From historical knowledge to a sequence of lessons

I have found this step of planning my A-level history course the most challenging. In some ways, this step could be dispensed with relatively quickly and in quite a simple fashion. The more you know, the more complicated one can make an issue and in my case, decisions can quickly get put off. I hope that this post might encourage beginning teachers to simply make some rapid decisions which can be amended later.

Having developed something of an outline of the course I need to deliver, the next logical step is to start thinking about what the lessons might look like. It is particularly important to consider how much time is available to deliver the course, and thus to start parcelling out time to the various chunks of the course. It seems an increasing rarity that the number of learning hours available matches the ideal amount of time to deliver a course. Other considerations I wanted to make at this stage included thinking about the enquiry questions to use and how to start building in opportunities to connect knowledge over time.

When delivering previous A-level history courses, I have not thought of enquiry questions in quite the same way as I might have done at Key Stage Three. First of all, the enquiries are much shorter, taking the form of a one, two or three lessons rather than unfolding over a longer period of time. This way, a key historical question can be focused on, with a punchy focus on some substantive content and a second-order concept. This second challenge at A-level, particularly it would seem when delivering the thematic approach, has been to ensure that content is delivered in such a way that students could re-formulate the historical events to meet an alternative substantive concept. For example, when teaching about the Liberal social & welfare reforms, the content needs to be taught in such a way that students can later explain the reasons for those reforms, evaluate their effectiveness and analyse their significance. This is hard to capture with just one question so I’ve preferred to either discuss multiple questions within an individual lesson or take a slightly arbitrary approach and offer a big picture overview, and then have students select content from that to match a particular enquiry question.

At this stage of planning the A-level, I have had to remind myself that any lesson overview will be provisional in nature. I know I will need to use the summer term to re-evaluate this plan, as I naturally would, each year, anyway. My two concerns, thus far, have been to put together an order that allocates an approximate amount of time, while thinking about the key questions to arrange the content around as well as sequencing the content.

This task would easily expand to fill the amount of time given over to it, whether that be an hour, a day or a week. I’ve therefore been rather ruthless and would hope that suggesting as much would encourage beginning teachers to have the confidence to do so. I have lent heavily upon one particular textbook, the Oxford University Press book, to sequence the content. I accept that in the first iteration of teaching this will be imperfect. The experience of teaching the course will allow me to tweak the order a little later on. Second of all, any issues arising within the year can be dealt with by planning to periodically review the content and connect it together under the six big themes of the course which can bring further order to the chronological flow of the course.

Dedicating an amount of time to different historical events has also remained something of an arbitrary process. I’ve used my teaching experience to approximate how long to spend on each issue but again, I recognise that a year of experience will encourage me to shrink somethings down and expand others. The tentative overview I’ve come up with can, therefore, be found here: potential lesson sequence. However, I still do not think I’m ready to plan some lessons. There are a couple of individual layers to be added to the plan!

An index to this blog series can be found here.

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Explaining the Blair governments in five diagrams

Teaching using the principles of direct instruction, applied by explaining key content through planned diagrams and a central narrative. 

I have felt that my teaching practice relies upon written text to do too much of the ‘heavy lifting’. Within the classroom, I feel like a wasted resource at times, and then one that is being used inefficiently as I tackle a range of questions and deal with any misconceptions that students come up with. One of my more recent attempts to deal with this, in the Government & Politics classroom, was to deliver a lecture on Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. This proved to be an interesting and viable teaching method, for the sixth form. Despite proving an effective teaching tool, some students said that they did struggle to “sit and listen” for such an extended period of time.

Following our case study of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, I needed to teach students about Tony Blair’s governments, their policy impact and to evaluate Blair’s governing style. Whilst doing so, I also wanted to invest students with a more detailed understanding of the principles of cabinet government and the broader electoral environment. I therefore came up with a lesson which I called ‘Blair in Five Diagrams’.

Step one remained rather similar to my ‘pre-lecture’ lesson with Margaret Thatcher. I cut back the amount of information supplied to two very short case studies, drawn from the course textbook, and a range of policies, actions and achievements of the Blair government which students categorised into a table like the one below.

