In defence of inspirational posters in school. 

  I’ve never used a shop bought inspirational poster, but I have made a few, and I think that their judicious use can be very beneficial. 

With most things it’s the quality and the way you use them, rather than their presence which is important. I can think of a few reasons why I might turn to an inspirational poster:

  • If teachers and students need some help in thinking about how life could be different or better;
  • If they want to think about their futures in ways that might not immediately be obvious from their surroundings;
  • If students need help in learning to regulate their behaviour or the way that they relate to others;

Of course, posters, like iPads and whiteboards or pencils and paper or libraries and assembly halls are not guarantees of learning or positive attitude. Posters about respect can be found on the walls of rooms in which students and teachers are in conflict, or about working hard where teachers and students have a tacit agreement that things won’t be too taxing. Such posters are redundant, but that doesn’t mean that all such posters are. 

The “Writing Lives” project*

*(or why following twitter historians can be as rewarding as following history teachers)

I 11372417_1456795201306836_1653475993_nwas thinking about teaching A level coursework the other day, specifically OCR’s interpretations and investigations coursework. For years the examiner’s reports have emphasised that students should not be taught to label historians as ‘orthodox’ or ‘revisionist’, and that instead they should be focussing on the different approaches and evidence that historians use when addressing the validity of their judgements.

The tendency of some history teaching resources (and perhaps also of some history teachers) to present the interaction of historians as one of conflict is troubling.  Often historiography is shown as an unfolding development of orthodox historians being challenged by revisionists who then find themselves challenged in turn by post-revisionists.  At worst history is presented as a series of battles between antagonistic titans – the example of Hugh Trevor-Roper -v- AJP Taylor springs to mind.

Is this how historians really work?  Is the current generation always to be found stripping the gilding from and digging out the foundations of the previous generation’s work?  Do historians really have professional enemies with whom they engage in Pokémon type battles, aggressively lobbing interpretations tipped with evidential explosives?

Reading about the Writing Lives project being run by Helen Rogers makes me think that this isn’t how historians really work – and that there are lessons we can learn from the project about how we set exams as well as how we teach our students about the discipline.   Students on Helen’s Writing Lives final year module at Liverpool John Moores University have each taken responsibility for blogging about one of the people whose memoirs have been given to the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.  This is a great idea on its own, made more meaningful by the end goal of publishing an ebook which draws on the research the students make as a group, but innovative as it is, this is not why I’m drawn to blog about it.

What I found so interesting (so much that I nearly missed my bus home tonight as I read the ‘about’ page) was the way that Helen explained the context to the project.  The about page explains the historiography of working class memoirs, describing several books that you want to go and read straight away.  It then goes on to explain the way that the field has changed and grown, some of the directions that Helen and others want to take it, and the great opportunity offered by the sample represented in the Burnett archive, which is very different from those used by a previous generation of writers.  This isn’t a dismissal of the previous work, in fact the insights and patterns of that work are presented as jumping off points for future work, not something to be ‘revised’ or explained away.

I’d really like to think about ways that we might get school students, and especially those working at A level on independent study to consider the ways that different historians’  viewpoints can be used to spark enquiries, and to help them see that this needn’t always involve deciding which ‘interpretation’ is better than the others.

Day Two (before lunch) #SHP15 #SHP2015 Conference – Longer Texts

Straight into the workshops on Saturday morning. Breakfast is always a sea of people bending over conference packs and making choices over which workshop to attend. When schools are farsighted enough to send more than one delegate, or where friends have been made, you can often hear groups deciding who will go and report back on which workshop. I had so many I wanted to see and I heard of so many great workshops that I couldn’t get to. I try to see people I’ve not seen before, but even this rule doesn’t always make it easy to take decisions. You know, I think I would be kicking myself over not getting to see @bones_carmel do her workshop on engagement, but for the great sessions that I did get to.

