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Using Hexagon Learning for categorisation, linkage and prioritisation
Students at the International School of Toulouse studying the rise of Stalin using the hexagon approachStudents at the International School of Toulouse studying the rise of Stalin using the hexagon approach

Hexagon Learning Case Study: The Rise of Stalin

The ability to select, prioritise, categorise and link evidence is a valuable skill that students learn in History. It is also highly transferable to other subjects.

Using hexagons is a particularly simple and effective way of developing these skills, as the following case study seeks to demonstrate.

Historical Context

How Stalin was able to emerge as leader of the USSR against apparently overwhelming odds is one of the most intriguing questions which we study at IB Level. In the years that following the Bolshevik Revolution, due to a series of blunders and miscalculations, Stalin had lost the support of the party leadership: so much so that on his deathbed, Lenin dictated a formal ‘Testament’ describing Stalin as a liability who needed to be removed from his post. He was also hated by Lenin’s closest ally, Leon Trotsky, who was widely expected to step into the leadership position after Lenin’s death. Yet just five years later Stalin was undisputed leader of the USSR and Trotsky was in exile.

The story of how Stalin transformed his fortunes so dramatically is a great story revolving around Stalin’s treachery, cunning and downright charm. But the danger of this is that the essays that are then written become mere narrative, storybook accounts which do little more than provide a step-by-step account of the main events between 1924-1929.

The Hexagon Approach

After a study of the events culminating in Stalin emerging as leader of the party, I made a list of factors which could be used to explain why Stalin became dictator of the USSR. I then put these into my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator to create two single-page documents containing a total of 40 hexagons.

Stage 1: Selection and Categorisation

The class was divided into pairs for the activity. Each pair of students was given a copy of the first sheet of hexagons, which they cut up and started to organise on their desks into categories of their choice. This process, involving the categorisation of 25 hexagons, took about 20 minutes. Students were encouraged to come up with no more than five categories overall. They could also choose to leave some of the hexagons to one side if they were considered less important than the others.

We then spent five minutes comparing the different categories that students had identified. Each pair of students took turns to suggest one idea for a category heading until all the ideas had been shared.

Following this, I gave each students a blank sheet of hexagons. The challenge was to identify other factors which could help to explain Stalin’s rise to power and write these directly into the hexagons. After five minutes, each pair of students took it in turns to suggest an idea. If this was a valid (and fresh) idea, then the other students copied it into their pair’s version of the sheet, and the students who shared the idea were each given a sweet (we had a bag of these left over as a result of our ‘Rise of Stalin through sweet-eating’ lesson which had preceded this lesson!). This process was repeated until the students had run out of ideas.

Each pair of students then cut up this new sheet of factors and used them to develop their existing diagrams. In some instances this involved merely adding fresh evidence into existing categories. Sometimes though it involved adding new categories, or amending earlier categories.

Finally, each pair of students was given the second sheet of hexagons and the process of categorisation continued.

Stage 2: Linkage and Prioritisation

By this stage, the students had decided upon the main factors to explain Stalin’s rise to power, organised into key categories. Each of these categories could form the basis of a paragraph in an essay. However, it was still necessary to decide two things.

Firstly, students would need to decide in which order to deal with the points in each paragraph. It would not be enough to simply introduce the category title, then randomly write about each piece of evidence from the hexagons in that group. This is where the hexagons are particularly useful. The six sides mean that factors can be placed alongside each other in various combinations to highlight connections between batches of factors within categories. After students rearranged their factors in this way, they stuck them down onto sugar paper with a glue stick. They could then write the title of each category over each batch of hexagons, and annotate around each group of hexagons to explain why they were arranged in that particulary way.

Secondly, students had to decide how to connect their main categories together to create an overall thread of argument. They did this by drawing arrows between the factors and explaining their connections over them. For example:

“Economic problems in the country > created > Divisions in the party > exploited by > Stalin’s Cunning”

Stage 3: Essay preparation

The final part of the process was to use the completed diagrams as an essay plan. I photographed each of the diagrams and shared them with the students. Their task was to use the diagrams as the basis of their essay on “Why did Stalin become leader of the USSR?”. Each paragraph was to focus on separate categories of hexagons, and the points made in each paragraph should have some logical order and ‘flow’. Moreover, the order of the paragraphs should be dictated by the arrows linking the categories, with the opening sentence of each paragraph after the first one being based on the explanation over each arrow.

Reflections and Conclusions

The ‘Hexagon Approach’ worked very well. It steered students away from a narrative approach and into an analytical frame of mind. It helped them frame categories of analyis, build up their command of the material step-by-step. It provided them with the opporunity to easily change their initial assumptions, connect factors together both within and between categories, and give them a very effective basis of an accomplished written piece.

It is also a very simple approach that can be transferred to other topics and other curriculum subjects. All that is needed is an initial list of factors – contributed either by the teacher or the students – which can then be written into a blank hexagons template or turned into hexagons automatically using my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator. Thereafter, all that is needed is a pair of scissors, some sugar paper and a glue stick. And, ideally, a bag of sweets!

