‘Pealite Planning’ Part Two

A review of the textbook in light of the associated scheme of work and resources. Part one of the review can be found here: click.

I must point out, before any further critique, that Robert Peal has been extremely generous in sharing his resources and schemes of work. These are an excellent, and helpful contribution, of resources, which must be utilised critically and judiciously.

In my first post, I was critical of the comprehension style questions, and how they do not encourage students to think hard about the material. Peal does go somewhat further with his schemes of work, where each lesson of reading from the book is followed up with some written tasks. These questions, such as ‘what can a historian learn about the response to the Gunpowder Plot from a Dutch engraving?’ are likely to provoke deeper thinking and the writing process itself, I’d contend, also encourages students to ‘do something’ with the information.

These written tasks are, as this question implies, often linked to a discussion surrounding historical sources. These sources are grounded in discussions of their role and purpose in learning about the period and how they might be of value to historians. As such, Peal’s schemes of work imply that there is some engagement with the concept of using historical evidence, and this is the start of students beginning to consider how our historical knowledge can only be provisional in nature. One would have to be in the lessons to see how far Peal develops these ideas, but there is no reason why Peal’s resources should not lead to individual teacher’s doing so in their own classrooms.

Collins has also published free ‘teacher guides’ to accompany each of the textbooks. Within these, teachers are directed towards “thinking deeper” questions. These should be for all students, but at least these too encourage students to work up their historical knowledge from the raw chronicle they are provided with in the textbooks.

What troubled me here though, in these teacher guides, were the “suggested activities” to accompany each lesson. Take these two activities, which accompany the lesson on James I and the Gunpowder Plot, as an example:

  • Complete a storyboard of the Gunpowder Plot, giving an illustrated narrative of the series of events.
  • Further research the claims some people have made that the Gunpowder Plot was – to some extent – a hoax, and debate whether this could or could not be true.

 

I was surprised to see these tasks, from a knowledge-rich, anti-progressive teacher such as Peal. The idea of “complete a storyboard” isn’t particularly historical, and I’m not sure how far it is going to encourage students to really probe the significance of the gunpowder plot. I think this speaks to the lack of a genuine progression model across the textbook series. Whilst this lesson hangs under the banner of a chapter on the English Civil War, there’s no connection between the reigns of James I and Charles I. Here, we have missed a trick, and we’re lacking historical depth. It is also worth mentioning that Louis Everett didn’t mention that any further activities were a regular feature of the “reading” lessons during his presentation at the West London Free School history conference.

Peal is also very strong here on directing students towards more precise sources, and there are links to tasks where students are encouraged to read more academic history. Teachers will want to take the very clearly referenced materials and integrate them into a curriculum model with greater coherence. I have generated the impression, from the range of examples provided in the schemes of work, and from the conference, that the works of historians are primarily confined to homework reading. There is another missed trick here, in that it would perhaps be valuable to integrate historical debates with the lesson materials. I have written on the merits of doing so elsewhere on this blog, and one suspects this might also go some way towards helping students to understand that the textbook provides an interpretation rather than the interpretation.

In short, the schemes of work and Peal’s broader range of resources merit further exploration and any teacher looking at the textbooks must combine the two. However, there remain limitations to this package which will be addressed in one final post.

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‘Pealite Planning’ Part One

A review of Robert Peal’s textbook series

I have seen some glowing reviews on Twitter and some strong criticism of Robert Peal’s ‘knowing history’ series of textbooks. I have used these books to plug a few gaps in my teaching, since attending the West London Free School history conference. However, it was when planning a series of lessons, namely on the causes of the English Civil War, that I felt genuinely motivated to write up my experiences of using his books. They have their strengths, and I think they do a job well. Criticism needs to be recalibrated, and more properly set against their strengths. I aim to address the quality of the books in this blog post, and will follow up with how my views are enhanced when they are put in the context of Peal’s schemes of work before finally considering gaps within this bigger picture.