Paul Nightingale and Tim Jenner’s workshop on ‘using extended original texts with less able students’ was very good – and just the right mix of ambition and practical examples. They started from the revelation that they could make reading and understanding a text the aim of the lesson, and that modelling different kinds of enthusiasm for text would help, but would only get students so far. Their take is that students who find history hard are often given less complicated texts, when what they need is to be ‘skilled-up’ and to an extent given the contextual knowledge to understand the more complicated texts. Having listened and taken part in this great session I think what they have really achieved is slowing pupil thinking down, and encouraged engagement with the text whilst at avoiding student anxiety about ‘getting it wrong’. That they have managed to do this creatively and with, wait for it… engagement with the text, is what makes their ideas compelling to try in the classroom.

Three activities really stuck out for me. The first was ‘stage directions‘ – making your students dramatise and present the action that takes place in a document. In small groups we played briefly at being pupils, and highlighted, scrawled and discussed ways in which we could make the meaning of our text come alive. I know I’m a 40 something history geek, and that this is hardly a scientific approach, but I think this great idea merits trying with students. With the right class, and with the right text (we had a Wilfred Owen poem) students might be able to use this technique to get to grips with text in deep and thoughtful ways.

The second was text mapping, which could be done individually, in pairs or in groups. With large copies of the text students are encouraged to highlight key features, key terms, argument, pictures, diagrams, summaries, conclusions, titles, headings, footnotes. In groups initial support for getting into a complex text could be given by asking lower attaining students to do simpler and increasingly complex highlighting. The crucial thing is that this is not the end of the use of the text. The highlighting is not the point of the activity, it is just the first activity – a way of helping students attain familiarity and confidence before moving on to other things.

The third I’m including because at first I internally dismissed it as something I’d seen before.  However, a few subtle details brought me up short.  Wordle has now been around for a while, and I went through a period of using it quite a lot, as a quick way of demonstrating the main theme in some writing.  I have in the past made students create wordles of their coursework or essays, in the hope that it would help them see their main themes (or lack of them).   I had started to think that it was a way of skimming over the details in a text and I worried that it stopped students from really reading a document – they didn’t need to if wordle had already summarized it.

Paul and Tim have taken the idea a little further by asking students to look at the smaller words in a wordle – the words that occur less frequently, but nonetheless are there. They ask ‘what’s the subtext?’, what ideas are being snuck in under the radar? They also suggested using a wordle to predict the content and thrust of a document before using some of their other techniques so that students can then compare their initial prediction with what they really find when they become familiar with its contents.

Overall, what struck me about their approach was the building of knowledge and confidence as students worked continuously on the text, and how this went hand in hand with the text itself. It was however never a crude ‘here’s what you need to know, now lets look at the text’ approach.  Subtle and energising stuff.

Then I was on doing the second outing of my own workshop – which went much better the second time around.  I’ll post the powerpoint soonish, probably after I’ve finished blogging about #SHP15 (who knows when at this rate).

Re-drafting to support learners

This is something that, in my practice as a history teacher, I’ve been resistant to over the years. I went to a great SHP talk on using longer, original contemporary texts this summer (the blog post will arrive, honestly!), and saw some great ideas for making text more accessible without ‘translating’ it into modern modes of talking or writing.

Today with my undergrad class which is studying the different roles and responsibilities within schools, were were looking at diversity and issues of equality, and I handed them a questionnaire that I borrowed from Sue Dymoke’s (ed) excellent book ‘Reflective Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School’. It was meant to be a quick starter whilst I fired up the projector. When I turned my attention back to the group it became clear that the exercise had fuddled and alarmed many of them, who lacked several of the key pieces of vocabulary necessary to access the task. They understood the concepts behind these words, to a large extent, but they did not have the words themselves.

Anyway, we talked through the words and concepts and the quick 5 minute starter became a 30 minute seminar about words and ideas such as:

‘socially well adjusted’
‘fundamental British values’

Afterwards I began to wonder whether I should have re-written the questionnaire, and to consider whether I would have do so had I been working with school students. I think I probably would have for school, but not very much. Perhaps I would have picked my battles, and chosen one or two key words like emancipation, so we could have explored the different levels of meaning beyond ‘freedom’. 

At university exploring these particular phrases perhaps should be easier, but the students were affected by the number and weight of concepts that they found impossible to comprehend immediately.  It took some effort on my part to reassure and guide them back to the task. Though I had stumbled upon a teaching moment I’m going to have to think carefully about how to anticipate and prepare for difficult opportunities like these. 