 

Using video feedback to increase the impact of sixth form marking
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This is the video blog detailing my TLC focus and the impact it has had.

Below are the feedback videos that I made:

Below are some photos of the students DIRT. One student is targeted a grade A the other a grade C:

Cross-posted from @Westylish’s blog

The Wonders of Window pens!
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After six months of my first teaching post in my very own classroom, I had spent hours of time and bundles of energy into transforming my classroom into a positive, bright and energising space for my pupils to learn. This job was never a chore, it was instead a rewarding and visible aspect of my teaching, but I hit a barrier… I ran out of wall display space!

The solution came from browsing twitter and in particular the inspiring #pedagoofriday where I discovered the wonder of window pens! Although seemingly more often seen in the primary sector, these cheap pens were easily adapted to secondary.

Consequently I learnt that these window pens were not only a new display area but they could also be used as an engaging and exciting classroom tool to not only enhance learning but also encourage positive behaviour. Since then I have used the pens in a variety of ways, introducing new topics, mind mapping, revision and most recently I have introduced ‘Source of the Week’ where as a class we analyse a source and annotate on individual versions, the hardest working class member is then rewarded by being allowed to annotate the source on the window.

Understandably I bet a few people reading this are unsure of the benefits of this simple stationary but the benefit to my classroom paired with witnessing the excitement on the pupils face helps to fade any doubt of the wonder of the window pens!

How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?
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“It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence, not on authority or intuition.”

Russell, 1945

I posted my Critical Thinking in Psychology essay recently where I discuss in depth critical (or rational) thinking in the context of A Level psychology. Here I want to share one of my favourite lessons of the year where I encourage my students to start thinking critically (find the lesson powerpoint at the bottom of the post or here).

One approach to increase students critical thinking skills is to get them considering methodological issues outside of the narrow framework of each subject specification and bring these issues to life. The use of activities such as ‘More cat owners have degrees’ demonstrating the dangers of misinterpreting correlational research and the possible bias caused by funding, and ‘The dangers of bread’ again illustrating issues of inferring causation from correlation act as excellent points for discussion about causation and correlation. Articles such as these teach students to be ‘savvy consumers and producers of research’ and develop the abilities needed to analyse, synthesise and applied learned information.

A key element of critical thinking is not taking results and conclusions at face value and questioning the methods that were used and any biases that these could have introduced when making inferences from results.  I have designed several activities  to make learners aware of  ‘blind acceptance of conclusions’conclusions’ and the fallibility of accepting results  without question. I have pulled all of these activities into one lesson with the aim of engaging students and creating an enthusiasm about evaluation.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 16.38.14Initially, I start with abstract questions to get the learners considering critical thinking outside of psychology and allow them to develop their own awareness. This starts from the moment they enter the room when the starter is the question ‘How many uses can you think of for a paper clip‘. After giggles, head scratching and some quite lateral thinking we move on to discuss what ‘critical thinking’ is.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 16.31.22

Before moving into discussion explicitly linked to psychology studies I ask them to write some instructions as to how to make a piece of toast. The students are a little suspicious at this point but after a few minutes you get the usual: get the bread, put in the toaster … and of course the debate on Nutella vs Marmite! Then I pose the question ‘but where did you get the toaster from …‘ and show the excellent TED video ‘Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster — from scratch

From here is time to turn my new ‘questioning‘ students back to psychology …

The first activity is based on hindsight bias, or the “I knew that all along” attitude, helping students become aware of the fact that anything can seem commonplace once explained if you are not aware of the underlying methodology.

This was the rationale for the ‘Lazarfield task’ that starts with the class being divided into two groups with each half receiving conclusions from a study (adapted from Lazarsfeld, 1949). However, unaware of this, the two groups received the opposite findings. For example group one would receive:

“Better educated soldiers suffered more adjustment problems than less educated soldiers.”

Whereas the second group would have:

Better educated soldiers suffered fewer adjustment problems than less educated soldiers.”

Each group have to make inferences about ‘why’ the conclusions might be true. Following on from the task students were asked to “did the findings make sense?” and to feedback their reasons. Only at this point will the class be made aware that they had the opposite findings and how easily it is to justify a finding after the fact. A discussion about the fallibility of the “I knew that already” attitude follows in relation to the students that the students have completed. This allows for the learner to review conclusions made and consider alternative arguments, confounding variables and biases in generalisations made.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 16.55.09

To then scaffold students’ analysis and evaluation skills a set of critical thinking questions to frame evaluation of research was adapted. These critical thinking questions provide students with important questions that they can use to establish the credibility of a research method. It also allows differentiation across learners providing the opportunity for those with low ability to give limited responses and the more able students to expand and demonstrate their synoptic awareness of research methods and the surrounding issues and concepts.

This is one of my favourite sessions of the year – you can actually see the students thinking, discussing and debating issues. They are staring to think like psychologists, like scientists. Not accepting what is in front of them but asking important questions. What is great to see is the reaction following the session – how the students often refer back to the session.

My only warning – I asked my students to keep asking ‘but why?‘ – they do!

How do you develop critical thinking skills in your learners? Could you adapt this session to your subject? If you do – please share it in the comments.