  Strengths Weaknesses
Governing Style    
Policy Impact    

 

This warmed students up to the main themes of the Blair governments, and I devised five diagrams that I felt would deal with some misconceptions and extend a few key ideas further. The five are suggested below, along with some of the thinking behind them:

  1. Blair and the Use of Sofa Government: Students understanding of the term was a little weak. Students also did not understand the connection between poor government & the Iraq War.
  2. Blair and Brown: Questioning showed students didn’t understand why Brown was able to exercise such power.
  3. Blair and moving power out of Westminster. Students were fixated only on Scotland as an example so I wanted to show power moving to Northern Ireland, Wales, the Bank of England and the People through the Freedom of Information Act.
  4. Blair and John Prescott
  5. Blair, The Centre Ground and a Weak Opposition

 

For those interested in the specifics of what was drawn and explained, please do get in touch and I shall explain further.

I thought my approach would draw on the strengths of my lecture, by providing a clear narrative around the workings of cabinet government, with some carefully planned explanations. I am grateful for the kind of advice on good board work, and pens, provided by Ben Newmark which I kept in mind. I drew up my planned diagrams with the students, rather than supplying them fully drawn. Whilst doing so, I was carefully explaining my thinking aloud. Pausing after each diagram with a period of planned questioning broke up the learning a little more for students than the lecture had done. It also allowed me to check on students understanding and to use a classroom dialogue to work up knowledge.

I had planned for five diagrams. In the room, it felt like the fourth was unnecessary and the fifth had to be shifted over to the next lesson, due to a lack of time. I felt that the lesson worked really well and I think I’d use the same principles again when explaining key concepts. Some of the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson, as I perceived it, are given below:

 

Strengths Weaknesses
·         Drawing and explaining the concepts at the same time appeared to help students grasp

·         Questioning within the lesson and after the lesson suggested that this approach was able to draw on vague ideas students already had and to extend it with sufficient detail. The combination of principle (e.g. cabinet government) and the narrative that a real-life example provided seemed to really aid knowledge acquisition.

·         Questioning during the instruction also allowed me to support students in connecting their new knowledge to what they had before through follow up questioning and challenging misconceptions.

·         Students seemed truly engaged, as they had in the lecture. Though this is not a goal in itself, I think planning for a knowledge rich curriculum that students enjoy is. I took the number of questions that students produce in the lesson and after it as evidence of their learning and enthusiasm for the subject matter.

·         This worked far better than attempts at student presentations of Thatcher and Blair’s governments last year! Students writing is invested with far more technical explanations and a wealth of examples. I am going to give myself some credit for this!

·         I wish I had been more precise in telling students how to make notes. There were a variety of approaches and some, I fear, were too busy trying to write everything down than listening. In future, I’ll experiment with ‘pens down’ during the explanation and providing writing time. Twitter’s Thinking Hard has also suggested leaving any note making and written analysis to after the lesson to make the most efficient use of lesson time.

·         Four or five principles are too many to explain in one lesson. One or two would have been far better. I think I knew this in advance, but I had treated this lesson as a ‘proof of concept’.

·         I’m still not confident on the interplay between pre-reading, direct instruction and follow up consolidation. I think this is me being a little ‘loose’ with my instructions and my focus has been skewed towards planning the direct instruction components and resourcing. Now these are in place, the next teaching needs to think about this sequencing with greater precision.

·         It was an intense lesson to deliver. It is built upon developing my questioning technique and in depth subject knowledge. This isn’t necessarily a weakness, but perhaps places an additional limit on how quickly some teachers might be able change their style in this direction or how many lessons that could be delivered in this way.  

 

How can we change our teaching habits?

