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Entering Third Year

It’s hard to believe how quickly things move. I can go back on this site and read some of the things on my mind during my PGCE year, and see some of my deleted posts from my (very trying) NQT year. The frequency has dropped as the teaching has increased but, here we are, September 2017 and my third full year of teaching ahead. This is the first time I’ll have gone from one school year to the next at the same school, which has given me a welcome sense of familiarity as I plan for the year – I’m not nervous about not knowing where the loos are, or what the behaviour policy is, or if the department are nice. My department’s awesome, and it will be nice to reconnect after a summer of relaxing and reflecting. The summer has given me the space to think about how the last year has gone, what things I thought went well or where I need to improve, and how to go about it. So here’s my rough thoughts for the year ahead:


I feel like, with the help of my team and the wider history network in the trust, our curriculum is really coming along and I’m more knowledgeable about planning and focusing on the ‘main thing’ than ever. Our KS3 is developing much like the Y7 lessons as outlined in the last post – ‘reading’ lessons and ‘writing’ lessons alternating, with challenging texts and regular practice. There will be new assessment principles put into place this year which build a lot on the work that I’ve seen/read from people like Daisy Christodoulou and Michael Fordham, and as a subject we’re really moving in a good direction. Stability and continuity within the department is great too.

On a personal level, the area I feel I need to focus on is in explanation. Ben Newmark’s videos have been a reference point for this, and the excellent book, Making Every Lesson Count. I want to be able to be more clear, more direct and use better analogies to help get across some of these complicated concepts. I think I’m ok at it now, but thats just … ok. There have been times I know that I’ve tried to explain something and I can tell, in the moment, I’ve lost them, or I’ve overcomplicated it, or I’m not focusing on the key part and its taken too long as I double back. Knowing what questions or problems there have been in previous lessons, I want to be able to prepare for these by preparing and knowing exactly how to explain a concept or an answer or whatever needed, clearly and concisely. So that’s a personal focus.


I don’t mean behaviour in the usual sense – managing the classroom, sanctions, building a good working environment. This is vital and something thats a continual work in progress. But I’ve been thinking a lot about three characteristics lately – patience, humility and kindness. On a personal level, I want to be able to model these and try to encourage them in my students. There are times when, both students and teachers, we’re often quick to snap or talk back, to rush instead of to take our time, and I want to be more patient in some of my interactions and to encourage them to be patient with their work too, and with how they deal with each other, to not rush to judgements, to not arrogantly wade in or try to show off. This goes for me too, trying to resist the temptation for posturing twitter comments or complacency in my work, planning, delivery, and so on. I think this is somewhere we all fail, from time to time. I know I do and I hate it when I look back at things I’ve said that reek of arrogance or superiority. I want to better model the behaviour that I value the most, and I want to find a way to encourage students to demonstrate kindness with action (though I’m not sure how, yet. Charity?), and kindness towards each other in the class.


With our curriculum coming along, I want to help the department in developing a wider culture. We have a fantastic rapport with our students, who regularly come back after school just to finish work, chat, do some random revision and more. I’m proud that our department is one where they feel completely comfortable and welcome. I’d like to help channel that into other things – helping with more trips (we have a trip to Rome this year), or running something extra-curricular in humanities, or perhaps something charity based. Again, I’m not sure of the specifics – its just been part of my thinking.


Getting better is hard work and a lot of time I’ll be tired. At many points I’ll be more focused on the minutiae of specific classes, delivering new units and supporting our first cohort through the new GCSE, and personal development takes a back seat. But if, come next July, I’m a bit better at these three things, and all else is in hand, I’ll be happy.


Reading and Writing with Year 7

Since Christmas, and especially since the West London Free School History conference in March, we’ve undergone a bit of a shift in our planning and delivery of lessons to year 7’s, to incorporate what we’ve seen as good practice elsewhere and to get the best out of our cohort and really give them what they need.