Destroy Homework!
A selection of Y8 Destroy Homework from Braunton Academy on the development of anaesthetics.A selection of Y8 Destroy Homework from Braunton Academy on the development of anaesthetics.

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.

A selection of destroyed homework on the Cat and Mouse Act

A selection of destroyed homework on the Cat and Mouse Act

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!

#PedagooWonderland

0530 on a Saturday morning is difficult, cold and after another long night of the ashes, very miserable. However, I was off to a Pedagoo event, packed with exciting speakers, thoughtful teachers, inspiring individuals and I was pretty confident that my chosen Saturday CPD event was going to be brilliant. It was…

The first thing that blew me away (after registering with the very welcoming pupils of the school) was the amazing building. It was bright, clean, tidy and very much the type of modern building I come to expect when I go ‘somewhere nice’. Just as our children know when they are being shortchanged as regards use of windows XP on old PC’s, they know it when they walk into a dingy building which is in desperate need of a paint job. Michael Gove said that the building and environment of a school makes no difference. I drive past these buildings at Fettes and Stewart’s Melville on the way to my school every day. Clearly, environment makes a difference.

The other thing about the building I loved was the use of images of Joseph Swan children working, often with ideas about how they work, or slogans/quotations about respect, reading etc behind them. That is something I will try and create in the next couple of weeks if energies allow as it looks so good and inspires.

Whilst having my complimentary tea and danish pastry (which would contravene the bring your own tea and biscuits policy of many councils) I set about reading my welcome pack. I loved the Happy Mondays leaflet which contained loads of great, ready to use, ideas for enhancing and reinforcing learning in the classroom. The Happy Mondays reference is because the teachers at Joseph Swan receive and e-mail every Monday, with a new idea or resource in it from their SMT. I love that idea!

MY first session of the day was in the Reading Room (and what an amazing space that is…) with David Hodgson. David talked about how we learn and how we can use techniques in the classroom to help children learn and remember how they learned things. As a primary teacher I get asked lots of questions from the children and my most frequent answer to them is good question. I don’t believe in throwing the knowledge confetti about for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’m not convinced the children will remember it whilst they walk back to their desks and secondly I (or A.N.Other teacher) will not always be there for them when they have a question or want to learn something. The things we did in his session were all practical examples of an NLP approach, and I was so impressed I bought his book for my Kindle this morning. He used this pupil feelings graphic in his session too which I find a useful tool to have by my desk in the class room. Something David said which rang a bell was that we should ensure our children ‘Have a get out clause for children when they don’t learn’. This is vital, so often our children get way more stressed than we ever do about a wrong answer. We need them to take risks, get it wrong, change it and get it wrong again, smiling all the time! That is a successful learner right there.

The next session was with Rachel Orr who is HT at Holy Trinity Rosehill Her workshop was about developing writing through Primary Learning and specifically using Pie Corbett’s talk for writing work. I had worked on a Pie Corbett workshop for writing day before (January 2007??) and it was amazing. I’ve bought a few of his books and love his approach to writing. There is a lot of material on the internet too to supplement his written work. I also liked the punctuation sounds and actions which children are to use when they are talking and can then reinforce the assessment process in class. Rachel has used Pie’s work in two differing schools now and shared with us examples of the successes her young writers had, and these examples cal be seen on her school blogs. Rachel gave us a disk with loads of fantastic resources on, many her own work (the learning keys are a great idea!).

During lunch I met some great folk including @spiceweasel77 who is doing some brilliantly exciting things with his class!

After lunch it was on to Hywel Roberts session. Hywel spoke passionately and humourously about creating contexts in the curriculum, allowing the children to view the learning they are given through their own filters and engaging children in their learning. I made loads of notes during Hywel’s session and later tweeted many of them. Here’s the quotations I tweeted:

‘It’s our job to get the World thinking.’

‘We need to dig learning holes for our children to fall into.’

‘we are the people who make sense of the curriculum we are given. ‘

‘Have a what’s great 2 mins at the start of staff meetings’

‘we need to induct our kids into learning’

‘all of these things are just doing the job we’ve been asked to do. That we’re paid for. ‘

I’ve got Hywel’s book and it’s a great read. I need to do more of this in my classes. It’s great stuff. I was incredibly impressed with Hywel and the way he works in schools.

Finally, my last session was about using enquiry based learning in maths. Stephanie Thirtle took this session, she is a maths teacher at Joseph Swan. (I’d love The Girl to have her as a maths teacher, lessons would be so interesting!)
We did some enquiry based openers which really got us thinking and she talked about the approach of letting the children work things out for themselves, rather than an I teach then you do model. I love the work things out idea and think the way she’s bringing it to maths in a high school works really well. Much of the rationale for enquiry based learning was on her presentation and clearly showed examples of enquiry based learning which we could use as one-off lessons or develop for a maths topic. Such things investigating square numbers, straight line graphs using algebra, and one which P7 will be seeing soon – 12 Days of Christmas maths.
Her room displays were wonderful and I snapped many of them on my phone and you can see them here. I particularly liked that ways she put maths into context making it real for the children.
That chimed so well with the session from Hywel previously.

