Launching an in-school ‘research group’

Step Two: Planning the First Session

I have found planning our first session a rewarding experience. Using the goals I set for the group in its infancy, I undertook the following journey in planning the session.

  1. Finding some literature

    I knew that I wanted to discuss a piece of research in our first session, to model the process of engaging with research as a teacher and to broaden the source of new ideas that our teaching staff access. Using Fordham’s helpful ‘index’ of useful sources, I went in search of an article that was short, accessible and would spark a discussion with colleagues.

    I eventually settled upon an article on retrieval practice which seemed to fit the bill. This article seemed valuable in that it offers a clear and easily accessible method and Smith’s conclusions are communicated clearly. I am therefore hoping that it should spark some useful discussions among colleagues on the extent to which we might be able to replicate the findings in our own context and how we might apply the lessons to our teaching practice. As a short article, and one written by a fellow teacher, it should not be too threatening to colleagues.

  2. Finding a way into the literature

    I am perhaps imposing my own preconceptions onto my colleagues, but I felt that the world of research might sound daunting and alien to them at first. I therefore want to begin our session by unpacking our ideas of what educational research might look like and where we might find it. I have compiled a list of sources, built in part upon Fordham’s ‘index’ as above, and will point colleagues in the direction of the Learning Scientists It is important not to overwhelm colleagues, who are time-pressed, with a range of sources. Whilst presenting a range of sources, I also intend to discuss with colleagues why they are interested in the research group in the first place, and explore the site to see what we can find that might be useful to them.

    I’m also keen to share the four ‘approaches’ to reading research that I have been given by my own MA tutors and the history team at the Institute of Education. To suggest that some read new teaching ideas as if they are unchallengeable scripture, and something that must be applied to every lesson: a universal truth. Others passively engage with literature and new ideas as if they are a manual to be replicated exactly in their own lessons. Both approaches have a place, but we want to use literature as a spark, to consider how we might adapt ideas to our own context or even joust with ideas, based on our own experiences, to identify what does not work for our particular students. We want to ensure that we’re mostly taking the latter two approaches, critically engaging with literature, rather than accepting it without much thought.

  3. Finding a way back out of the literature

    I’m hoping to capitalise on the interests of participants to build up some momentum with this research group. I’m therefore keen to get colleagues to generate some valid questions of their own, which they might take further and engage in some critical research around. This might take place independently, or it might be done within the group in a future session. As part of my internet search, casting around for ideas, I came across this set of slides from a ResearchED talk on PICO questions. I will therefore invite colleagues to generate some questions of their own, and hope that I have sewn some seeds of curiosity and laid the foundations for our next session.

I will update the blog after the session, to critically evaluate how it has gone. Anybody interested in the materials used in the session, or to chew the cud further, are invited to get in touch by commenting below or sending me an email: wdv@dartfordgrammargirls.kent.sch.uk

Starting an in-school ‘research group’

Step One: Setting some parameters

This is much less of a manual, and much more of a documentary of my efforts to get a group started in school. In the first instance, it must be said that the EduJournalClub website and guidance given by Beth G-G, Tom Bennett and Dan Sabato have been invaluable.

I was first tasked with running this group back in September, and given a rather far off date of Wednesday 1st February for the first session. Naturally, I made very few plans being somewhat busy with my own MA level research. Before Christmas, I felt it was important to check with the Senior Leadership Team what it was they expected from the session, to ensure that it was able to fulfil their wish list and the school’s broader vision for the development of the teaching staff. As befits our school’s approach to CPD, I was given quite a blank canvas.

Some contextual detail might be valuable here. Our school’s CPD model revolves around a series of ‘professional learning groups.’ Each of these is built upon our school’s five teaching priorities. Staff opt into one of the groups, which meet regularly, to discuss one new habit that they wish to develop in their teaching. Within a supportive group, some input is given by an expert, some literature is discussed among the group and how the habit is being developed, and with what success, is discussed among colleagues who offer helpful advice.

I see my ‘research group’ as something of an extension to this model, for those that want to get hardcore with their consultation of the literature. I largely see the group as an action-research group, which reinforces the school’s ultimate goal of having a reflexive teaching staff.

I have also had to think carefully about what is realistically possible given the nature and regularity of the sessions:

  1. I have only been assigned three twilight sessions to get this group off of the ground. I must prove the viability of this group and pitch for more time in the next academic year.
  2. Given the school’s personalised nature of CPD, and the range of differentiated options in the schools’ development programme, the group will need to be attractive to earn members. No teacher will be attending because they ‘need to make up the hours’.
  3. How much research can a group of teachers engage with in a one hour session after school?

 

I have therefore devised a series of, hopefully realistic, goals and principles around which I shall plan our first session, which I will blog about when I get around to planning it.

  1. To expose teachers to a range of ideas about teaching beyond the staple diet given in the existing CPD programme.*
  2. To encourage staff to think critically about how they engage with new teaching ideas, however they are presented.
  3. To encourage a model of critical evaluation of new teaching ideas within our particular context.
  4. To encourage teaching staff to take an ownership over their own CPD and reflect on the process of improving their pedagogy.

