Thinking Aloud

What do we want students to know about the middle ages?

My review of what I teach about the middle ages continues at a glacial pace. There are so many different angles from which to approach curriculum planning it is hard to settle down and make a start.

Michael Fordham Fordham suggests that one approach might include generating a list of essay style-questions. Perhaps 100 for Key-Stage Three. What might these questions read, uniquely, for the Middle Ages? I concur with Fordham that there needs to be a transition between the Middle Ages and the developing ‘Early Modern’ period post-1485. There might be questions that explicitly refer to this and indeed the full Millennia wide teaching of the key stage. But what of the Middle Ages alone?

My thinking has also been shaped by discussions surrounding ‘fingertip’ knowledge and ‘residual knowledge’. In light of my recent reading of Making Good Progress? the idea of planning for what students must know in the long-run, what we want the residual knowledge to be, seems to be a valuable starting point for planning. This would then need to be integrated with the disciplinary knowledge that students should be expected to pick up through the way that this historical content is taught.

When thrashing out what ‘residual knowledge’ we want pupils to have in the future, we need to have an eye on the next chapter of the story. I remain of the view that pupils need to be able to orient themselves in time, they should have a basic chronological overview in their head. This will involve frequent comparisons between historical periods to pinpoint their unique properties. This would hopefully generate a ‘chronological compass’ for pupils as well as giving some narrative logic to the development of Britain over the last thousand years or so.

With all of these considerations in mind, might I propose the following goals for teaching Medieval history, as something of a starting point. I certainly intend to refine these, and populate them with more specific historical content, that should hopefully fulfil these aims. That is the next question: what knowledge of the middle ages is ‘cumulatively sufficient’ to meet these goals?

 

Some goals for teaching medieval history:

Students should know that:

  • The Church, the King and the Nobility competed for power ‘at the top.’
  • England’s peasants lived complex lives & contested for power themselves
  • Power, wealth and ideas in England were shaped by events outside of her own borders*
  • There are few sources available for life in the Middle Ages. Much information has been extracted from few particular sources.
  • The Middle Ages’ legacy is joined up to events in the Early Modern period and indeed to life today.

*In proposing this, my thinking is shaped very much by Robert Winder’s superb Bloody Foreigners. I am painfully aware that my subject knowledge here is not what it should be. There are, therefore, likely to be gaps which I hope readers will fill.

This knowledge could perhaps be framed in the following essay-style questions:

  1. What was the role and influence of the Church in Medieval England?
    1. To what extent did it change?
  2. Who really governed Medieval England?
  3. How fair is it to speak of a ‘typical peasant experience?’
  4. How do historians know about life in the Middle Ages?
  5. How was England shaped by its invasions?
  6. What event served to change Medieval England the most?
  7. What feature of the Middle Ages has left the strongest legacy?
  8. What marks the Early Modern Period as distinct to the Middle Ages?

 

These questions might then be added to and adapted after considering what events, knowledge and sources are essential and what content we might be more selective about, but might add up to sufficient answers to these questions.

So. Three questions to be getting on with:

  • Is this a valid approach to curriculum design?
  • Are these goals comprehensive and historically valid for teaching the Middle Ages at KS3?
  • What knowledge of the Middle Ages is independently necessary and cumulatively sufficiently to meet these goals?
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Using Comparative Judgement

Some practical reflections on its use in practice

I was first made aware of Comparative Judgement as a method of assessment last year, through one of David Didau’s informative blogposts. I had always meant to get around to using it, but was put off by a fear of using technology. I have regularly compared scripts when awarding marks, and have on occasion sought to put together some sort of order before being brought back to the use of nomoremarking.com by my Deputy Head, and fellow A-level history teacher, to mark some Y12 mock essays.

Having had some new, functional photocopiers installed with a scanning function, I was willing to press ahead. I shall outline the process below for the uninitiated and then offer a simple evaluation of its value below. I’ll probe these thoughts more deeply later in the week.