I came away with my head full of wonderful ideas and a bag full of goodies!
So, what next…well before Christmas I will make some posters of children and their ideas about learning to go up in school and I will also make some musical posters for the music room.

After Christmas I will take loads more of these ideas and run with them. It’ll be different, fun and learning will happen.

NationalModeration.co.uk – a new(ish) approach to assessment moderation

As requested by @fkelly , I’ve decided to throw a quick post together about www.nationalmoderation.co.uk – a service I created to allow Scottish teachers to share their own unit assessments for the new National Qualifications.

Essentially the creation of this website was spurred by one glaringly obvious reality – the unit assessments provided by the SQA are simply not up to scratch, and as a consequence everybody is creating their own material and hoping that it meets the standards. Ón the face of it, this may be no bad thing – if we create our own unit assessments then we can tailor them to our own courses and our own pupils, and surely that is good idea?

To give an example, I have consciously themed my entire National 5 English course around the concept of ‘Coping with Conflict’, selecting texts which can be woven together across the whole year (‘Spiritual Damage’, ‘War Photographer’, ‘The Man I Killed’ and ‘Bold Girls’) – now that I am no longer forced to use a few set NABs I have also created reading assessments which follow this theme, thus enhancing the pupils’ overall understanding of what we are studying this year (at least this is the idea).

Several months ago, however, I realised that if EVERYONE does the same thing then there will be hundreds – perhaps thousands – of unit assessments being created across the country and many of us will be replicating the work that colleagues are doing (or have already done). Frankly, we all work too hard as it is to be reinventing the wheel hundreds of times over, so a system for sharing material is essential.

Of course, Education Scotland and the SQA are providing something along these lines, but there are two reasons why I believe it would be helpful for a service which is independent of these bodies. Firstly, the websites of these organisations (especially Education Scotland) are – to be kind – not particularly user friendly, and I (like many others) don’t have the time or the willpower to fight my way through Glow to find material on a regular basis; secondly, I firmly believe that the only way for us to ever really become confident in the development and delivery of our own materials is for us to move beyond a dependence on official bodies to confirm that every little thing is up to scratch.

If – or, depending on your philosophical view of the amount of fluid in a glass, when – Curriculum for Excellence fulfills its potential it will be because of the incredible work of teachers, not Education Scotland, the SQA or the Education Secretary, and I hope that NationalModeration might play a small part in that development.

Basically, it works like this: teachers upload their unit assessments, other teachers moderate them by leaving comments, alterations are made as required and, eventually, gradually, standards become clearer and are met across the country.

At present the site only has English assessments but it would be great if other subjects could begin contributing materials as well (I’ll create however many subject specific pages are required in this instance). In order to sign up you must be teacher in a Scottish school (and verify this, usually by means of an official email address) – this means that the material can be kept secure, allowing us to continue to use it in our classes as our official unit assessments.

If you think that the site would be of any help to you as you continue to develop your approach to the new qualifications please do sign up – the more people are involved the more effective our approach will be.

A TERM WITH YEAR 9 – HOW CAN I SHOW MY STUDENTS HISTORY MATTERS?

Why is history in the curriculum?

I’m not being rude but it doesn’t actually help you in your daily life.”

To punish people.”

So if anyone asks you a question you could answer instead of saying I don’t know.”

(Quotations from students in Richard Harris and Tony Haydn, ‘Children’s Ideas about School History and why they matter’, pp. 45-46)

Not all student responses looked like this, but these individuals’ words exemplify a problem: although 70% of those questioned claimed history was useful, fewer than a third were able to articulate why.*

It is possible that the absence of a clear and developed understanding of why they are learning about the past, and about the discipline of history, is impacting negatively on pupil effort and attainment in history, and on take-up rates post-14.”

(Ibid., p. 48)

A few months ago, noting that motivation correlates with attainment and GCSE choices, I argued that demonstrating the relevance of history to students is important if they are to immerse themselves in learning and recognise the subject’s importance.  In that post, I mentioned having spent a year working on this problem with a Year 9 class.  This post describes and evaluates my actions and their reactions during our first term together, as I tried to persuade them that history matters.

Who better to explore this with than Year 9 (thirteen/fourteen year olds)?  In most schools this is their last year of compulsory history, so it is critical in cementing their understanding of the past.  Most students are pretty confident at the beginning of Year 9 whether or not they will choose to study history in their GCSEs; the majority conclude they will not (nationally, a third of students study History GCSE, figures replicated in my former school).  History is a hard sell: a large proportion of students see the subject as difficult and irrelevant to both everyday life and their future careers.  Moreover, Year 9 is the dip: equidistant from the bright-eyed enthusiasm of entry into a school in Year 7 and maximum pressure from school, parents and usually, students themselves, in Year 11.  Proving history matters is a challenging task in this context, but a vital one.

What did my class think of history?

I was teaching a mixed ability class; most of the students were new to me – if we can overlook a disastrous cover lesson I’d had with a third of the group the previous summer.  The head of year was characteristically upbeat, noting that “You’ve got a very bright class here” and saying less about their fairly unenviable behavioural reputation.  She did mention that a couple of parents had never heard anything good about their children and if I managed to ring home positively early, it would be worth my while.