For context, the majority of our Year 7’s come in with a reading age below their chronological age. I work in a school and trust that is hugely supportive of a rigorous, knowledge-based curriculum that attempts to help close this gap – enabling us to put together a KS3 history curriculum that focuses on the concepts and knowledge which help to improve students’ literacy. This is not new, but reflecting upon our practice has been aided by working with and learning from experts in the discipline, such as those present at the WLFS History Conference, and the session run by Rob Peal was particularly interesting as a way of planning lessons that incorporate complex texts and give lots of space for reading and writing.

I’ve tweeted before with some initial thoughts about how we’ve incorporated Rob’s planning and made it our own. Worth noting here – we don’t have his textbooks. For each of the topics, the reading material is written by us so we ensure it has exactly what we want – keywords, background information, etc. – so that it is situated perfectly into the scheme of work. While this takes a little time, once it’s written, it’s written – and is no more than 600-700 words per topic. Examples from our small unit on Medieval Life:

Medicine in the Middle Ages

Religion in the Middle Ages

Each of these readings would be gone through as a class (same reading for all sets), with relevant and appropriate images to support and help explain. As I know their reading ability and level of knowledge, I can select students to read more or less complex parts, with the result being that all students can read. Example: in my lowest set, one girl said to me earlier in the year, ‘I just can’t read. It’s my dyslexia.’ Having started with these, she wanted to read the small boxes which had key words. Her confidence boosted by these, she now wants to read smaller paragraphs and the impact on her has been immense.

With two lessons per week at KS3, the routine is set much like Rob’s – a ‘reading’ then a ‘writing’ lesson. The reading lesson is aimed at establishing the knowledge – reading the text as a class, answering some comprehension questions or annotating a map or something similar – it focuses on embedding what needs to be remembered. The writing lesson adds a bit of depth – such as from a source, a short video, etc. – before making them apply what they now know to a piece of extended writing. This gets around some critique that might be levelled that its ‘low level’ with no challenge, etc. The routine is there to be broken if needs be – if a lesson topic is more suited to some other form of delivery, do it. But in general, read then write.

So what has the impact been? With the caveat that we’ve only been doing this with Y7 so far, I am extremely encouraged and pleased. With my lowest set, they enjoy the routine – I’m having girls who earlier in the year were storming out of class and swearing now asking others to focus so they can get on with the reading, and tons of volunteers. They are proud of what they know, and a recent test on the Medieval Life unit was really encouraging. They are reading through the same texts as the top sets and it just takes a little more explanation from me to help them understand. Backed up by regular quizzing and encouragement, I’m getting more from this class than I have all year.

Alongside this, the use of regular quizzing and emphasising key knowledge has improved their ability to connect things together. Two examples recently came up in our lesson on Thomas Becket. A previous lesson on Medieval Law and Order had introduced them to Henry II and his attempts to reform justice, bringing in Trial by Jury, wanting a Common Law, etc. Another previous lesson on Medieval Religion had discussed the role of the Pope and the way they would give legitimacy to Kings, provide a blessing, etc., and that this meant the King needed to remain on good terms with the Papacy. In our Becket lesson, the role of Henry II and reforming law and order came up when discussing Becket’s opposition to Henry’s reforms – the information wasn’t new, it was just presented in a different way and with a particular example, helping to clarify and embed it further. Following this, I showed them an image of Henry II being whipped as penance and asked them why he might be doing this, and a number of students referred to him needing to keep the Pope onside while dealing with the rebellious Richard and John. This previous knowledge gave the image extra context and helped them, again, understand the role of the Pope and the relationship between Church and Crown in a new light. Knowledge helped build new knowledge.

Now I’m not saying this can only come about through this style of planning, but I do believe this style of planning has helped us to focus on the knowledge rather than the activities a lesson might contain. It’s a lesson stripped down to its core purpose and none of it is new. However, this type of planning and delivery is something I was trained to avoid, both on PGCE, with mentors and as an NQT. Everything was based around activities.

