As one of my brightest Y11s said just the other day, ‘History is so hard. There’s so much to think about.’
We all like to think that our subject is hard, I suppose. But what can make or break any future deeper learning is conceptual understanding. In the history classroom these concepts are often in flux and development across time, usually translated in various ways by stakeholders from different communities, classes and countries.
For example, when Y9 at Braunton Academy studied a brief overview of the key ideas, actions and events of the suffrage movement of the early C20 I wanted them to have a conceptual understanding of the government’s ‘Temporary Discharge Bill’. This bill effectively gave the police and local authorities license to arrest and re-arrest suffragettes. Why? The WSPU’s members would more often than not go on hunger-strike when arrested. Quite horrible force-feeding then took place which the group used to its advantage with many a derogatory poster. The government allowed the re-arrest of suffragettes to in part ensure that the women did not die in their hands.
Now, I used to follow the mantra that empathy is the Queen of the History Classroom, and that I am its King. That sounds great, doesn’t it? But having taught the holocaust however many times I’ve come to the conclusion that I rarely want an emotional response to a shocking subject because this can drown out actual facts. If students want to be shocked by something they can use Google – my job is to present facts to be analysed and applied.
But how, then, to demonstrate conceptual understanding of something that might be shocking, or strange?
A few months ago I came across the always-excellent Rachel Jones’s (@rlj1981) post on DESTROY homework. You can read more about it on her blog, but the two central tenets were to encourage a demonstration of conceptual understanding and to get students to actually do some homework in the first place!
So, having created a few examples myself as well as a video using the fab ShowMe app, I asked Y9 to destroy the WSPU’s anti-government poster regarding the Temporary Discharge Bill, popularly known as the Cat & Mouse Act. We did not analyse the poster in class, nor did I explain the act to them. They had two weeks to fret, create and destroy.
The results were far more than I’d hoped. Some had taken the poster and rearranged it into a completely new conceptual take on the process of force feeding, whist others created 3D models of suffragettes, made out of the poster to highlight the green, white and purple of the movement, running around plates with government knives chasing them. Two students created mobiles; two covered their posters in food; one simply placed a huge voting X in blood-red over the top. Three students who weren’t in when set asked if they could still do the homework. Only five out of sixty handed nothing in on the deadline – in my school that’s a miracle.
Having then decided to present the idea at #TMNorthDevon I set about creating another opportunity. I wanted to try a younger year group to show how it could work and so asked my only Y8 class – very bright but very reluctant to work at home without the threat of my glare – to destroy a choice of three images about C19 anaesthetic-free surgery. This time, considering how poor their homework record has been over the year, we did go through the main developments of ether and chloroform. I showed them the Y9 examples (now plastering the walls) and asked them to destroy just one of the three using their new knowledge. This time the purpose for me was probably more to raise the hand-in rate than to encourage a conceptual understanding.
The responses were again fantastic. One student had made an actual chloroform inhaler, a la John Snow, with the development of anaesthetics written around the canister. Another placed a 3D gravestone at the head of a dissected body, with the heart sticking out and declaring that it had sped up too fast, as James Simpson’s early use of chloroform often did to the young, fit and fearful. Many chose to represent the image of the operating theatre in flames, as ether was particularly flammable and thus particularly dangerous in a gas-lit environment. This time the hand-in rate was 100%.
So far I’ve marked these using SOLO. For example, if the concept has been completely misunderstood then they’re at prestructural, though I haven’t seen this yet. If the student has demonstrated links between various aspects of their study then they’re at relational. I’d reserve the extended abstract for those who make links to the historical context, or other necessary developments (such as Simpson’s use of the media, or Snow’s use of technology) across time.
‘Destroy homework’ isn’t a panacea for poor completion rates. Neither will it stop those hardened to years of frantic scribbling on a planner note page on the bus from continuing to do so. But find the right concept and I bet they’ll fly with it. Maybe they won’t even notice that they’ve done some work!