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?


What I’ve learned from my first term as a PGCE student

I refuse to fill this post with crap stock images of teaching, so have a panda.
I refuse to fill this post with crap stock images of teaching, so have a panda.

I had hoped to have time throughout the term to write the occasional post and talk about what life is like for a new trainee. Unfortunately, as this post will detail, the idea I might have time for this now seems laughable. But term is winding down, I have been off ill for the last few days and there is a brief lull before everything picks up again after Christmas – assignment, placement B, and so on. And so I feel like writing.

Nothing can prepare for the complete, all encompassing exhaustion of the PGCE. I thought I was fully prepared, and I was probably more ready than most. I’ve worked in schools and I’ve been out of Uni for some time so I’ve never been of the mind that this was just an extension year to my studies. It was always something new entirely. But no matter how much you can tell yourself you are ready for the complete life takeover that the PGCE is, you aren’t.

My route into the teaching profession is through a university provider, something I am extremely pleased with. I can’t speak for all School Direct style systems, but I feel the balance between practice and reflection that is at the heart of a University course is important for the first steps into teaching. Time is needed to figure out what you’re doing, what’s going well, what isn’t, how to improve. Time is needed to be among other trainees and learn from them.

And so the first two months or so of the course are tough but not overwhelming. You are introduced to the education agenda, to learning theory (which is important as it forms the basis of assignment work), child protection, differentiation, assessment for learning, behaviour management and all the things you will experience at a secondary school. And then you are introduced to your subject specific areas. For me; history’s role in the curriculum, how to teach second-order concepts, history and literacy, and so on. The first two months are enjoyable and tough, in that order. It’s new, and for me it’s the career I want to be able to dedicate myself to, so throwing myself into it, reading articles, doing my assignment, reading more articles and books, being around other like-minded people – the value of the University based route is clear. But what develops early on is a guilt-complex, a sense of time-wasting if you’re doing anything, any evening, that isn’t based around the course. There is so much to do, that having an evening off, or a weekend off, is counter-productive.


The balance begins to alter more once placement A begins. I have liked my placement school from the start, but that doesn’t mean it has forever been comfortable or straightforward or that progress has been clear. All placement schools and all ‘mentors’ are different so I can only speak for my experiences, and I think mine are broadly positive, but positive doesn’t necessarily mean enjoyable. One thing that has become clear over the first time is that you don’t really get time to enjoy it, even if there were things to enjoy. And there are – the odd good lesson, that lightbulb moment when you know your challenge to them has paid off, the rapport building with a pleasant and hard working class. But you don’t get a chance to enjoy these moments – everything else is flying past at a hundred miles a second and you have a to-do list longer than Exodus which only seems to expand, the more you work at it.

This is one of those lessons learned pretty early; you will never, ever get to the bottom of the to-do list. No matter how many lessons planned, how many books marked, how many evaluations written, how many journal articles or books read in preparation for assignment work – there is always more. Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time available, rings true. You feel like you’re working flat out at the start of placement – it’s nothing compared to later. And that’ll be nothing compared to placement B, or NQT year, or the rest of a school career when pastoral care comes into things, when you have extra responsibilities, more classes and so on.

Enjoying the PGCE goes out the window and is replaced by a new target: surviving the PGCE. My curriculum tutor regularly joked that it was a war of attrition, only I’m beginning to think he wasn’t joking. My history cohort has already lost 2 people before Christmas, and others, people who are strong and together and well organized and dedicated, are struggling like you wouldn’t believe. And it all comes down to one thing: workload.

The PGCE workload is different to the qualified teacher workload, for which there is a lot of justifiable upset as it has rocketed north in the last few years. Our workload is meticulous planning, making resources, running plans by other teachers and ‘mentors’, re-planning, self-evaluation, assignment writing and unending administration. All of it is aimed at meeting the teacher standards, the T1-T8 boxes that need ticking to show you are a competent, capable professional. But to do this requires doing everything in triplicate. Folders are kept: PD, Curriculum, Placement. They are organized meticulously to demonstrate which T-number you are meeting. These are then subdivided by classes, with lesson plans, resources, observation notes and self evaluations following the medium-term plans you are supposed to have created at the start of a placement. The PGCE is 66% administration.