Books you should read?

I was alerted to this list by this tweet.

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not read many in total (ok, it’s one, and I bet you can guess which one).  I’ve bumped into bits of the others, and ideas from them. That’s not to say that I have not read other books on education – obviously I have, and currently I’m finishing two that I started last year. I tend to read them more slowly – just as I do everything, as I find I really need to understand their arguments.  It’s the same way with books on the philosophy of history.  I once spent an entire evening going over one sentence in Developments in Modern Historiography. I did get it, eventually. I’m a slow reader, just as I am a slow blogger!

So, I wondered what else people might add to the list.

I’ll start with

Social Theory and Education Research: Understanding Foucault, Habermas,Bourdieu and Derrida Edited by Mark Murphy


Reframing Educational Research: Resisting the ‘what works’ agenda edited by Valerie Farnsworth and Yvette Solomon.

Oh, and I bought the Hirsch.

Day One #SHP15 #SHP2015 Conference

One of the downsides of running a workshop at SHP, apart from the wrenching fear of exposure as a fraud by your peers,  is that you get to see less.  For two sessions you’re talking to others, instead of listening to some of the best “CPD known to man”.

Even though I didn’t get to see other great sessions like this one:

I did get to brilliant fringe session by the great people at and had the enormous pleasure of watching Ronan MacManus enhance the already brilliant ideas of Neil Bates:

The session was fascinating.  I met a fellow textbook author, Kate Moorse, and discussed writing with her.  In conversation with her and other people I was amazed to find how little curricular freedom many teachers (especially new teachers it seems) have in their classroom.  My own workshop is about planning direction rather than being forced to write complex detailed lesson plans for every lesson. It seems that in many schools professional freedom of movement is very limited, in terms of what is taught, and in terms of how it is taught.  This, and the way that schemes of work and textbooks are constructed means that women are still sidelined in history.  That isn’t news, but the subtle ways in which this sidelining takes effect were well brought out into the light by this session.  As a writer this session certainly made me think, and made me determined to write differently.

Then, a real treat.  I saw Neil Bate’s session last year, and really enjoyed the way that he used song to help grab students’ attention, and to make them think like historians.   This session took that thinking one stage on.  Neil and Ronan MacManus  showed us some really practical ways in which the process of song writing can be used to help students think about how the past gets recorded, and relayed.  Coming on the back of the recent reports about P4C having wider cognitive benefits, the similarities with Neil’s approach were made very clear.  A song can be a way in to a topic, but it can also be a way of generating questions, ideas, doubts and directions for enquiry.  The brilliant way in which this can lead to discussions about what gets included in songs, and what gets left out, could easily lead to discussions and activities about how the historical record (geddit?) is made. Oh, and Ronan has an amazing voice.  The song China Boats brought a lump to my throat.

I really love SHP.  The vibrant good nature, the supportiveness of the great friends that I’ve made over the few times that I’ve attended has re-inforced how valuable this community is.  If only all subjects had SHP.

Historic Environment Studies – AQA in more depth

Water in English Gardens (22 of 33) | Hatfield House Gardens, Hertfordshire, UK.Last week I took an overview of all the environment studies. Though they’re (mostly) worth around 10% of the GCSE I wonder if they’ll be giving many HODs and teachers something to worry about as they start to think about their choice of board and specification. This is mainly because they concept of an historical environment study will be new to many teachers, especially those who have been doing modern world teaching (as I have).

This week I want to look more closely at AQA’s offering. They’re interesting because they are so closely embedded in with the depth study that they’re associated with. The questions allow students, (actually require) students to use their knowledge of events and society in the period studied, it’s fashions and pre-occupations in writing answers.  This means that the period study content should be read side by side with that of the H.E. study. Also, the kinds of locality that are implied for each H.E. should be taken into account when planning which unit to teach.

The Medieval Units

The two early periods have a strong military focus.  The Norman period could imply studies of early castles, such as Pevensey, whilst the Medieval unit, with it’s focus on the conquest of Wales suggest the development of castles such as Builth Castle in Powys.  The earlier Norman period has a focus on military tactics and innovations that is not present to the same level in the Medieval study, though both units mention battles that could be the focus of future H.E. assessments.