* Dan Sabato has helpfully suggested that a mixture of blog posts, TED talks and research abstracts are a realistic and desirable mix. I’m hoping Michael Fordham’s blog-post on useful ways into research for teachers might also prove useful in planning.

The Challenges of Teaching Medieval History to KS3

The teaching of Medieval history is fraught with many issues for a history teacher, like myself. My background in history is very much focussed on events post-1700. I am from a ‘Modern World’ lineage, in terms of my own GCSE learning as well as teaching and my A-level course is based in the twentieth century. My attempts to study medieval history at university were blocked by some very poor teaching. Therefore my knowledge and understanding of this period of history is relatively poor. I have yet to find a sequence of lessons in which I can be confident, that genuinely inspire students, that gives them a sense of period and challenges their deficit view of the past, which is all too easily reinforced by the simplistic teaching of this period which takes place.

I am pleased to say that this is an evolving situation. I have learned a lot, researching in depth to support my Key Stage Three teaching. I was particularly fascinated when I investigated the Magna Carta and invited Professor Nick Vincent of UEA to speak at our school’s annual humanities charity lecture in 2015. The unhappy consequence of this, though, has been that my teaching has become somewhat unwieldy. I spend an excessive number of lessons which I shall outline below which needs paring back. I cannot sustain this number of lessons, within the confines of a two-year Key Stage Three. What will follow will be a series of blog posts on how I attempt to redesign this section of our curriculum, and I very much want the rest of the history teaching community to offer up some suggestions on how to develop this work.

Topic (approx. number of lessons) Conceptual Focus
How did William, Duke of Normandy manage to conquer England? (4) Causation – covering events leading up to the Battle of Hastings.
Did the Normans transform England? (3) Change & Continuity
What was life like on the Manor? (5) Diversity (Similarity & Difference) with a particular focus on peasant life.
Does the Magna Carta really matter? (3) Significance
What did Wat Tyler do when he met the King? (3-4) Evidence – I have managed to use an excellent Katharine Burn enquiry sequence from my PGCE here.
Should we teach Medieval Islam in KS3 history? (7) Significance – first conceived when Gove was designing his own triumphalist British History curriculum.

 

If anybody would like any of these existing lessons/enquiry sequences, then they are more than welcome to get in touch.

I am dissatisfied with this sequence. There is nothing, quite obviously, on the case of Thomas Becket or The Wars of the Roses. I was also minded to make a thing out of the Luttrell Psalter after Michael Fordham’s inspiring post on the importance of certain sources and how they should be deployed in the classroom (and indeed in assessments). The crusades are only cursorily mentioned in sequence on the achievements of the Islamic Empire.

Ideally, I would be able to secure a clearer overview of the Middle Ages, whilst maintaining the number of lessons taken up to no more than 24.

I’ll begin addressing this problem by reading a little more about the teaching of others, and report back here. I hope to model a reflexive style of teaching to new history teachers and provide a hub for thinking on this subject. In the meantime, other glaring omissions in my curriculum, or suggestions of what must feature should be passed on. Any ‘final product’ in terms of new lessons and SoW will be gladly shared.

‘Knowledge’ Organisers in History

Recent writing on knowledge organisers has got me thinking. I find their name somewhat perplexing, and the discussions on their use too simplistic.

The first thing that strikes me is that we need to be flexible with their use. I also believe that teachers are, and that critics like Sue Cowley, fail to understand their nuances.  These are not given to students as before teaching, and students asked to memorise them out of context. My standard practice is, however, to give them to students before teaching commences. The process of constructing the documents is valuable, in pinning down precisely what I want all students to know, as recommended by Joe Kirby. Students are asked to learn them before the teaching but this is not to strip the teaching of its wonder. Quite the contrary. When students spend less time remembering who a historical figure is, they are able to free up their working memory to consider why they are of significance. Once they know the order of events, they can consider more deeply within the lesson why they took place in the order that they did and the connections between them.

Perhaps this demonstrates the point that these documents need to be part of a broader package of teaching. Sometimes they would be more valuable given after a sequence of lessons, and that is where the professional judgement of the teacher comes in. They cannot become ‘cramming documents’ because this will not aid long-term memory. As part of a broader package of teaching, students are able to make sense of the terms, and individuals and their importance, and this will also aid long-term memory. I fear that this dimension has been missed. I can find little, to nothing, for example on what a typical Michaela history lesson looks like. Hopefully the teaching itself contextualises the information, and this discussion of the information will also support students’ memory.

You may also have noticed that I have referred to them as “these documents” and that is for a good reason. In the context of history, it would not be fair to call them ‘knowledge organisers’. Historical knowledge is not a series of facts, or a well organised set of dates (this, would, of course be a simple chronicle), and the information needs to be brought to life by the second-order concepts. The ‘teasing up’ of knowledge over time is a murky business, a challenging balance between ‘facts’ and conceptual frameworks and discussions about knowledge organisers need to remember this. We might also consider re-naming them. Or giving some dimension to them, in history, where they might also support students’ conceptual understanding too.