All of this is in the name of progress as a teacher, something as a professional you want to be able to demonstrate and do. I will finish this placement better than when I began it, with a lot of evidence to back that up. And that is ultimately the point. To make good teachers, and I’m not sure I’m there yet. I currently have 10 lessons a week and I hit about a 40% ‘good lesson’ rate. I have a couple a week that are really bad, primarily through bad planning and delivery, and the rest fall in the middle. I try and take on board feedback and tailor my lessons accordingly, but in there is a particular problem: the feedback you get as a trainee is reflective of the teacher giving it. I have observations done by three different members of staff. All excellent teachers in very different ways. All three are perceptive about my flaws and idiosyncrasies and all offer feedback accordingly – but it is always feedback based upon their preferred method of teaching. For one, teaching is active, student centered and he loathes ‘teacher talk’. My lessons require a lot of improvement, in his eyes, if I spend large portions of them in some sort of exposition or narration. Even if my objectives get met. To a different teacher, the object is to engage and entertain and get the students onside in that way. His lessons are like small stand-up comedy acts, and it works for him. They like him, they do work. But I’m not the sort to stand at the front and tell jokes. As a result, my lessons seem ‘dry’ and ‘stale’. I got called ‘monotone’.

I genuinely don’t object to hearing criticism because it is always done with my interests at heart – they want to make me a good teacher. But to them, what a good teacher actually is is different. And so you end up tailoring your lessons slightly differently based on who’s class it is you’re taking, and who’s going to be watching you. The chance to actually develop your own teaching style is lost because you’re simply trying to replicate what they want to see. In this, you can show that you are receptive to feedback and are trying to use it to develop yourself. But you aren’t. You’re developing a false style just to jump through hoops: to get through the end of the week with good observations.

And so a week bleeds into another as you do what you can to simply survive it. You get up at 6:30, work until about 4:30 either stood in front of classes or on computers planning, writing evaluations, preparing your assignment etc. You get home, and continue to work from 6:30 until around 11:30 or midnight or later. At which point you go to sleep and repeat. That has been my day to day existence since placement began. And now matter how much you think you’re prepared for this, how much I felt I was ready to take on an all-encompassing course, you aren’t. You begin to see people less. You begin to eat a bit worse. You begin to pull out of things you want to do because of the impact it has on your planning, the forever-behind-planning.

And this leads into the big, main takeaway I have from my first term on PGCE – especially on Placement A. Isolation. The PGCE is isolating. Evenings and weekends are geared solely towards work. I spend all evening and all weekend in a small box room in my house getting on with work, trying to improve, trying to be a better teacher, and as a result the time available to see friends, family, even just housemates drastically drops. You force yourself out for one night a week (Friday) to see some people, but for 7 days and 6 nights you feel like you belong elsewhere. And you feel guilt if you aren’t working towards that.

It’s magnified by the circumstances of placement A. You are only there full-time between autumn half-term and Christmas, so you develop temporary friendships. The upcoming end of placement magnifies the fact that colleagues you’ve come to value and rely upon are people you probably won’t work with again, and you have to develop it all over again with a new placement school. In the meantime, the friends you might have made from the cohort are all working as hard or harder than you, so the chance to see them is limited, and unless you happen to live with your family, the chance to see them is equally limited. You only have to ask my own mother who’ll tell you I’ve become a stranger this term.

Work-life balance among teachers is a tricky subject, and one that is currently politically hot. What doesn’t help is sending new teachers into the field who already have a sense that the work-life balance is unalterably skewed in one direction. If anything, that’s my big learning point from placement A. I’ve learned a lot about practice, about planning, and assessment and differentiation and everything else. But if the work-life balance is not addressed early in the career, then you end up with the attrition rate that everyone knows about, of teachers dropping out in droves after 3 years. It’s sustainable, perhaps, for a year. To get through the course, to jump through the hoops, to meet the standards, to do the assignments, to fill out everything in triplicate. But as long as trainee teachers are being developed with a guilt-complex, with a view that unless they are working they are wasting time, that you can only do this job if you dedicate your life to it, the casualty rate will not fall.

Teaching is definitely something you are, not just something you do. But it’s not the only thing you are.