The Process

  1. Scan in the exam scripts. Really easy if you have a ‘scan to USB’ function on your photocopiers. I’ve become a dab hand at this. You’ll want to use an easy code (like P12 for the twelfth student in 8P) to name the files, rather than perhaps typing in all of their names. Each essay/piece of work needs to be scanned separately. It took me about 15 minutes to scan in 46 sixth form mock scripts.
  2. Upload the scripts to a new task on nomoremarking.com which is free to use.
  3. Get judging. It took a Luddite such as myself a little while to find this function. Bizarrely, the web address to access the scripts is located in a section called ‘judges’ but once there you simply click left and right, depending on which script is better in your opinion. Nomoremarking recommends going with your gut and taking less than 30seconds to make a judgement. In practice, this was true of some Y8 essays I’ve compared, but sixth form essays took an average of three minutes to judge.
  4. The data coming in is easy to read. You are provided with a downloadable readout of the rank order of your pupils. It also comes with an ‘Infit’ score to consider which essays the software is less confident in placing. This is often where you have invited multiple judges, and you have perhaps implicitly disagreed on its value.
  5. Apply some marks. I have been less sure of this. However, I’ve read a selection of essays, found some on the level boundaries, applied marks, and then distributed the marks evenly throughout the levels.
    On essays where the Infit score is above 1.0 (indicating unreliable judgements) we’ve had some really interesting discussions about the merits of the essays, what we should be looking for and then manually awarded marks using an exam board mark scheme. I think it is clearly going to be valuable if you bank scripts from year to year with marks you are confident with, and feed them in – this should save time in awarding marks, if you have essays with firm marks already in the mix.

Dare I say it, judging essays has become fun. The clicking gamifies marking and I’m in a scramble to meet my marking quota. we have found that multiplying the number of scripts by 3 to determine the total number of judgements that need to be made, and evenly dividing this up between the team of markers works fine. In practice, essays are being compared against others 8 times there, and we’re achieving a reliability score of over 0.8 which David Didau says is the goal, and in excess of national examinations.

Strengths Weaknesses
Marks are awarded with great confidence, and a reliable set of data on the rank order of class is valuable for a range of accountability measures & considering further interventions. It is difficult to overcome the urge to write individualised comments on essays. Students (and SLT?) need to expect feedback where this isn’t the case. This feeds in with Christodoulou’s recent work on separating out formative & summative assessments.
It’s quick. Doesn’t sound like it, but marking those mocks could easily have consumed 8 days at 15-20 minutes an essay. At 3 minutes an essay, plus scanning, plus determining marks (30 mins when you have no known marks within the judgement process) is significantly quicker. Transforming electronically judged essays into generic feedback for pupils requires careful thought. I’m still refining this.
There is less of a marking bias. Especially if you ask pupils to submit essays with a code (see part one above) rather than naming them. Essays that ‘miss the wash’ are troublesome to reliably fit in the process. This is probably more frustrating rather than the end of the world.
I have thought much more carefully about what I’m really looking for in essays. I think this has led me to be clearer, already, with my classes about how they need to develop their essays. Getting an entire team on board with this might be more difficult than using the software individually. If you’re marking procedure is out of step with other staff, as a head of department, you can still have little confidence in the reliability of marks generated.

 

How I intend to develop my use of comparative judgement further

  • Ask students to highlight key areas of the script. This might involve showing the mark scheme, and asking them to pick out the five sentences they most want the examiner to see. This should speed up comparisons. Before I stuck my first essays through the process, I had already put formative comments on them. These were a useful aid in passing comment.
  • Banking essays for next year with secure marks attached to them. This should eliminate significant amounts of time transforming the rank order into marks.
  • Get students to submit work electronically. I am in the midst of getting KS3 to do this with an outcome task to a unit of work. I’m not sure how valuable this will be. Paper, pen and scanning seems to be less hassle, so far.**
  • Learn what this anchoring business is which seems to be taking comparative judgement to the next level by connecting subsequent pieces of work together. If I get to the bottom of this, I’ll blog on it.

