Recently I arranged for Michael Riley to come and work with my initial teacher trainees and their mentors at Sussex University.
What a privilege.
After all, it was Michael alongside Jamie Byrom who inspired me to teach history the way that I have been for the last 18 years.
A visit to the brilliant SHP conference way back in 1999 saw me attend workshops led by two of the authors of the textbook: Changing Minds, which I had just invested in at school. This textbook was having a really positive impact on my classes so I guessed the authors must know a thing or two.
I remember being blown away by both of these SHP sessions and this enquiry based approach. I had been teaching for just three years and this was the light bulb moment for me. I really saw how I should be planning and teaching history.
This was how to help students join up their thinking and write coherently.
Teaching through enquiry questions that help combined and fuse substantive and disciplinary knowledge are the bedrock of my practice. Success in the classroom over many years have proven to me that this approach works.
Listening again to Michael support and challenge 50 teachers in our thinking recently was fantastic. It was a great day which was thoughtfully planned and inspirationally delivered.
Year 7 and exam questions
The first activity Michael asked us to complete was to mark a year 7 students’ essay. This was the first essay ‘Samantha’ had written in her secondary school history career. The question set was, ‘How healthy were the Romans?’ Michael asked us to work in pairs thinking in silence before sharing our thoughts about the piece of extended writing in front of us.
Having spent years and years marking such answers (albeit to clearer and more rigorous enquiry questions – but that was the point of the activity) I looked at the response in front of me. Bearing in mind this was a less able student, and that this was her first attempt at extended writing in a history classroom in secondary school, I thought it her response was pretty good. Many of the points were substantiated, the spelling was pretty good, especially the ‘history’ words. She had written in paragraphs.
OK, the conclusion contradicted the argument that had been put forward in the rest of the answer. And, fair enough, the evidence used to substantiate some of the points was clearly anachronistic. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by Samantha’s first essay attempt.
However, when I turned to my partner to discuss this written piece, an experienced teacher, I must say I was shocked. The response was quite scathing of Samantha’s work : The answer was weak as it was not enough like a GCSE answer. Where was the GCSE structure? Surely this is what year 7 must do? I must admit I was quite taken aback.
Why on earth would young Samantha know how to write a GCSE style answer? The question set was not a GCSE style question. And more worryingly why would any history teacher want an 11-year-old to write in such a style?
Surely history education should be about more than answering and practicing exam questions for five years.
Surely, we would want to instil a love of learning in the children in front of us?
We want to spark a keen interest in the subject we love.
We want children to go on to have a passion for history throughout their lives.
We want them to visit museums, to be able to look up from the street and spot the Georgian architecture, to be able to tell their parents that evening the fun and gory stories they learnt in history today. After all, these children a few months ago were still at primary school.
Depressingly, in the whole group feedback, another teacher (again not a trainee of mine thankfully), made exactly the same point as my ‘talk partner’. The written answer in front of us needed to be more GCSE like!??! ARRGHHHH!?!!!! NO! NO! NO!
We can be much smarter than that.If you need some inspiration on what to get your students to do at the end of an enquiry other than turgid GCSE answers, try these ideas.
A love of learning at Key Stage 3
Where has this poor thinking about teaching history at Key Stage 3 teaching come from? Why do young teachers think it is important to drill children from the age of 11 how to structure a reductive GCSE style essay response?
There is so much more to history teaching than GCSE. Some argue, including Daisy Christodoulou in her recent book: Making Good Progress?, that this kind of approach will not even work to drive up results, and in my opinion it won’t work to engage and inspire either. But then again, nor will spending every other lesson simply reading out from ‘the’ textbook – but that is another story.
Key Stage 3 is the only place where secondary school practitioners are freed from the shackles of examination specification and assessment materials. This is where we can really think about what good history actually is. This is where we can really consider what getting better at history actually means. And we can plan for this.
At Key Stage 3 we can teach historical rigorous enquiries that analyse art, that arm our students with precise historical knowledge that will allow them to criticise what is written by so called experts in textbooks and write to these authors pointing out the inconsistencies, flaws in writing styles and mistakes in their work.
At Key Stage 3 we can really look at real historians up close. We can listen to what Simon Schama says about art or A History of Britain and we can make meaning of their words. We can get our charges to see if they agree with the well-dressed articulate man they have just listened to.
We can re-enact the Battle of Hastings to help establish and embed the narrative of this wonderful story.
We can listen to the stories of extraordinary individuals or have lived so called ordinary lives and use these stories to help paint the bigger and more general picture of history.
There is so much scope to teach rigorous, enquiry based, engaging and thoughtful history to 11-14 year olds, that, if we get it right, will help their progress accelerate at GCSE because they really have been taught history well – without a GCSE style answer in sight. This is because arming students with the knowledge and skills (sorry to those who cannot use the ‘skills’ word – what I meant was substantive and disciplinary knowledge) they need to get better at history is the path to improvement. Answering exam style questions in year 7, is not.
So, please don’t get year 7 to answer exam questions. Even if your SLT have replaced levels with GCSE style accountability scales. They should know better but are searching for data that doesn’t exist.
Lets make our students love history not loathe it.