Changing how we teach is incredibly difficult. Making any change can be challenging, but it is particularly so in teaching when the lessons keep on coming, and the to do list keeps on expanding. It is therefore vital that we set aside some time to refine our practice and think deliberately about what we wish to change. Time is not something easy for us to come by, but it is worthwhile if we are to change some of our habits to work more efficiently. I have espoused this principle before, on my blog, but I really feel like I am living it this term. I am in a near permanent state of not feeling comfortable. The way I am doing things no longer feels automatic, but more deliberate. Arranging my ‘to do’ list, as I habitually do on a sticky note, is no longer a quick and easy task. Despite this unease, I feel like my teaching is improving and that my deliberate and carefully thought through changes are making a difference. I hope that this post might serve as to generate a few ideas on how our practice can change and how to try to go about it.

 

Here are some of my developing habits:

  1. I am deliberately setting aside some time to review existing lessons that are easily “sufficient” or “good enough”, but are they as good as they could be?
  2. I am not marking anything for the sake of it, something I vowed not to do, among a number of other tasks which are poor uses of time.
  3. I am trying to plan for more explicit instruction of challenging concepts, inspired by Harry Fletcher-Wood’s Responsive Teaching.

How I have attempted to change my working habits:  

  1. Careful planning of time. I am not allowing myself to return to tasks once they are missed. This has made me value the time I get to develop my subject knowledge or review my lessons and prevented me from getting sucked into emails as they appear in my inbox or non-urgent student enquiries. It is counter-intuitive. I thought rapid responses made me look caring and more organised. It can be difficult to ignore non-urgent enquiries, but I have learned to stick to the plan and value what really makes a difference, rather than valuing appearances.
  2. A clear set of priorities and objectives. I have drawn up a list of priorities for my department and my own teaching practice. This allows me to plan concrete tasks to improve in the time that I am routinely setting aside to do so.
  3. Critical evaluation of the changes I’m making. This is breeding confidence. Take for example my decision to put less ink on the page of my students’ work. I have been using questioning to see how far students’ have understood my feedback, and how they intend to implement it in their next piece of writing. So far this has suggested that modelling and comparing their work against exemplar material and integrating it with whole class feedback is effective. I will, obviously, need to continue to monitor this to ensure that it is paying off in students’ work. Setting aside a few minutes at the end of the day to take stock of the changes I’ve made, has left me feeling confident that I’m better able to explain concepts to students.
  4. Prioritising which classes to experiment with new techniques. I have tried to be more explicit in my teaching of concepts and found it has worked very well. However, even with effective time management, I found that I still could not identify where I wanted to offer more detailed explanations or plan ‘back up’ methods of explicit introduction, of the sort identified by Harry Fletcher-Wood and that I wanted to in my recent review of his book. I have started to triage which lessons I will review and identify which ones to invest some time into. This has started to take a pattern of my Y11 lessons and Y8. I think concentrating on these will allow me to more deliberately refine my technique and instruction techniques before this becomes a more consistent feature of all my teaching. I think this will be important. Making a change badly, which is how it started by running out of time and not feeling like I was managing the change, made for some unenjoyable lessons and it was very difficult to evaluate what was working and what wasn’t in my practice.
    I’d always recommend trying things out with a small number of classes or year groups before rolling out changes more widely.

Becoming a responsive teacher: three key lessons from Fletcher-Wood’s ‘Responsive Teaching’

I have written in the past about how I have tried to change my habits as a teacher. I am keen to set out some time to reflect on Harry Fletcher-Wood’s excellent Responsive Teaching, and select some priorities on how I will improve my practice as a teacher and head of department. One of the real strengths of Harry’s book is the clear focus on how teachers can go about implementing the principles he advocates. This is done through a chapter by chapter checklist and more structured guidance on how teachers and leaders at different stages of their career might embark on the process of developing responsive teaching.

I would consider myself a reasonably effective practitioner, but good quality formative assessment sits at the heart of good teaching, and is something I still need to work on. I believe I can teach good quality lessons, and I’ve made some dramatic changes to my formative and summative assessment practices. I could still be much sharper in ensuring that my lessons hang together effectively and that my curriculum as a whole works for every student. It is with this in mind that I have selected three key lessons from Harry’s book, to focus on, for the winter term at least. I will follow each up with a more detailed blogpost, explaining how I have got on and providing some additional tips for other teachers looking to become (more) responsive teachers!