The Books

My initial reaction to the books was, and remains, that they are excellent. I have been looking for a solid textbook that offers me a ‘lump of text’ to work with for quite some time. My deputy head, and fellow history teacher, even took a tour in our 1970s archive to find materials that offered us a knowledge-rich source of information to base our lessons off of. For this, they must be applauded. Too many textbooks lack this. They are crowded with sources, which are impossible to weave into the text and certainly do not enhance students’ understanding of history as a discipline. I am thinking, in particular here, of the various SHP books such as Contrasts and Connections.

My reservations about the books echo some of Alex Ford’s concerns. The language is ambitious. Too ambitious. I agree that it should be ambitious, and pitched high. However, I teach in a grammar school and, in places, the students are needing to refer to the knowledge organiser and a dictionary too often and it distracts from the overall narrative.

I imagine Peal might counter with the suggestion that students can still grasp the true narrative and the core of events whilst reading aloud. While this might help students to navigate the trickier language, I’m not a fan of reading aloud. I’ve never been convinced that it helps students to internalise the narrative, and to think about it.  David Didau has explained that getting students to follow along with a text, while it is read aloud, can be problematic. While Didau argues that reading aloud does aid comprehension for students with weaker literacy, once can’t help but suspect they would be overwhelmed with the difficulty of these texts. It would be interesting to see some research on this, and how much unfamiliar vocabulary can be navigated within a piece of text before students’ working memories are overloaded.

One of my other reservations was the interpretations that are offered within the text. As suggested above, I was teaching a series of lessons on the causes of the English Civil War. There isn’t any context on how Charles I’s problems with parliament can be traced back to James I’s relationship. In fact, James I only gets a mention in the book as part of the Gunpowder Plot. This disappointed me, and still left me needing to supplement the materials in the book with my own resources.

This isn’t a problem. But, where teachers are claiming that they can plan very quickly, and the books are being advertised as knowing history, the fact that we’re not getting the full story or a sense that it is just that, an interpretation which lays most of the problems at Charles I’s door, this is slightly problematic. The problem here lay more with the teachers claiming to use the book. I feel that the books have a lot to offer, if they’re used in a critical way, with teachers who don’t outsource their planning. Their value is only enhanced by Peal’s generous contribution of resources on his website, which I shall address in my next post.

My other issue relates to the ‘comprehension questions’. Asking five comprehension questions at the end of a large block of text is no indication of how far students are able to comprehend the information presented. Nor will it aid memory retention. I’m tempted to start recalling Willingham’s mantra that “memory is the residue of thought” and the questions on each double page spread do not encourage any thought. What I have done, is I have asked students to do a variety of things with the text. The following three are somewhat typical of my practice:

  • Asking students to “reduce” each paragraph to a one sentence summary. This can elicit whether students have understood the most important part of the text.
  • Asking students to “transform” the text into an image, leaning on the idea of “dual coding”.
  • Asking students to “prioritise” the most useful sentence for understanding a particular idea.

I believe this is better than asking comprehension questions, which do not encourage students to actively use the information. Look at this task which shows how easy it is to extract information and answer comprehension questions without having to assemble meaning.

 

 

In my next post I shall address how this can be taken further, in light of Robert Peal’s schemes of work.

 

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?

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.

WLFS History Conference – Part Three

Narratives are Complex

You can find a guide to my three posts, and other people’s reviews here.

The session that I took most from was probably Vartan Tamizian’s session on historical narratives. Unfortunately, my journey here started from the “narrative analysis” questions in the Edexcel GCSEs. However Vartan very usefully fused my thinking, which to this point had remained compartmentalised into separate silos in my head: historical frameworks, which I have been working on for my MA, and narrative accounts in history. This, I think, demonstrates the value of these conferences. One of my colleagues in RS perhaps puts it best, by suggesting that there are no new ideas in teaching, but it can be valuable to be reminded of them.

Vartan’s session was typical of the day, in that it had both strong connections with existing historical discourse, with a wealth of references to literature-review level research and to academic history. I was hooked from the outset. Participants were given a wealth of examples of how narratives are used across the curriculum. One idea I particularly liked was at GCSE, where students produce a “living document”, a narrative of their course so far that they review and update in each school holiday. These narratives serve as excellent revision tools, as well as being quick diagnostic tools for the teacher. Narratives can be used to embed knowledge; the Michaela school have said much on the power of ‘stories’ to develop memory.