At the end of our first lesson together, I asked students to answer: ‘How do you feel about history?  The picture below shows my summary of reasons why students said they didn’t like the subject:

Relevance2

Above all, they expressed the idea that it was ‘not useful’ or ‘irrelevant to my life’ and ‘boring,’ a word which came up more than any other.  Only four students had anything positive to say about the subject… it seemed pretty clear to me that embarking on the (pretty dry) prescribed course was unlikely to achieve anything.

There is sufficient evidence of school or departmental effect in the data to suggest that teachers can have an influence on pupils’ understanding of the purpose of school history.”

(Ibid., p. 47)

My goal was to teach students to love history and to recognise its profound importance to their lives…  but I believed this was something they had to realise for themselves.  So I began by asking:

What questions matter to you?

I began with the still on the right from from the Italian Job and asked students what questions they would wish to ask about this picture – they came up with a good range: What had happened?  Was the driver drunk?  And so on.

Italian Job

I then developed an idea from Teaching as a Subversive Activity and asked students to imagine that they were redesigning the school curriculum from scratch, without reference to tests or syllabuses.  What questions would they want answered in such a curriculum?  I was nervous at this point as to how well they would respond to the idea; results varied, this is a representative sample:

  • If you were in a fight with one of your friends and you seriously hurt them, and no one saw you, would you take them to hospital or leave and pretend nothing every happened?
  • How did music emerge as a global phenomenon?
  • Why is there school? Why do we need education?
  • Can you explain global warming?
  • Is there something you can’t live without?
  • What do you aspire to be in the future?
  • Would you give your life for people you care about?

I closed by returning to the list of questions about the bus and asked what did almost all of the questions refer to?  The idea I was trying to convey was that we have to look to the past for answers to every question except one (what happens next?) we can predict an answer to this based on all the other answers.

How can history help us answer the questions that matter to us?

I wanted students to see how a historical question can help answer a philosophical or ‘life’ question, so I began with an easy example: one student had asked ‘Is Arsenal rubbish?’ so I invited students to break this down into smaller questions (for example, how many goals did they score last season?)  They then extended this to formulate historical questions which helped answered some of their other (more interesting) questions.  I also offered them some of my own historical questions (ensuring there was at least one historical question linked with each philosophical question); examples which linked with the questions I listed above included:

  • Why did the Victorians let children not go to school?
  • What did Roman people think you couldn’t live without?
  • What did the Ancient Greeks think was the meaning of life?

Finally, students voted on the question which they most wanted to research.

I wrote to a friend after this lesson: “I’ve been reading their books and from the last lesson some of them did write stuff like – now I realise the past can help us understand other questions… so I think it can work.”  And as another friend said to me at the same time, my having promised to prove that history mattered and let them choose their question “You have to honour that!”  I was unsure where things were going, but it looked like the right direction.  So I prepared to help my students answer their question through history.

‘Are you a leader or a follower?’

This was my students’ chosen question, and it was a gift to a history teacher.  I designed a lesson which explored this question from a range of angles: looking at why so many people voted for the Nazis, what made leaders like Martin Luther King and Gandhi successful and, by my students’ request, how fashion trends spread.  I also asked a wonderful Year 13 Psychology student to visit the class and explain Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience to Authority’ electric shock experiments.  Students spent a lesson examining these different examples of leadership & following and at the end, I asked them whether they were leaders or followers based on what they’d learned.

Over the next two lessons, students created presentations on different aspects of what we had learned: how we had got this far, what history suggested made a leader and a follower, what we had decided about ourselves and the skills we had developed.  They then presented what they had done to the head of year (and I had it filmed as well).

Other ways of demonstrating relevance

Although the hardest bit of the ‘selling’ process was over, I devoted the rest of the term to continuing this push.  We looked at propaganda as a tool during World War I – and applied this knowledge to modern advertising.  We worked on essay-writing and persuasion – as a tool for history and for life.  And we studied the origins of the London riots (one of the highlights of this was Zelal popping into a police station, on her own initiative, to enquire into the racial disparities in arrest statistics).  At every point, I devoted time to the ‘so what’ question – underscoring the importance of what we were doing.

In the spring term I pushed the class to create far better work – which matched their interest in the subject, rewriting essays and seeing some great essays from some of my students.  In the summer I focused on sharing what we’d learned and organised a trip to a local primary school to teach them what we had been learning, in which every student had a role presenting, teaching or supporting Year 6 students.  Again, every topic we studied or skill we refined, I set time aside to consider why it mattered.

The results

Avowed beliefs: In January asked students to write postcards addressed to my Year 9s next year which summarised why history matters (as I explained, to save me the time of those new students misbehaving before they recognised why the subject mattered).  The noteworthy factor is that no one refused, no one said ‘I don’t know what to say.’  No one wrote nothing – so all of them had gained some impression that history was useful.*

Choosing History GCSE: When it came to their choices, seventeen students chose to study history and seven didn’t – a rate which was three times the school average.  I asked them to explain to me as best they could why they had chosen history; my summaries are below (some students made more than one relevant question):

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(Two students were absent on the day I asked this question, both of whom had chosen history).