Lesson One: Planning Threshold Concepts

Harry defines threshold concepts as:

  • “Troublesome: difficult to understand
  • Transformative: of a student’s perspective.
  • Irreversible: once learned, they are hard to unlearn
  • Integrative: they show how different ideas are related.
  • Bounded: there are limits to the insight they offer”

I believe that I have improved in specifying what historical knowledge I would like my students to learn. I then assess this, within lessons, in a rather vague and varied fashion. Whilst generating knowledge organisers and the content I’d like to include within my historical enquiries, I still differentiate by outcome, perhaps too much. I will cast feelers out for what students have learned, and I have an intuitive sense of whether I’m happy or not. I think this is too vague. I’d like to be a bit more precise about what I would like to see all students master before I progress the learning on. In this way, I can ensure that my sequences of lessons build upon each other effectively. My current practice lends itself to this well. But I’m worried that my focus is skewed towards more simplistic definitions of knowledge. I need to drill down and identify the threshold concepts in my teaching, and assess these in lessons. I’ll use Harry’s guidance on exit tickets and multiple-choice questions to help me here.

Lesson Two: Rather than planning knowledge, we also need to plan pedagogical content knowledge

I am satisfied that my students are presented with a lot of history, in all three key stages. I have never been concerned that my lessons do not look particularly “fun.” Indeed a collection of senior leaders, head teachers and executive head teachers who observed one of my lessons suggested that the brilliance of my lesson was its very ordinariness. The typical structure of a Valentine lesson involves:

  1. The presentation of some text, including the key knowledge and events I would like students to know.
  2. Some activity involving the processing of this text, by transforming it into a different format.
  3. Some stretching and searching questions based upon the text to probe for understanding.
  4. Applying the knowledge to answer a historical question.

 

I’d welcome feedback on this approach, but I’m quite confident that the principles of an individual lesson are there. However, Harry has made me think that I rely too much on the text to do the heavy-lifting and the instruction. I also rely on questioning and tasks to demonstrate students’ understanding, but I can’t check knowledge for every student. In conjunction with refining my formative processes and the hinge-concepts, I’d like to plan in advance to check every student gets the concept I want, and to better consider:

 

“which images, examples, diagrams, graphs, stories, experiments, analogies are necessary to communicate a concept? In which form is the idea best represented? The best responsive teachers have a number of options planned in advance, to select the best to use ‘in the field’ or to switch to an alternative should one not work effectively in practise.”

Lesson Three: “Plan for horizon knowledge”

I remain realistic that students will not remember all of the precise knowledge that we grant them. I was gripped by Counsell’s differentiation between “fingertip knowledge” and the “residual knowledge” that students are left with over time. I want to drill down and learn a little bit more about what residual knowledge my students are left with, long after their lessons, and be a little bit more precise about what knowledge I want students to retain in the long-run. With this in mind, I can be far more precise in reviewing and recalling the knowledge from previous units of learning and structuring the assembly of a big picture overview of the past. This might also involve thinking a bit more about “foreshadowing”, and being more precise in arranging the connections between the lessons I am teaching this week and those I wish to teach in the future. Again, any reflections on how this process can best be facilitated are most welcome!

What will I stop doing this year

This time of year usually sees a volume of aspirational blogs and Tweets about how teachers and leaders will improve in the next academic year. I have written such material in the past too. This year I thought it would be better to focus on what I will not do this year. I believe that doing less will make me better, or at the very least release time to do more of what matters. I’d encourage all teachers to think in a similar way, rather than bringing further pressure upon themselves by committing to doing more. Pledge to do things differently, instead.

  1. Mark books because “it has been a while.”

    I am guilty of doing this. I would like to think that my formative assessment is quite effective. Providing feedback is a complex process, which can take many forms. It is rare that effective feedback can be characterised by taking in a class set of books and writing all over students work. I do this, in spite of the fact that I have my finger on the pulse and can be reasonably confident what my students can and cannot do and plan my teaching accordingly. I think there is a ‘fear’ factor, that a lay observer might pick up my books and be horrified that there simply is not enough ink on the page. I know that’s not how it works. My students know that too, I think. My senior leadership team know it. I shall safely stop taking in exercise books without reason, and focus on providing the feedback I deem my students need, when it is best given, in the format I consider to be most effective.