I know there are some who are uncomfortable with the teacher or the class getting on with a reading, rather than letting the students do it independently. I feel this myself, especially with older students who’s literacy and knowledge is better developed. However, at Year 7, the benefits outweigh any concerns I might have had. With students who have a reading age that is in single digits, being able to hear someone read to them is helpful, and in doing so I can anticipate the questions and provide explanations as I go along. It is efficient and inclusive. In my recent lesson on Becket, I did it differently with my top 2 classes – one I read to, one I had them do it independently. Both had to highlight the text as they read to identify examples of the Church challenging the power of the King. With the ‘independent’ class I simply had too many questions that I, frankly, had to go over the entire thing with them at the end any way. The only way to have avoided this would be to make the text less complex so they can handle it ‘independently’ without key explanations – and I get the feeling this is where literacy problems may have their origin.

One final point about this on the students: my lessons have more discussion than ever. I always thought I encouraged it before, but now, with a complex text and explanation as I go along, there are just loads of questions or comments to be had: students linking to previous lessons, some wanting to clarify what a word meant, asking how things link together, wondering why someone would wear a hair-shirt, and more and more and more. They are so inquisitive because they are being given knowledge and want to make sense of it.

This has been quite a long post so I will leave it here, but I do have more to add about year 7 and 8 and practice with writing, so there might be a (shorter) part 2 coming during the week.

Biting the Behaviour Bullet

It feels like there’s been about a hundred behaviour blogs over the last 3 weeks so here’s another. I’ll start this by saying I think I’m pretty good at managing behaviour, as far as an individual teacher can in the framework of a whole school. I manage my space, follow the policy, try to model the behaviours I want and deal appropriately, I think, with those students who are unwilling to follow. However it has to be said that this year has been the hardest in my short career for it, and this is mainly because I’ve been fortunate – I came from a school which, in its recent OFSTED report, had behaviour rated Outstanding and justifiably so. The school culture was terrific, the support from SLT was so strong and clear, that everything fell into place. But it took time to get there.

My current school is working to get there, and by all accounts progress has been made. Staff members who were there over recent years have told me about how things were a couple of years back and before, before improvements made after a trust takeover. Behaviour for the vast majority is very good, but not quite great and its a small number that are presenting the biggest challenge (as in any school), and while senior leaders and year heads and the relevant staff work on improving this, I recognise that my spall space could still improve too. Pretty good is, with some classes, still not quite good enough.

The impetus to do something about it came with the new term, and this blog by Tom Bennett. Nothing in it was new, but coming when it did seemed sensible. A chance to reset. A chance to refresh their minds about what was expected. The blog was also clearly and simply written – the key points, much like the excellent behaviour post by Tom Sherrington. Straight to the meat.

My focus is on Year 7. I teach every year 7 student and due to smaller class sizes, the sets I have etc, I don’t find my other groups need the reminder, but Year 7 being new and easy to fall into bad habits early, I felt that the new year was the time to bite the bullet and start doing things I’d seen other teachers do approvingly, but never myself. Starting with routines.

My old routine: line up outside the class, give a quick instruction, send them in to sit down, ask 2 to hand out the books, get them to write a date/title and complete a task. But this often meant students chatting, waiting for a book, dawdling, someone would try and move seat. It’s easy to lose time and in 55 minute lessons, the first 5-10 can quickly disappear without a trace.

New routine: line up outside the class, send them in to stand silently behind their chairs and take out their pencil case, equipment, etc. They then sit when I ask. Until this is done right, they keep practising – as we have done this week. Once sat down, the books are ready at the 4 tables at the end of each row. They take their book, and pass the pile along. Within 30 seconds everyone has their book. At the end of the lesson they are collected in the same way so each book is in order along the row, and I’ll pile them up with alternating spines so I can easily place them on the right row.

The response was positive this week. I put a bit of competition into it by writing on the board my timer for each class for handing out the books. They all wanted to be the quickest. I explained why it was happening, the need to get the small things right so the bigger things are easier to tackle, so there’s no time wasted, so we don’t fall behind anyone. To maximise their potential. This will take time to embed, and I will need to make sure I don’t fall out of bad habits myself, but I am hoping that once this becomes second nature, the start/end of lessons will save so much more time, meaning I’m teaching for 55 minutes, 45.