In many ways, Vartan was perhaps preaching to the converted. The real value in the session came in how to construct historical narratives. I look forward to trying these ideas out in the classroom, but the clear distinction drawn between actors in history, and external events (“happenings”) seems an obvious and valuable way of breaking down the process of generating narratives.

Robert Tombs

Narratives are inherently complex. One of the challenges of delivering narratives to students is that we need to problematise them. History is too readily abused. Students too easily seize on parts of narratives that fit their existing world-view, their prejudices and discard the rest if they are not taught how to challenge the narrative (Howson 2009). This would involve the clear teaching of different historical interpetations. In light of this, I have wrestled with some elements of Robert Tombs’ closing lecture. It seems to have been an exceptionally popular part of the day, so I write this with some trepidation. But the idea that teaching an English narrative of history struck me as somewhat troubling. Tombs was very deliberate in drawing on the rise of Mary Seacole in history, as a cautionary tale and an example of why we should perhaps return to a more traditional curriculum. It was not clear that the Seacole myth has already been thoroughly debunked. I wasn’t always entirely clear on how far Tombs was echoing Counsell in the morning session. Counsell had passionately reminded us that “to challenge the canon, we must teach the canon” (Christine clearly read my most recent MA essay…!). Was this Tombs’ message too? I felt that it was, on balance, but the very deliberate point of excluding new minority histories was perhaps bristled within the more nuanced points that were being communicated.

 

I would like to think that the narrative of the day was one of knowledge, and providing the necessary disciplinary knowledge to make it powerful. We can all agree that the day revolved around a committed group of history teachers, wrestling with the complexity of their subject, facilitated by an excellent subject team at the West London Free School.

 

Roll on next year’s conference Louis! And St. Totteringham’s Day

Reference

Howson, J, ‘Potential and pitfalls in teaching ‘big pictures’ of the past’, Teaching History, 136, (2009).

 

WLFS Conference – Part Two

The WLFS approach to the history curriculum

Part One can be found here.

It was a pleasure to attend a session led by the head of department, Louis Everett. His session was an excellent blend of confidence in his department, but humility to invite collaboration and critique from colleagues. The session invites a few questions, but perhaps offers a template for departments to follow more broadly.

Louis sees the purpose of the KS3 curriculum as providing the residual knowledge that would be needed at KS4. Indeed, he mentioned several times the themes, and the links that he teases out across the 11-18 curriculum. This very much built on Counsell’s reminded that first-order concepts like parliament, heresy, the church etc are reinforced by being revisited in a number of different contexts.

Louis has also led his department to take quite a strong stance on feedback. Individual comments are not written on pupils’ work. Instead, pupils work is given codes which relate to comments that are delivered as part of whole class feedback. This strikes me as sensible and an approach to feedback that is spreading. I’m not yet ready to abandon individual written feedback yet though; it has a time and a place and I wasn’t sure that it had been entirely dispensed with at the WLFS.

Attached to this, both Louis and his colleague, Vartan Tamizian, referred to the wonders of a piece of software called ‘Show My Homework’, something I’ve made a note to look into further. I’d be grateful anybody can elaborate on the virtues, or indeed the pitfalls, of this.

The other message emerging from Robert Peel and Louis’ sessions was the rigid structures relating to homework. Homework tasks alternate week by week, where fortnightly students are set a ‘self-quizzing’ homework from their knowledge organisers and in the other week they read a piece of academic history. I’m keen to unpack this a little more.

Firstly, I like the use of knowledge organisers. Christine had rightly raised a few questions about their use in her morning lecture and I have blogged about their complexity previously. We cannot rely on them as pupils having genuine historical knowledge, and more research needs to be done into how they can be most effectively support the acquisition of historical knowledge. However the strong routines, high expectations and clear guidance on the knowledge required an only be good for pupils.

In terms of using historical scholarship, I’m keen to learn more about the WLFS’ approach. Rachel Foster also ran a session on this, which I may blog on at a later date when I have discussed with my colleague what he was able to extract from the session. I imagine her work was very similar to her chapter in Debates in History Teaching. Louis rightly mentioned the importance of helping students to make sense of this literature and I hope the WLFS engages with teachers to share their sterling work in this area. I wasn’t convinced by the suggestion that centralised detentions freed up enough time for staff to read sufficient academic history and maintain their subject knowledge. I have mentioned previously, on Twitter, how important it is that we share accessible, rich and valuable sections of text as a history teaching community to save us the time of researching material further.

