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Two different approaches to collaborative planning in history

Professional Wrestling

I have always been a big fan of collaborative planning.

The best lessons or enquiries I have ever taught have been collaboratively planned. Many of them appear on this site.

The best schemes of work and curriculum models I have been involved in creating have been the product of two or more minds ‘professionally wrestling’.

As a university PGCE lead, I implore my trainees and mentors to use their weekly hourly meeting to lesson plan together. I genuinely think that it is the best professional development that any teacher can have.

Recently at Sussex University myself and associate tutor Marc sat down and thought through the collaborative planning process. We wanted to make the tacit knowledge that we hold, explicit to our trainee teachers and mentors.

Where to start?

At Sussex, we firmly believe in the power of the enquiry question when it comes to planning lessons and units of work. Fact! We take Micheal Riley’s ‘garden’ view that an enquiry question must do at least two things. It must put at its heart an area or element of historical thinking (normally focusing on an area of conceptual thinking). We also think that it must end in an end product where all of the prior knowledge and thinking is drawn together in a final answer to the question.

When it comes to planning, we have, until recently got our trainee teachers to start their planning with the enquiry question and work from there. After all, this gets to the heart of what we do.

However, after spending lots of time collaboratively planning with his excellent trainee this year, Marc has suggested there is another approach one can take when collaboratively planning. As you can see in approach 2 below.

Two alternative approaches to collaborative planning

Approach 1: Start with the enquiry question – this often requires great subject knowledge as you know not just the content but the element of disciplinary knowledge you want to develop. This can be hard for teachers who are new to a topic.

Approach 2: Start by finding a resource that provides a problem to be solved.

Approach 1: 5 rounds of wrestling ala Byrom and Riley

Professional WrestlingSo if you decide to plan using the classic enquiry question approach we would recommend that you take a leaf out of Jamie Byrom and Michael Riley’s book, or rather their professional wrestling article in Teaching History 117.

Here they lay down their rounds for professional wrestling. These can be used as one model for collaborative planning.

  1. Wrestle with the content – what content will you choose for your enquiry? Is it significant enough? What conceptual focus should you use to teach the content you have selected? Here is the difficulty for some. If you don’t have a good grasp of the conceptual demands of your subject then you will struggle – this is why having a knowledge of what progression might look like for you in history is hugely important.
  2. Wrestle with overview and depth – this is great advice. Not enough teachers give their students an overview, a sneaky brief look at the enquiry before they dive into the detail. Byrom and Riley suggest that this is hugely important – how are you going to put your enquiry in context?
  3. Wrestle with the enquiry and the enquiry question – Having chosen the content and conceptual focus, and placed it in context, at this point you start shaping and framing the enquiry question that will shape the learning.
  4. Wrestling with the end product – the next stage is to wrestle with the end product – what will it be? An essay? A roleplay? A diagram? A webpage? A letter/email? The crucial point is that the end product answers the big enquiry question.
  5. Wrestle with the activities – it is only at this point that the history teacher starts to think about the activities that she or he will set the students to help them to answer the enquiry question.

Approach 2: 7 alternative steps

Professional WrestlingNow Marc and his ace trainee worked hard on collaborative planning but they felt that approach 1 above didn’t always work for them. This was because they didn’t always have at their fingertips precise substantive or disciplinary knowledge needed to be able to plan well enough right from the start.

Instead, they realised that their approach was more organic. But it more often than not started not with the enquiry question but with a resource.

  1. They found a resource that provided a problem – An extract from a Horrible History book or a Ladybird book that they wanted to critique.  Or an extract from a historians work – this is where we got our Haffner and Figes lessons from. Or an extract from a textbook, or a film clip or movie trailer, or a political cartoon they wanted to unlock.
  2. Next, they decided on the disciplinary focus they wanted to take in general ie was this enquiry about cause/consequence? Similarity and difference? Interpretations? Change and continuity? Evidential understanding? Significance?
  3. Now they drilled down into the detail. Exactly what aspect of their disciplinary focus were they going to develop? What type of thinking do they want the students to engage with? Here they consulted subject-specific literature to decide. This is really important work. After all, if we want students to make progress with their thinking, we need to plan for that thinking. Alex Ford’s signposts are good here, or Seixas’s big 6. By the way, Marc and I have developed this disciplinary takeaway document which summarises areas of disciplinary thinking (stolen from lots of scholarship). This is our starting point.
  4. Next, they needed to decide on the substantive knowledge the students would need. Here the considerations are about: what prior knowledge will the students have or need? What fingertip knowledge will they need to access this particular topic? What knowledge will they take away and save in the long term? This is the stuff that fits in with the overall story of the curriculum – if this is about the big story of power across time then what is the little story here?
  5. At this point, they discussed and sculpted the enquiry question. It now could fit with steps 2, 3 and 4 above.
  6. Then the teaching activities come next – how will they get across this new knowledge? What will the end product be?
  7. A crucial final planning step is to consider the type of language they wanted to develop. What new substantive concepts will the students engage with? Here is a blog that might help. And, what disciplinary language will they need to unlock their classes understanding?
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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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