Secondly, on classroom behaviour itself. Our classes are set and behaviour gets progressively poorer as you go further down the chain, but all classes have something to work on, not least the chattiness and willingness to call out in the top 2 sets. By accepting this last term, I endorsed it. So I decided to go back to basics. I started it by following Tom’s advice and framing it in a positive light. I got all year 7 classes to imagine themselves in 2021, just 4 years away, when they are leaving school having completed their GCSE’s. What sort of person did they want to be? How did they picture themselves? What did they want to go on and do?

With these questions in mind, I asked them – what do you need to do to achieve this? And what do I need to do, as a teacher, to help you? I told them how much potential they had and their dreams of going to university, of being a (from my list) surgeon, palaeontologist, dress maker, engineer, journalist and so on, these dreams relied on them getting the chance to do well. And that chance only comes with a room I can teach in, and they can work in. So I emphasised the good behaviour I wanted to see, and the poor behaviour I didn’t, and said what was to be expected. For most classes, this is no change – but for the bottom 2 it will require repetition and persistence to really, really drill it. Especially for the bottom – this class is a source of difficulty throughout the school and needs some radical, consistent work done.

Lastly I told them that I wanted to be able to reward good behaviour more. I rarely give out merits (as I forget) and the students who cause no bother, who sit and quietly work and somehow ignore the storms that occasionally surround get no recognition. I wanted to rectify that. So with the bottom 2 groups I have added my own wrinkle to the behaviour policy. Everyone comes into the room with a merit – you can only lose it through poor behaviour. If you reach a final warning on our behaviour system, the merit is gone. I’ll also give out whole class merits for situations where I think they have been earned, and a new space is dedicated on the board for writing individual merits for students during lessons. At the end of each half-term, the 5 students who have gained the most will get a reward, and we will reset for the next half-term.

This had an almost instant impact on the bottom set, who never get them, and I had some of the most talkative and troublesome students sit behave excellently when they realised I was handing them out to others who were doing the same. When they saw what they could do to get them, they participated.

Again, this will take time. I need to make sure I don’t fall out of bad habits, and I need to really, really reinforce the positive and not accept any slip in standards. At the same time, I need the support from the school and buy-in from the students. I hope that by easter or the end of the year I can talk about improvements.

I don’t know anything

At the start of my second full year, I’m beginning to understand the quote Plato attributed to Socrates – ‘all I know is that I know nothing’. I feel hyper aware, each term of how much I still need to learn and despite my attempts to educate myself and improve, I still feel vastly uneducated about key parts of my job and how to do it well.

Specifically, I feel like I know nothing about assessment, at least assessment in history.

In my first PGCE placement school, assessments were roughly once every half-term, and could vary in style. There would be no specific preparation, except that the class was told that the piece of work they were about to start ‘would be levelled’ and so they had to do it in silence. One piece was a letter from the trenches, another was a very traditional essay on the Battle of Hastings. The levels were NC levels, with the usual rough guide of 3 = identifying things, 4 = describing, 5 = explaining, 6 = analyzing and 7 = evaluating.

I found marking these pretty hard because I was a student teacher and I was thorough, and I’d see an answer which had evaluation of factors (such as why William lost) but without much analysis. I didn’t really know what to do.

In my second PGCE placement school, assessments were more structured. Each assessment came with a cover sheet with a set of criteria for each level. The more you did, the more chance you’d get a 5a over a 5c, for example.  Students were given 2 class lessons to plan and begin and then they had to finish them at home. Our lessons were directed towards them and it all felt more structured and thought through.

Marking them was easier but that’s because of the cover sheets. Students knew that by including or attempting something in the level 5 bracket meant that was ticked off, and the more they did, the higher the level. Even if that thing wasn’t done well, we’d be encouraged to ‘tick it off’ because it helped show the sublevels of progress that were needed each and every time. When I gave some students lower levels than a previous assessment, the usual class teacher ‘moderated’ and remarked them to push them higher. None of it really felt.. real. It all felt artificial.

