Literacy, History and Thinking Stems

In preparing a literacy based wall/resource in my new classroom, I am reminded of a common refrain from my PGCE year:

“Sir, I don’t know how to start.”

“Well, you explained it pretty well to me a moment ago. Just write that down.”

“But… I don’t know how.”

The problem of getting thoughts from brain to pen seems particularly prominent in boys, and it was with great interest that I read The Secret to Literacy by David Didau and the segment on Thinking Stems. These little suggestions, sentence starters and thoughts placed around the room that I’d forever seen in classrooms now had a name. Thinking Stems, giving them a scaffold upon which to hang the rest of the sentence. And it’s entirely self-selecting, too. I see a lot of utility in these, but want to make them more history specific, to deal with the domain that we’re going to be working in. So, my literacy wall is split into three sections: How to write good history, Thinking Stems and The Banned List. What I’m having some trouble with is coming up with stems, so below I have put what I’ve generated so far, and if anyone would like to contribute any more ideas in the comments, that would be enormously appreciated.

Thinking Stems

Based on the evidence, it appears that…

This source suggests … might be telling us … implies … infers …

We can infer … learn … understand … from this that …

This is written from the perspective of…

The author’s purpose here is …

This reveals how people thought about…

On an additional note, I want to include a Banned List of words/terms/phrases that I don’t want to see. Such as…

Could of/would of/could of


What other things make good historical writing and discussion? What literacy habits would you encourage your students to develop and regularly practice, or to avoid? Many thanks for any and all comments.

But what are they learning?


Another post inspired by Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam. On p61:

“I often ask teachers, “What are your learning intentions for this period?” Many times, teachers respond by saying things like, “I’m going to have the students…” and then specify an activity. When I follow up by asking what the teacher expects the students to learn as a result of the activity, I am often met with a blank stare.” (p61)

I’ve had this question and it’s sometimes hard to find an answer when faced by such a blunt, and often glib, request, framed as if you’re stupid or clearly in the wrong for designing a task which a colleague/head of department/mentor clearly sees no worth in.

What are they learning?

To me this question has a rather large built-in assumption: that every activity should progress the learning in some way. Some new skill, piece of knowledge, evaluation, etc. But what about consolidation? What about going over old material to practice recall? As the leaked Assessment Without Levels report stated, sometimes consolidation itself is progress. Listening to explanation or exposition of difficult concepts was critiqued to me as ‘they’re listening, they’re not learning’, but who is to say what is going on inside the head? Who is to say the two are mutually exclusive?

It’s a question with an agenda, and usually asked by someone with one too. In my limited experience, the person asking it is not just keen for ‘learning’ to be happening, but to be happening in a specific way, and some ways are ‘not learning’, as previously mentioned.

…what the teacher expects the students to learn as a result of the activity…

Does every activity have an answer to this? Can it be accurately measured and understood at the end of the activity? Is ‘learning’ something that can actually be assessed at the end of an activity or are we really just looking at instant recall and performance data?

These are all questions I don’t really know the answer to yet but I think they are valuable things to ask, to challenge the underlying assumption inherent in the question and to consider whether it’s a question really worth asking.

I feel that, early in my career, I’ve been caught off guard by it. Posed as a challenge, the question undermines tasks I’ve designed for a lesson and I approach the answer like I’ve already failed: the task isn’t promoting something new, it isn’t equipping them with a new skill or piece of content. In fact, the answer is readily available: they’re learning to apply themselves and improve their answers, they’re learning to summarise and explain, they’re learning to listen and comprehend the information that’s being given. Sometimes these things are not active. Or engaging. Or exciting. But sometimes listening can be learning. Reading and summarising, reworking, comprehension questions, memorising – learning is occurring, but without bells and whistles. 

Success Criteria in History: can they be context free?

I’ve been using some time this summer to get on with some reading that I wasn’t able to do during my PGCE year, and one of the books I am working through is Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam. This post is a reflection on Chapter 3 of that book, in which I’m trying to reconcile the advice given by Wiliam with what, in the early stage of my career, I feel good practice looks like in History.

While reading this chapter, the following quote stood out.

‘As teachers, we are not interested in our students’ ability to do what we have taught. We are only interested in their ability to apply their newly acquired knowledge to a similar but different context.’ (p60)

How accurate is this for history teaching? How realistic is it?

History is a knowledge-based subject. While second order concepts have importance in understanding students’ ability to understand the domain, they aren’t what the curriculum is based around. Otherwise the National Curriculum would have periods set aside for Interpretations or Change and Continuity or Cause and Consequence, rather than, say, 1066-1509. History is defined by knowing stuff and being able to do things with that stuff. But the stuff is central. Wiliam states that success criteria need to be separated from the context of the learning: they should be about the doing things with the stuff. And being able to apply the stuff to ‘similar but different’ contexts.

This leads me to two thoughts.

One, it lends itself towards activity based method of planning. Thinking about what they will be doing in ways that can be formatively assessed, and not what the content is that they need to know. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, and it might be acceptable at KS3 where the curriculum is vague, but it certainly isn’t applicable at GCSE or A-Level where content is king. If they have to know how the Gulf of Tonkin Incident was manipulated into a cause for military action, that’s what you’ll teach. And that’s what you’ll assess. The success criteria for that is understanding that piece of content, not whether or not it can be presented in different ways, or if it then sheds light on the causes of war somewhere else. Contexts are always unique, and trying to apply it elsewhere takes valuable time from the body of knowledge that is required by the exam. You can’t have a contextless question in history. At least, not one that is answered properly.

Second, it suggests that second order concepts are what history should be teaching. If you can learn about cause in the French Revolution, you can then apply the principles to the First World War. To me, this turns a method of measuring understanding (the concepts) into the aim of teaching itself.

Ultimately history comes back to being a content-based subject. Substantive knowledge is the blood that pumps through it. So what does this actually mean for learning intentions and success criteria in a historical context, if the criteria and context of learning are part of the same whole.

The intention/objective: this will almost always be content based, and best framed as an enquiry. How far were religious reasons the primary cause of the Spanish Armada? How did King Harold die? This might change if you’re doing a specific skills unit, say with new Year 7’s, or teaching exam skills to GCSE or A-Level students (yet in both cases, the skills being taught will not be taught independent of content).

The success criteria: this has the scope to be broader and skill based, such as source analysis or writing a written answer or improving an example piece – but it has to go alongside the substantive. I cannot judge the success of the first question above if they don’t know of other reasons, their relative importance, the context of the time – and this would go hand in hand with success criteria that measures, say, evaluating competing factors against each other, or using evidence in support of a claim. Both are transferable history skills that don’t exist in a vacuum and I can’t then measure whether, say, the 11 Years Tyranny was the primary cause of the English Civil War through their ability to use evidence in support of a claim because they don’t know the content of that.

This brings me back to the root of my difficulty with the original claim – that we are not interested in their ability to do what we have taught. Surely that is what we are interested in  – but maybe not the only thing we are interested in? In history, surely success criteria has a substantive role to play, not just a conceptual one? And is this just stating the obvious?