And as to why they hadn’t…

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Academic results: I received some absolutely brilliant pieces of work – the highlight being the student who moved from apparently being on level 3 to level 7.  That said, a handful of students made no progress on paper- primarily because a cunning combination of absence, time in the school’s behaviour unit and avoidance of homework meant I barely saw any of their written work; that said, I should have done more to chase those individuals.

‘Prosocial behaviour’: This one’s harder to evidence, but students displayed better attitudes to learning and school more generally.  Firstly, I ceased calling for help from my head of department/form tutors/the head of year/school behaviour unit, because off-task behaviour was sufficiently limited, and relationships were good enough, that I could address this unaided.  This was a novel situation with me for an entire Year 9 class – every previous year we reached a point in the summer where one or two students had adopted such a consistently negative attitude (and had long since chosen not to study GCSE History) that they were removed entirely from history lessons.  More tentatively, I would argue that there was a power in students having a subject which they enjoyed, succeeded in, had a teacher to say something positive about them in parents’ evenings…  I don’t know what it counted for in their wider lives, but I do know that one parent claimed she dropped the phone when I rang to say her daughter was doing well (first positive call home ever).  The same student (who was a bit of a terror), came up to me near the end of my time at the school and said: ‘I don’t want you to leave.’  And then wandered off.  What does that count for in the great scheme of things?  I’m not sure: but I’d like to hope it was worth something

Evaluation

Focusing on persuading students history matters meant I spent a lot of time thinking about the purposes of my lessons and considering how best to communicate this with my students.  It led me to work in a more democratic way – a managed democracy, certainly, but one in which I gave my students genuine choices and was open with them about the rationale for what was on offer and the decisions I made.  The more I did this and they responded, the more I was happy to be open and honest about the problems I was facing or things I didn’t know how to do.  Clarity about purposes and honesty with them improved our relationships and meant that they better understood why they were doing what they were doing and so chose to buy into it.

My plans evolved as I worked.  Although there were some things I had in mind early on (like visiting a primary school) much was unplanned; there were many points at which I wasn’t clear about much beyond the next step.  I acted by instinct and – for the most part – it worked – but it was pretty terrifying at times and it’s not something I would recommend lightly.

Were I doing this again, I would insist on a higher standard of work and behaviour from the start.  At the time I though I was doing pretty well – I judge myself now against a school with higher non-negotiables.  The time to chase every child and every piece of work myself, together with another four Key Stage 3 classes, Year 10s, Year 11s, A-level coursework and the UCAS system simply wasn’t there (especially in a system which demanded assessment and data entry six times a year).  I’m in awe of those who can honestly do this and maintain their sanity.  I did throw my teddies out of the pram on one occasion and make the whole class rewrite an essay – and I got some very high quality writing from some students.  However…  I now feel that I could have done more than I did.

Did they learn enough?  Possibly not.  They learned a lot – but among other things I dropped some topics to provide enough time to do others well.  I told myself then that I’d done more of a favour by getting them to study history so they would keep learning.  I look at these things differently now and appreciate this better – more knowledge and understanding provides the secure basis for later success.  Could I have pushed them further?  When I visited the school again in October, many of them were struggling with their GCSEs.  Why?

I had a massive amount of latitude.  I was in an ‘Outstanding’ school, subject to only one lesson observation a year.  I don’t think anyone really knew what I was doing…  How acceptable is this?  Had I had to follow the curriculum to the letter, I’m sure I would have been faced by some fairly mutinous students all year.  And yet most schools do not provide this space for teachers.  What would I recommend to teachers who don’t have this latitude?  I think spending five minutes at the end of a lesson to discuss why the lesson just studied matters – how it links with our lives or the present day.  But there’s a broader question here: if teachers (and schools) don’t have freedom to innovate and experiment, how can they meet the needs of their students?  Equally, once they do have that freedom, what’s to keep their choices at least somewhere related to their straight and narrow.

Intervention in Year 9 is too late!  This worked, but it’s not the best way to do it.  If you are trying to convert students from a negative impression of the subject, it’s hard work doing this in a year.  It can be done, but this is not the most productive approach.  We need to work harder in Year 7 to ensure students love and appreciate history.

Nor does an approach like this substitute for effective behaviour management, on the part of the school and the teacher.  One of my struggles was getting all my students to try as hard as I’d have liked them to do on their written work – or indeed, any task needing sustained application.  Equally, classroom management alone is sufficient neither to ensure students’ best efforts nor to ensure students pursue your subject with genuine interest.

Much of what I did doesn’t diverge far from what we might teach anyway.  Everything I taught was on the syllabus, except the London Riots (and even that was just a tweak of the syllabus: we studied the crisis in Syria this year in Year 8, of which more anon).  What this approach does is reverses the agenda, or the direction I’m pursuing – beginning with students and moving to history, rather than treating history as thing to press onto students.  The best case is having seen an example like the one above, students recognise the links between what matters to them and what they learn and then formulate them independently: one of my students in Year 7 did this spontaneously last week for almost the first time ever.