In my NQT year, assessments tended to be in self-contained lessons, rather than using knowledge based on the whole unit. The HoD believed that assessments/history in general was about the development of skills, and so an assessment on the Spanish Armada was done with 1 lesson on it, based on source analysis skills, etc. NC levels were still applied.

Assessments were done slightly differently too – they tended to be 3 or 4 smaller questions than, say, one long essay. There was a focus on source analysis. It felt like the old SHP source paper where you ‘didn’t need any prior knowledge’ to do it – your assessment was all in the sources in front of you.

In my new school, NC levels are being phased out with only Y9 using them and Y7 and Y8 bringing in a ‘mastery’ assessment style. This has led to a lot of different abstract criteria based on second-order concepts, and using evidence, etc. Over the course of KS3 students should be able to tick off each of the criteria to show ‘mastery’. I don’t know what this shows mastery of. Assessments are more frequent and are geared to ticking off a couple of these criteria each time, which means they aren’t directly comparable, as one might be focusing on a ‘diversity’ criteria with some ‘change and continuity’ (e.g, Romans) and another might be looking at part of ‘significance’ with elements of ‘cause’. This is a problem history has always had but now its been atomized so there’s 7 skill-based concepts, each with a bunch of criteria.

My understanding of mastery was that it was knowledge/content based, not skill based. It’s also been given sub-categories of ‘emerging’ and ‘developing’, so each lesson has its own mastery criteria, just like any lesson objectives, and therefore each lesson has an E, D and M criteria. Which sounds to me like a rebranding of all, most, some.

My confusion mainly comes from the fact that I’ve seen different assessment styles in different schools and no one really knows which one is best. Or what they are really assessing, or how they know they’ve done it, or how they know it’ll be remembered later in the year, or things like that.

I honestly don’t know, of the four examples I’ve described, which school did assessment best. I am at least glad that my new school is not focusing on NC levels but I’m not convinced that mastery, as I thought I knew it, is the mastery that is being implemented. We want a knowledge based curriculum, but we’re assessing skills. Questions to me that seem important – what do they know, how do you know they know it, how do you plan for them to remember it, how does the curriculum fit together and sequence – are not really addressed.

Its worth noting that the KS3 curriculum is being rebuilt – there’s much more contact time and this means a lot of things are being planned as we go along, and a change in school management within the last couple of years means we’ve inherited staff and some units/things from the old lot which, perhaps, haven’t been addressed.

But basically I feel like I don’t know anything about assessment other than ‘I want them to remember what I teach them’ and am planning lessons accordingly, and sort-of assuming the official ‘mastery assessments’ every half term do something else.

Beauty in Ordinary Things

On Thursday I went to Hadrian’s Wall with 32 year 7 and 8’s, three members of staff and a lot of caffeine. This was the first overnight school trip I’ve taken part in as a teacher and our itinerary included drilling the students into the Roman Army at Housesteads Roman Fort; a trip to Vindolanda, a working archaeological dig just a short way behind the wall and location of a Roman settlement; a trip to Beamish, an open-air museum documenting life during the 1800’s and early 1900’s; a trip to Metrocentre to allow them to do a bit of shopping, and finally a tour of St James’ Park in Newcastle before we came home. Our residence was an English Heritage country house built next to a Roman Fort, right on the wall.


You can see a couple of the students walking along the old fort walls on the left. The surroundings were spectacular, and it was the sort of experience that a few kids from the rural coast wouldn’t ordinarily have. The chance to move around 2000 year old ruins, to visit an archaeological site, to move amongst the bones of Roman citizens, to go down a coal mine and breathe the air – these things stick.

On the trip I had the chance to talk to students and find out more about them, beyond their school life. The different backgrounds and expectations of what awaited gave us a truly diverse group – boys who wanted to shop in metrocentre, girls who wanted to swordfight in the Roman ruins, kids who had no idea what to expect and despite the frequent showers, powered through with enthusiasm and no little awe.

For me, I was exhausted. Early starts, late nights, trying to get 32 students to shut up and sleep, managing injuries, timings, meals, bus trips – it’s all encompassing. At no point can you switch off, and I didn’t have the worst of it – that honour goes to the trip organiser who was permanently on edge. Going away with other people’s kids will do that.