 

Comparative judgement seems to be a valuable tool for making summative judgements on the quality of pupils’ work. It does not replace marking, or feedback but these should be steps on the road towards a final piece of work. This is where the comparative judgement bit fits in.

Your thoughts and questions are invited.

 

** Update – I have now discovered that nomoremarking.com will not accept word documents. They need to be PDF files which throws this plan of mine out of the window.

Why should we share the work of academic historians?

Rachel Foster’s attendance at the WLFS history conference stirred a rather interesting discussion within my own department about the role of academic history in the classroom. Inspired by Foster’s talk, her excellent chapter in Debates in History Teaching, discussions with fellow participants of my MA and our own fertile minds we devised a list of why using academic history in the classroom is valuable. In no particular order, we suggested:

  • To provide the narrative. Historians can compel the interest of students in ways that perhaps we cannot.
  • To provide competing interpretations.*
    • To identify the key debates in history.
    • To explore how historical interpretations are constructed.
  • To model styles of writing, which was the basis of Jim Carroll’s workshop at the WLFS conference.
  • To develop historical reasoning.
  • To judge pieces of academic work. Arthur Chapman has shown me a number of examples where historians have willingly engaged with pupils in debate and assessed their work.
    • To enthuse and motivate students. Diana Laffin has a book club with her sixth formers.

 

There is an entirely different debate to be had, which I will blog on, regarding the limitations of using historical scholarship, and reducing our subject to academic history. History, of course, extends beyond academia.

I am keen to discuss the ‘how’ and ‘why’ use historical scholarship further. But the more important question remains the what. It is perhaps overly optimistic to suggest that more traditional schools, with their claims of quicker lesson planning, and improved behaviour management allows teachers the room to appropriately develop their subject knowledge. I’m perhaps projecting my own shortcomings onto the broader community. But given the age profile of participants in the WLFS history conference, I’d suggest I’m in good company when I say that I’m not on top of all of the historical debates surrounding the topics that we teach in school. There are some killer passages of text out there. Christine used a now well used extract from Simon Schama, “coffee table history” to illustrate a clear argument and style of historical writing. I am most particularly pleased with a section of text that I use from A Concise History of Australia to illuminate for my year nine students what life was like for convicts in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.

There are a range of passages of text just like this. Those that you get an instinctive feel when you’re reading them that they offer you something special. One sentence gets write to the crux of the argument. A turn of phrase that beautifully ties off an entire monograph’s worth of argument. But they are in those entire monographs. One of the strengths of the history teaching community is its size, and its passion for its subject. I have yet to meet two history teachers with identical interests in specialisms. It strikes me that we need to do more to share those ‘killer passages’ when we see them. Those that we can share with students of year seven, or at least aspire to build them up towards. It is laudable the West London Free School sets a piece of academic reading each fortnight. They follow in a fine tradition of history teachers bringing historians into the classroom. However it speaks volumes that the Historical Association does not have a page to draw together these uses of academic history, in the way that it does collate thinking on a range of other curriculum issues.

History teachers are instinctively a sharing bunch. This is clearly seen with the exchange of resources and ideas following conferences such as SHP, and Robert Peal’s online resource collection to accompany his textbook series. We need to begin sharing the way we use historians in the classroom in the way that we do other resources. It would be valuable to crowdsource ways that we facilitate this process. Would one teacher and a dropbox account suffice or do we need a bigger vision?

 

*Ben Walsh gave one of the best lines of the WLFS conference, in suggesting that we do not send twelve-year-olds to fight grizzly bears. We send another grizzly bear. Students should not be evaluating historians’ interpretations but instead seeing how their views differ. This builds on Counsell’s own suggestions that students should ‘hear the shape and style’ of historians’ arguments.