Conclusion – would I do it again?

Curriculum time is precious at Key Stage 3, but investment in these inputs can make all the difference between desultory compliance on the part of pupils, and wholehearted and enthusiastic commitment to wanting to do history, to do well in it, and to do it for as long as possible.

(Ibid., p. 48)

Aspects of what I’ve described above still make me uncomfortable.  There are many things which I would change: for a start, I would demand far better written work from the beginning.  I would be less sanguine about playing fast and loose with the curriculum.  One particular thought-experiment I haven’t considered enough if how I would react as a head of department if one of my teachers did this without talking to me about it first (as I did).

On the other hand, I believe the fundamental approach is sound.  I went from having four students who had something positive to say about history at the start of the year, to having seventeen choose to keep studying the subject.  Moreover, irrespective of their choices, students experienced things of enduring value: persuasive essay writing, identifying and analysing propaganda and teaching primary school students.   This experience has shaped a unit themed around historical relevance with which I begin the Year 7 curriculum (and similar units for Years 8 and 9).  With each class, the approach I take is different (I may come back to this in future) but with all of the, the result should look something like this – three photos of Year 7 work from last half term:

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Notes

* It’s not entirely clear from Harris and Haydn’s published report how bad the picture is.  70% of their respondents said history was useful.  Of 1,500 comments about its usefulness, 658 were tautological ‘It’s on the curriculum because people need to learn it.’  Over 250 appeared to offer statements which demonstrated an understanding of the rationale as expressed by the National Curriculum.  Over 200 responses related to employment – although many (around 50) were phrased as though history would only be useful if you wished to be a history teacher/work in a museum.  The best guess possible from the article is that around 400 students, from a sample of 1,500 who commented, were able to articulate ‘valid’ purposes of school history.

* More tricksy psychology: asking people to persuade others of something makes them more likely to believe it themselves.  I knew by this stage I wasn’t going to be at the school next year, but I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise for my students.

Further reading

There doesn’t seem to be much written about this – please point me towards exciting things I’ve missed.

Richard Harris and Tony Haydn,‘Children’s Ideas about School History and why they matter,’ Teaching History, 132, September 2008 (paywall) although you can download the full report here.

Ben Walsh has an E-CPD unit at the History Association website on exactly this question – again, behind a paywall.

I write lots more at improvingteaching.co.uk and I’m on twitter as @HFletcherwood

Persuasive Writing and a whole lot more…

This post can also be read at Raymond Soltysek’s blog,  http://raymondsoltysek.wordpress.com/

I had a good morning the other day doing in-service with English teachers from South Ayrshire on Persuasive Writing at Nat 4, 5 and Higher. It was organised by my friend Sally Law, PT English at Marr College, who has used some of the resources I wrote for Education Scotland last year and which can be found at  http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/resources/nq/e/englishpersuasivewriting/introduction.asp

Much like my Creative Writing materials published two or three years ago, the basic premise is that pupils need to engage regularly with reading that is designed to persuade them, and then regularly undertake writing tasks that allow them the opportunity to persuade others in a variety of contexts. English teachers always – always – tell pupils they should be reading a quality newspaper regularly. That’s good advice which very few pupils take up, and I suspect it’s because (a) they have no incentive to and (b) don’t know what to do with it when they do. Just reading an article doesn’t seem to have any explicit relevance to them; so, it’s important we do something with it that makes sense to them.

In the materials, there are sheets to support regular blogging and tweeting, two social networking contexts pupils will be well acquainted with. It’s very easy to set up a class blog or Twitter account, even given the ICT restrictions common in schools, but these can also easily be done with a pen and paper “Blog Wall” or “Tweet Space”.

So the groups started off with two articles I downloaded on topical issues. In half an hour, they read them, briefly thought about tone and editorial position, identified their own reaction and then constructed a 140 character tweet in response to what they’d read. I think this sort of quick reading and evaluating holistically is something pupils rarely do: for many of them, reading a non-fiction article is only ever about an agonising search for rhetorical questions or identifying good link phrases to answer some questions on it that are, at the end of the day, pretty random. The teachers seem to get stuck into it, and I manage to get three tweets out of six groups (you lot in the other groups, I’m still waiting! Remember – @raymondsoltyek). All in all, it’s an exercise that works really well, and many of them say they’ll be using the activity with their classes.

We then take a look at Numeracy in English. The Using Numbers to Persuade resource looks at what, to me, is key when considering how we integrate Numeracy into the English curriculum: that is, the interaction between numbers and words, and how we use language to express numbers for different purposes. Basically, it’s based on the premise that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Pupils trawl the internet for stats to support their arguments, never really questioning how those stats are presented to them or what the agenda behind that presentation might be. Do they consider the difference between a statement that says that “barely half agree with X” and “a clear majority agree with X”, when the figure in both cases might be 51%? Can they interpret the difference in tone wrought by phrases such as “as much as a third”, “hardly a third”, “fully 30%” or “only 3 in ten”? I think this is where some really productive work can be done.