However, both also have strong social history aspects. So, whilst the Norman period has a focus on the village which would enable the board to set a medieval village location, and a focus on the changes that the Normans made to Cathedrals and churches, the Medieval study focuses on the development of towns.

The Early Modern Units

The Elizabethan unit is the one I find hardest to pin down to particular locations, or types of location. The focus on the rise of the Gentry and of living standards might mean a focus on the homes of the nobility – indeed this is the focus chosen for the specimen assessment material.  We could also read into the content on the church a study of Protestant or Catholic places of worship.  The spec also mentions theatres, so putting a tenner on the Globe being one of the locations might be an option.

The unit on the Restoration has more to go on in terms of possible focuses for H.E. locations. Theatre is an obvious choice, as is Medway in Kent, the scene of a famous naval disaster.  The big star of this unit seems to be London, with a focus on the plague of 1665, and the fire of the following year, coffee houses and Samuel Pepys, the focus on fashions and the changing face of the city being obvious.

The Specimen Assessment Materials

Whilst looking at the specimen assessment materials confirms how much these H.E. studies are embedded in the context of each depth study, common threads in the approach to assessment across the studies do emerge. For instance, the questions emphasise the context of each locality, asking about the use of castles to control areas in the Norman and Medieval studies, or Restoration fashions reflected in Bolsover Castle.  The mark schemes show however that there are strong preferences for answers that focus on the design, materials, as well as the symbolism of the various features of the locality concerned.  This is really exciting stuff – students will be given an opportunity to get to grips with the physical aspects of the past that we have not had the opportunity to introduce them to. Additionally they will be asked to think in terms of the mentalities of the past, to understand how buildings and places had such an impact on the minds of those living in the periods we’ll be studying.

H.A. Northern History Forum: Global Learning

Wednesday’s HA event at Leeds Trinity had a stall manned by Pearson which set out their ‘Global Learning Programme‘.  At the start of the keynote we were told of a CPD event being run by the university (and paid for by it too) deisgned to celebrate work being done by teachers on ‘Global Learning’. Global Learning is clearly ‘a thing’ right now.

The HA website has more details of its take on Global Learning, and I understand that they have been helping Pearson to develop the programme, offered on a website here. It’s hard to argue with the HA’s point that

“much of the history curriculum provides a clear context for the current debate about poverty, globalisation and inter-relationships between the countries of the world, and helps students understand the current debate.”

My mind is also drawn back to Donald Cumming’s talk to the SHP conference in July 2014 in which he rightly pointed out that we cannot really understand the history of any country (and perhaps especially not the one in which I live and teach) unless we understand the history of the countries around it and the wider world. Globalisation and global interdependency are not recent developments, and we’re not really teaching history if we deny this to our students.

Whilst I was reading the key aims of global learning cited by the GLP and the HA, I wondered about the kinds of substantive topics that we could use to help achieve these various aims to

help young people understand their role in a globally interdependent world and explore strategies by which they can make it more just and sustainable,

familiarise pupils with the concepts of interdependence, development, globalisation and sustainability

enable teachers to move pupils from a charity mentality to a social justice mentality

stimulate critical thinking about global issues, both at a whole school and pupil level

help schools promote greater awareness of poverty and sustainability

enable schools to explore alternative models of development and sustainability in the classroom.

It seems to me that there are many substantive topics that we could use in trying to reach these aims.   I can also see that thinking about these aims could encourage us to think differently about how we can ask students to think about the past from a global perspective.   Most obviously a comparative ‘long view’ approach of the kind developed by  Shemilt and Rick Rogers offers us a way of brining a historical eye to these aims. By comparing and contrasting different modes of trade, causes of poverty and wealth, and the development of campaigns against injustice over time we can help students understand how people in the past have wrestled with these issues.

If I can, I’d like to go to the conference, if only to see what it means to ‘enable teachers to move pupils from a charity mentality to a social justice mentality’.  It is this aspect of ‘global learning’ that causes me most trouble, and has since I started teaching.  When teaching histoy we are, in my opinion, teaching a way of thinking, rather than what to think about a particular event.  History doesn’t guarantee that our students will have a particular opinion about a topic, but should aim that they are well informed enough to form an opinion that is well-supported.  There are no single right answers to many historical questions, though there are lots of wrong ones!

