strangely compelling documentaries about it and reading the many, also compelling, books and articles about the rise of this phenomenon. It started when I was at the gym, pounding out intervals on the treadmill, trying to get back into shape and looking for something to distract me and keep me motivated. I found a documentary about the CrossFit games and was hooked.

CrossFit is a fitness movement based around a mixture of high intensity gymnastic movements, weight lifting and cardio. The goal is to work the body completely and the CrossFit games bill themselves as the attempt to find the fittest man and woman on the planet. Most of the events making up the games are unknown to the athletes in advance so they can’t prepare for the specifically. They have to be ready for anything.

The teaching and learning bit is coming, I promise. 

Running – training for the specific conditions 

I couldn’t help contrast this with my own exercise of choice – running. When I was training for the Brighton Marathon I ran on roads. I ran a long distance run each week at a bit below marathon pace with a few sections at marathon pace. It is a fairly flat course and I ran fairly flat training runs. I ate the same shot blocks I would use in the race and drank the same liquids. In contrast, when I was training for the South Down Way 50 (50 miles along the South Downs from Winchester to Eastbourne) I trained all on trails, in the hills. I practiced in those conditions and walked the long hills and ran the rest, slowly. I ate flapjacks and peanuts. I practiced in those specific conditions.

I was able to do this because in both cases I knew the exact route, I knew people who had completed both events and could read about more accounts. I could listen to experts on these exact types of events.

The problem is that this training doesn’t transfer. Using your marathon training to run a fast 5K is pretty useless and using it to lift weights, climb a rope or swim in the ocean more useless still. It is only making you fit for the very specific thing you have trained for.

Here comes the teaching and learning bit

I think the old GCSE specifications encouraged us to approach education, or at the very least KS4, as I approached running. We could prepare them for the specific exams. The reason we could do this was that the questions tended to be fairly generic and predictable with questions relying on the command word suggest. Suggest a way litter could be reduced in a national park. Suggest how improving bus lanes could reduce traffic congestion. The amount of knowledge that was required to answer them was minimal. You really could coach pupils through them quite easily by doing lots and lots of specific exam preparation. So they knew how to answer different types of question.

I didn’t fully appreciate the problem with this approach until I started working at a school that also taught A Level and realised just how un-prepared the GCSEs had left them for this new challenge. I am also not convinced that the old GCSEs really left pupils going out into the world with a much greater understanding of geography or being able to see the world geographically. But it worked in getting pupils the grades.

I would argue that instead we should be preparing pupils in subject more like CrossFit. The new exams are unknown making it much harder to train specifically for them. They also rely on a much greater depth of knowledge and most importantly the ability to apply what they know to a huge array of possible scenarios. They will need to be very flexible and this kind of flexibility only comes when you know your subject with confidence.

Take this from the AQA Geography specification.

AQA NEE

You could teach this as little more than a fact file of information that pupils needed to remember but you would be doing them a huge disservice and make the exam much tougher for them than it needs to be.

Instead we can teach them this by just really focusing on that key question and how it relates to one country. We can use the rest of the information as a checklist to ensure we haven’t missed anything but we shouldn’t let it become the scheme of work, our training plan.

If we focus on Nigeria we can pose some fertile questions.

  • What barriers to development has Nigeria had to overcome?
  • Why hasn’t everyone benefited from the rapid development in Nigeria?
  • From Empire to TNCs – what role have outsiders played in Nigeria’s development?

Answering these deeper questions thoroughly will not only prepare them well for their exams but for A level and university beyond. More importantly it will give them geographical insights into the world that will stay with them into adulthood. It will give them an education.

Conclusion

We need to be brave and stop thinking about “preparing pupils for their exams” as though it was just another flat road race. We need to give them the education in our subjects that they can apply to a range of unknown contexts, questions and problems. We need to make them the fittest geographers on earth.

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