So the final task of the first session is to write press releases from different pressure groups on statistics issued to them. This, of course, allows us to investigate the whole notion of press releases and pressure groups, what they do and how they try to persuade us. Using the same statistics, they must argue that immigration controls should be eased or tightened up, they must argue prison sentences should be more lenient or more harsh, they must argue that clean air legislation isn’t doing enough or is moving too fast. It’s a difficult exercise that they find really challenging, but it can easily be adapted for less able groups. And the beauty of it is that, in a time of 24 hour news, it’s a real world exercise; a friend of mine from Glasgow Writers’ Group writes freelance, and she regularly has to come up with an article on something she knows nothing about in a matter of hours.

After a break, the groups look at three further resources, examining their use in providing formative feedback to exemplar essays in three areas: global structure, sectional structure and close structure. The resources on global structure are, I feel, the best in the package. Taking the lead from group discussion skills teaching, it looks at the Proposing – Refuting cycle as a means of structuring argument.

I think we sometimes pay too much attention to giving pupils rules and roles in group discussion, as if stipulating that everyone must take a turn or that Craig is the Chairperson and Jamie the Reporter somehow ensures that the pupils will then know how to discuss. Of course they absolutely don’t. What is necessary is that they acquire a metacognition of the behaviours exhibited in a discussion: that is, they are able to differentiate between those interventions where they propose an idea, where they question an idea, where they refute an idea. When they understand these behaviours, we can then help them build up a repertoire of language that enables them to engage in these behaviours; they know what to say when they build on a point, and how that differs from the language they would use to refute that point.

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Naomi Klein

An analysis of a fantastic Naomi Klein article, “Looting with the lights on”, exemplifies the cycle used in writing. For those of you who don’t know Klein’s work, her breakthrough book, “No Logo”, is perfect to get young people furious about the way they are manipulated by the market and how their self-image is defined by advertising and branding. It’s brilliant. And if you want to read an excoriating analysis of capitalism’s use of war and disaster to extend its tentacles into every human being’s way of life, read “The Shock Doctrine”.

But of course, writing need not follow the cycle slavishly. The key here is that we build a sense of coherence in the pupils’ writing. I remember, to my shame, relying on a “make three points for, one point against” structure to teach persuasive writing. All that does is produce bitty, disconnected writing that is superficial and trite. Here, pupils are encouraged to think about the structural flow of an essay. Having made a point, what do they want to do next? Support it with further explanation? Build on it by introducing other ideas, facts or statistics? Question it by posing some problem scenario? Or refute it by making a convincing case for its inapplicability in certain situations? And if they refute the point, what then are they going to re-propose in its place? What happens is they begin to think about the progression of ideas throughout their writing, ensuring that there is cognitive linkage rather than just a surface level technical linkage. I think it’s extraordinarily powerful.

Having provided rich, formative feedback on the exemplar essays through the prism of the particular skills they examined, teachers then shared their feedback with each other. A couple observed that their feedback was very different but agreed this was a good thing. Rather than holistic – and probably sometimes quite anodyne – comments at the end of essays that amount to little more than ‘improve your structure’, the teachers found they were giving detailed and specific guidance: “This section might be improved by using an anecdote to illustrate your point”. It seemed to be a success.

Sally has offered to coordinate some feedback on the materials as the year progresses; that will be really interesting, and give me a real flavour of any tangible improvements that arise as a result of using these materials as they are meant to be used. In the meantime, if you’d like me to do a similar session for your school or authority, by all means e-mail me at raymond.soltysek@strath.ac.uk . Interestingly, a Geography teacher, Kenny (who was a former Educational Studies student of mine and who admits to kicking my shins at 5-a-side football) also comes along, and says he found a lot of it very relevant for the upper stages of Social Subjects. I’d love to investigate that, so by all means if you think persuasive techniques would help you deliver certain aspects of your SS courses, get in touch. Interdisciplinarity in action!

WordFoto plenaries in History
Original WordFoto image

I was recently given an iPad to develop its uses in the history department as the resident geek! I have had my own for the last year and could see so many positives to enhance the learning experience. I love the ideas of word clouds and saw some great uses at TLAB13 in John Mitchell’s workshop. (@jivespin) I was inspired to see what was out there and found WordFoto. This is great to use in so many ways and when you only have 1 iPad in a classroom. It is an iphone app and isn’t free but I am happy I will get value for money out of it.

My year 7′s have been studying castles but with so much interesting stuff they were having trouble selecting what they considered important. For a really quick and easy plenary I had selected 6 pictures of the castles we had used in a chronology starter activity. The students had to work on their tables to select a picture and write 10 words about what they have learned. You can put up to 12 characters on a line so we cheated extra words e.g. Motte&Bailey. Whilst the students were packing up I put in their words and voila could show them on the IWB before they left.

They loved it and were discussing whose looked best on their way out of class. I had a box of transparencies, which I had recently used for printing scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry to draw on the windows, so thought I would print them off. The finished product looks great but would be better in colour like the originals. The year 7′s have been discussing who picked the best words and castle. I have printed smaller versions for them to stick in their books which is great for the visual learners among them.

The possibilities are endless and I am going to use them next with GCSE political cartoons but I think I might need some more windows!

Carol Stobbs @littlestobbsy