What stuck with me was just the little snapshots of life on the verge of teenager-dom. Some 11 year olds bouncing around the Roman fort, waving wooden swords and letting their imaginations do the rest. A girl wondering whether to spend the last of her money on a present for her mum, or make-up. She chose her mum. An incredibly bright and sweet year seven girl, and Muslim, who panicked on one coach trip because she forgot to pray that morning. A year eight noticing a student had come on the trip despite none of her friends coming and acting like a big sister for four days. A boys room engaging in a farting competition after light-out and trying not to laugh so much that we would find out, unaware that we were in the corridor trying not to laugh hard enough that they would find out. Flashes of generosity and kindness and humour.

Frontier life for the new recruits

Our return was delayed, much to the frustration of parents, and I finally made it home by half-nine on Sunday night. Ten hours later I was back in school and running on fumes, and the students on the trip dragged themselves in, bleary eyed. I have just three weeks left at school, a school I have found difficult to fit in at times, but a school I will sorely miss due to my rapport and relationships with these students. This was no more clear than when I saw my Year 10 historians after break.

They have been particularly vocal about my departure – less than complimentary about the school I am going to, ribbing me about leaving them, and generally being sweet. They are a fantastic class – eager to do well, bright and teachable. I didn’t always find them this way – the first half-term was hard. The class has 6 or 7 vocal boys who are all friends, and it took me a few weeks to get the dynamic right, and to recognise the fact there was no trouble in there. Just teenagers. Fun, sometimes gormless, occasionally moody but generally happy and wanting to enjoy themselves. When things settled, they flew, and they are a class I will sorely miss when I leave.

When I entered the class they all started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and replaced Birthday with the name of my new school. They gave me a card, signed by all, and 3 gifts. A Norwich City mug with my name on, as they know I’m a big fan. A little portable fan, because I spend most of my lesson in our hot classroom stood by a big fan. And a new tie, because they give me stick about the ones I wear, which are apparently too floral, and don’t match. It was incredibly kind and completely took me aback, not least because we still have three more lessons, but they wanted to give me the things early as one of them was going to miss our final lessons and didn’t want to miss out.

I have to admit to needing to compose myself before speaking, and the lesson never quite got to where it should, but frankly, who cares. It was a kind gesture and I was happy to let them derail a lesson because they have worked their butts off for me this year.

The aftermath of a monsoon – during which students carried on outside regardless. 

After getting into school at half 7, the morning after a four day trip to the north, we stayed around this evening to watch the school summer concert. I have watched every musical event this year and this was to be my last as a member of staff at the school. I have always enjoyed them – I like to see the extra things that my students do, be it sport or music or art. I like to see the whole of them – not just the person who sits in my class, then has to leave to go to a flute lesson. It gives me a chance to meet parents and congratulate them for their performances. For me, getting to know many students outside of the classroom has led to the rapport that I value so much inside the classroom.

And there is just something a bit special about it. Parents do their part, sitting through each students little section, waiting for the moment their own son or daughter goes up and the whole 2 hours is suddenly worth it. And I see it a little differently. With no children up there, I remember what they’re like in class. The student who has terrible literacy but has a place in the keyboard ensemble and can play like everyone else. The boy who never makes a fuss and never gets much attention but can play three instruments and is vital to a range of groups. The girl who finds academic work easy but struggles to do music and just wants to show her parents how far she’s come.

These events give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. Parents seeing their children on stage, showing off their talents and their hard work, each with hopes and dreams and ideas of what they want to do in the future, each with possibility. Tonight, after four days on a trip with students, and the kindness shown by my Year 10’s during the day, that feeling was especially warm, and during our singers’ performance of Amazing Grace it especially hit me. It is bittersweet to leave such a place. But what I’ve found in my brief teaching experience so far is the kids are great everywhere. They’re funny and kind and maddening and generous and inquisitive and hopeful and not cynical. Why on earth would you ever want to work with anyone else?

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.