Imagine you are a…

For a while now I’ve been wondering about the purpose and usefulness of a certain type of activity. I don’t know if it has a name or specific term to describe it, but its a mix between an empathetic exercise and a contextless question. For example:

  1. Imagine you are King William having just won the Battle of Hastings. However you still have the whole country to subdue. What 5 things would you do to help control England?
  2. Imagine you are in charge of the defence of England and you hear the Spanish Armada has set sail. You have 10 ships and 10,000 men at your disposal. How will you arrange for the country to be defended?
  3. Imagine you are a migrant setting out west in 1840’s America. What 10 items would you take for your journey and why? // What 5 problems do you think might arise and how will you plan to deal with them?
  4. Imagine you need to defend against enemy machine guns in 1914. What sort of structure or plan would you come up with to defend your troops?

I don’t quite understand the purpose of these questions and they are littered throughout the SoW’s of different schools I have been in. The typical sequence goes like this:

  • Pose an empathetic question such as the examples above.
  • Students spend 5/10 minutes crafting a response.
  • A couple of answers are shared.
  • You then learn about the specific topic/situation that the question has been developed from.

It was put to me that posing questions like this ‘builds learning power’ as they struggle and craft an answer. It ‘forces them to think’ about the situation and the options available. This must require them to have accurate period knowledge, otherwise they’re answering these questions within a modern framework.

However, just off the top of my head, Q1 requires knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England they likely won’t have, as well as the capabilities of the Norman invaders. Q2 is historically inaccurate and requires understanding of all sorts – what is valuable to protect, what your ships can do, etc. Q3 requires knowledge of 1840’s USA, geography, relations with the native tribes, medicine, resources, what has or hasn’t yet been invented. Q4 needs specific knowledge of resources/technology available at the time and you can still bet every boy in the class will base their answer on Call of Duty.

But my bigger question is just… what is the point? I feel like I’m missing something with this particular type of activity. What do they get from this? I feel like half the answer is about progress. Here is a student answer. Now lets learn about the topic. Now lets ask the question again – see, look how much the student now knows about the question at hand.

I wonder if part of it is an insecurity about the subject. History is, as Martin Robinson puts it, a ‘grammar’ subject – it’s quite heavily content based, there is a lot of knowledge to learn and understand before things can be constructed with it. So are these questions a response to that? A worry that the subject needs to be more interactive, more engaging, less traditional because this feels more .. creative?

And… action

I’ve spoken in the past about the teaching and learning direction my school takes and how, at times, it has felt in conflict with my  own priorities and what I feel works in the classroom. There is a sense, more so than at my previous schools (PGCE placements) of following a school-certified method of T&L and through my observations so far this year, and NQT assessments, discussions, meetings etc, I have been gradually moved towards this.  As part of a target to improve planning, differentiation and challenge, I had a meeting with the director of T&L who gave me a number of strategies and ideas, many of which I have used and are very useful and productive. I was also set a challenge: to use the school cameras to ’empower’ the students with something creative, challenging and different to normal. Plan an activity whereby they go off and use them, and bring me the results.

This is common for the school and an activity they are particularly fond of. Y7 and Y8 students have skills lessons where this is regular, and it is used in other subjects at KS3 too, and occasionally at KS4. After going through the material or content, doing whatever I’d normally do in a lesson, to then introduce the cameras and give them a task. So, after spending some time doing the Battle of Little Bighorn with Y10, examining the role of Custer, whether or not it really was a victory, and all that, I gave them the activity (the lesson/activity had also been signed off by my HoD) – to take a camera and create a TV style news report about the battle. It had 3 specific criteria:

1 – Explain the events of the battle.

2 – Analyse the role of Custer – how far was he to blame?

3 – Assess how far the battle was really a victory for the Sioux and consider long term consequences.

And off they went. With it being camera based, they couldn’t do it all in one room, so the students go off to different parts of the school, find empty spaces, and get to work. I then circulate around and see how they’re getting on. As I did this, I was impressed – they had many good ideas, had constructed some nice little sets, were using props/resources, and I could see that they were engaged and enjoying themselves.

At the end of the lesson I took the cameras in, grabbed the video files and gave them a watch, and the results are mixed.

Group 1, 4 girls, did well – but only 1 appears on Camera. The others helped with script and filming, but my sense is the legwork, the thinking, was done by 1 or 2 while the others were glorified tripods. They covered the events in a patchwork way, and tried to examine the long term consequences but ended up just reading from a textbook and it was clear that it wasn’t being thought about or considered.

Group 2, 4 boys including a couple that are easily, uh, distracted – they spent too much time amusing themselves with voices and coming up with Indian names for their ‘interviewees’. They examined the battle quite well, and why it ended how it did, but little analysis of Custer or consequences.

Group 3, 4 more boys, did better – they looked at Custer and the long term role but didn’t really go over the battle. They also had an interview segment with such questions as:

“Did you kill some Americans? … yes

What was that like? … It was horrible.

OK back to the studio.”

Group 4, another 4 boys, were middling – they had more of the ‘lads’ of the group, including a couple of high achievers who held it together, and they presented it in a different way – interviews with Custer before to get across some of his character, which was good, and interviews with Indians after to talk about what they fear might happen as a result. These were interesting approaches. But they got some of the events of the battle wrong, and once again I think the legwork of it, the thinking, was done by 2 of them, while the others pratted about and answered the questions they were told.

The problems that arise from this are not unexpected and come up with group work even when its kept inside the 4 walls of the classroom. The heavy lifting in a group done by 1 or 2 students while others coast. The fact that less seems to get done as a combined group than they would get done individually in the same time. Not all of them have to think. It’s memorable for having fun, not because they know specific information (though some will). And, when errors and misconceptions arise, a teacher can’t correct them because I can’t stand over the shoulders of each group while they do all of it.

Now, a solution to this particular activity/lesson today that still keeps the task but could solve these problems is to remove the cameras, do the same thing in groups in the class and present to each other. I can monitor all the classes, the noise/recording issue isn’t there, I can check misconceptions, etc. I can also structure it more tightly – give each individual role cards to ensure they have specific things to do.

However, a similar problem comes to my mind with the actual thinking being done. If I give student A the role of TV presenter and B the role of battlefield reporter, they might remember excellently their little section, because that’s what they’ve scripted and thought about and done – but they have engaged less with the analysis of Student C or the long term consequences of student D.

There are strengths to the task too. The students are clearly engaged and I’ll be interested to see in the next lesson what has been retained. But too much is sacrificed on the altar of engagement and the problems that arose are problems that niggled in the back of my mind during the planning and delivery of the lesson. I fear that any feedback and reflection on this will imagine any ‘failure’ of the task to be about my scaffolding/delivery of it, rather than the inherent problems in the activity itself.

For me this all seems predictable. It’s nice to imagine them being creative with cameras and taking control and ownership of their own learning, and that they’re self managing little scholars. But it seems to me that without heavy scaffolding, supervision and correction, and a very, very well designed task that requires all the participants to engage with all the requirements, its flawed in a way that more typical, traditional classroom activities are not.