  2. Write in full sentences on assessments

    This is quite similar to my first point. I have done a lot of work in my school, leading an assessment working group, in separating out formative and summative assessments. Next year I will be clearer with my students about the difference. With the reforms my school is making to the assessment reporting cycle (fewer data entry points, which will be based upon cumulative judgements on students’ knowledge), I will be clear about what a summative assessment is with students and its purpose. It is extremely rare that a student will provide a unique response. Most students’ errors in summative assessments can sorted into a handful of groups. I can scribble some thoughts on a post-it note for a whole class, and focus on effective moderation. At present, I mark a few assessments, moderate them endlessly, or put them through a process of comparative judgement, and then write all over them. This last step adds nothing, but takes away a lot of my time.

  3. Hold meetings because they have been scheduled on the school calendar

    Meetings are usually held because they’re scheduled on the school calendar, irrespective of when they’re really needed. In my experience, colleagues fill up the time discussing administrative issues that could be far more efficiently dealt with through emails or very brief chats. This is an extremely inefficient use of colleagues’ valuable time. Meetings that I hold, as a head of department, will have a singular focus on making us better teachers. This will involve discussing students’ work and collaborating on how to teach specific aspects of the government and politics course better. If I have to take up colleagues’ time, I am going to make sure they find it useful and leave a better teacher than they arrived.

  4. Ignore the important because of the urgent.
    Urgent tasks are usually those that have been put upon us by somebody else. It is rare that I leave something I consider important until the last minute, anyway. To ensure that the important still gets done, I will carefully plan my time this year, planning my use of PPA slots and so-called ‘gained time’ to work on planning and my strategic goals for the year. Urgent tasks that threaten important priorities will be dealt with by way of:

    – Negotiating an extended deadline;
    – Explaining the consequences of my meeting a freshly imposed tight deadline.
    – Seeing whether the task is closely monitored. If it isn’t, it is unlikely to have been that important, and some de facto extension on getting it done might become possible.

    These potential solutions are ripped off from Harry Fletcher-Wood’s magnificent Responsive Teaching.

  5. Use the mornings to finish off yesterday’s trivial tasks

    I like to arrive in school very early in the morning and leave early in the afternoon. Apart from anything else, this beats the traffic. I am most productive between the hours of 7am and 8am. I fall off a productivity cliff pretty quickly after that (that’s a bit of hyperbole, but I know I am far less productive after lunch). It is great that I am aware of this. However, this last year I’ve found myself spending this golden hour of productivity finishing off tasks from the previous day’s to-do list. If these tasks weren’t important enough to do yesterday, why should I do them today? I shall continue to triage each day’s to-do list and call time when I’ve had enough in the evening. What doesn’t get done, can get written off. I can’t imagine anyone noticing. I’ll see how this plays out.

  6. Make exit-tickets out of paper, on the fly.
    I’ll write more about this in my next blog post. I like exit-tickets, a belief that has been reinforced by the aforementioned book Responsive Teaching. On too many occasions, I’m ripping up lined paper in a haphazard fashion, to collect in from students. The tatty look, I suspect, translates into students treating the task far too cursorily. In future, I will make use of checklists for my lessons. I will walk in with a clearer sense of what evidence I will extract from students, and how. Exit-tickets will be designed in advance, with a clear structure to elicit better evidence.

  7. Spend my PPA slots drinking tea and procrastinating wildly.
    Or will I… this one is healthy. Up to a point.

    If a PPA slot spent idly drinking tea, listening to the radio or reading a book makes me happier, and approach my lessons with more energy, is this such a problem? I’m also proud of the relationships I have established with colleagues in support roles, or teachers who work outside of my own building. If I lose a little PPA time in conversation with these people, that isn’t necessarily time spent badly. I just need to be aware of the cost and ensure that such PPA time isn’t lost too often. This was a problem for me in the middle of year. At least I recognised it, set myself some strategic goals, and worked with incredible focus during the ‘gained time period’ after my exam classes had left.