I particularly enjoyed Jim Carroll’s session, which gave us one idea on how we might use historians’ writing as a model to aspire to with our sixth form students. His approach is an interesting one, which can be read about more fully in Teaching History. One participant in the session did question the virtues of writing with a more dense, complex style. This was a valid question, and teachers need to think through carefully precisely which aspects of pupils’ writing we might want to develop. Jim’s point was a clear one though, that we can improve pupil’s history by improving their historical writing and there is a growing body of literature out there to help teachers with this.

I aim to follow up with one, possibly two, further posts to review the other workshops I attended.

WLFS Conference – Part One

Knowledge is not an end in itself

The West London Free School history conference was an excellent opportunity to discuss a knowledge-rich approach to history teaching. I have often valued a truism presented by Mike Hughes to an INSET session I attended in my NQT year, that any task is only as good as the quality of the dialogue it provokes. It is with this in mind that one should think about this conference. While I may evaluate the ideas presented in a series of blog posts, the conference as a whole was excellent in promoting discussions between history colleagues, expanding the horizons of many of them. Lunchtime* was characterised by colleagues discussing what they could, should and would take back with them to their own departments.

The day started with a curious introduction from head teacher Hywel Jones. It is always good to see a senior leadership team supporting staff in their extracurricular endeavours and it was clear from the outset that there is a clear philosophy engrained throughout the school. The message was a strong one, that knowledge was valued in this school and passing on a knowledge-rich curriculum was vital to students’ success. It was for Christine Counsell to introduce a bit of nuance on the precise role of knowledge and importance of knowledge in the curriculum.

I do not intend to summarise the contents of Christine’s speech in full. I will, however, point out the key messages that I took away.

  • Christine had an important point to make about humility. I think this is important in the context of the current pedagogical debates taking place through blogs and on Twitter. Many straw men are being set up, heinous schools out there which deny students’ knowledge. I am not sure how far that is true, not in 2017 at least. Concrete evidence would be welcome. Certain commentators could take heed of this note of humility.
  • Assessment theory has been absent thus far from recent debates on knowledge. So far as it has been discussed, it has been in a limited way and brought back into fashion low-stakes testing. I have always been keen to remind my own students, particularly those preparing for external assessments, that those tests take a sample of students’ domain knowledge which needs to be built up over time. The upshot is that we need to be laying the foundations of knowledge, and the tools for manipulating it, over time.
    • Christine helpfully reminded us of ‘timeline tests’ where students need to plot their knowledge, in chronological order, to reach a threshold standard before taking a summative test. These ideas are not new, but a valuable reminder. Whilst submerged in curriculum reform at KS4 and KS5 it is easy to forget such basics.
  • This speech also helpfully distilled recent cognitive psychology on knowledge and its role in learning. Students need ‘fingertip’ knowledge to help support more advanced, second-order thinking (a theme that was not as prevalent during the day as it could have been). Once students have used and deployed that knowledge, they are left with “residue knowledge”. Recent work on knowledge organisers, I think, has taken quite a short-termist approach and my sense was that the WLFS put more emphasis on what “residue knowledge” we want students to have in five years and perhaps ten years after their schooling. It was at this point in Christine’s speech that I reflected on Fordham’s post on what knowledge is cumulatively sufficient; what is the relationship between the little details and the big picture? As a history community, our debates could be infused with more of this thinking and language.
  • The expression “cumulative assessment” was used, but not really elaborated upon. This too is perhaps important. I would contend that we want students’ residual knowledge to be a broad, overarching framework of the past. Students should be able to see the broad arcs of change in history, and analyse those. Not only were frameworks of knowledge** not discussed, but cumulative assessments seem as though they might be a useful step towards constructing them.

 

* I live my life through my stomach, and thoroughly enjoyed the lunch offering! An excellent effort by the school’s catering team.

**I use the expression in a Shemiltian sense. See Nick Dennis’ blog for a brief introduction to frameworks of the past.