So, I need to clear up what it means to be “moving students from a charity mentality to a social justice mentality”, so that I can make sure that I’m not trying to replicate my own mindset or political views in those of my students.,7837_127.html

Historic Environment Studies at GCSE

cropped gargoyle-1.jpgThere are big changes coming at KS4.  Others have written excellent posts summarising the new specifications and the differences between them.  On reflection there’s something for everyone in most specs – we will each find some aspects that we seem to be familiar with.  However, there is one new part of the GCSE – the Historic Environment Studies which are really new to most GCSE teachers.  I thought I would take a look at the differences between the different specifications in overview.

Board % of Grade Embedded in another unit? Specified site or centre choice? Topics
AQA 10% Yes – in British Depth Study Specified three years in advance (1) Norman, Medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration historic environment
Edexcel 10% Yes – in Thematic Study Specified in spec. (2) Crime and Policing in Whitechapel from 1870 to 1900
Surgery and Treatment on the British Western Front 1914-18
London and the Second World War 1939-45
OCR – SHP 20%(4) No – though centres can do this Centre choice (3) Centre choice within ‘parameters’
OCR 10% Yes – in British Depth Study Specified in spec. Urban Environments: Patterns of Migration
Castles: Form and Function 1000-1700
  • (1) – AQA will announce the sites when approved by Ofqual
  • (2) – ‘Site’ is widely construed to mean ‘London’, ‘Whitechapel’ or even ‘the Western Front’.
  • (3) – There are guidelines to help centres make the choice in the spec.
  • (4) – OCR – SHP spec examines the historic environment study in a separate paper.


AQA’s historic environment studies are embedded in their British depth studies, and focus on specific aspects of the wider content related to those studies. Departments that follow the ‘Norman England’ option will therefore study ‘the historic environment of Norman England’, while those taking ‘Medieval England’ will study ‘the historic environment of Medieval England’. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the departments teaching Elizabethan or Restoration England will also be teaching about the historic environment of each period.

The focuses in each ‘historic environment’ study depend on with those of the rest of each depth study, but there is a fair amount of generic description. So, whilst Elizabethan England refers to manor houses, gardens and theatres, and the Restoration period refers to ‘stately homes’, the Norman period mentions ‘Cathedrals’ as well as ‘Castles’ which also figure in the Medieval description. Each depth study refers to ‘key historical events’, though the only illustration given in each case is ‘such as battles’.

AQA plan to publish the specific sites for each exam series three years in advance on their website. I can’t find reference to these yet, though I’m sure that they have planned the first three.

Update: following a very fast email response from AQA, who tell me that: “We will be publishing the sites three years in advance (it’s in the draft b specification), so for example, once we had an indication from Ofqual that this will be acceptable we will publish the sites for 2018, 2019 and 2020 to help teachers plan their courses. We’ll also be providing individual resources packs for each site and overall guidance for schools.”

The Historic Environment makes up 10% of the total marks in AQA’s GCSE


Like AQA, Edexcel’s Historic Environment component is embedded in another study, though in this case it is the thematic rather than the depth study.  At first sight this might imply an approach which considers how and why a site changes through time.  However, AQA have set out much shorter time periods in which the Historic environment studies take place. For instance. though the Crime and Punishment In Britain study, runs from 1,000 to the present day, the embedded historic environment study is a much more focused thirty years, from 1870 to 1900 and is focused on the issue of crime and policing.

Similarly the Medicine through time study, which runs from 1250 to the present, contains the embedded historic environment study of “The British sector of the Western Front’ and is focused on the years 1914-1918 and the issues of ‘surgery and treatment’. This pattern is repeated in the Warfare through time thematic study. The London and the Second World War option runs from 1939-45, though it lacks a focussing subtitle in the way that the others have.

The Historic Environment makes up 10% of the total marks in AQA’s GCSE.


OCR is offering two different specifications at GCSE, and each has a very different approach to the historical environment.


The Schools History Project approach to the historic environment immediately sticks out from the crowd of the other three offerings.  The SHP-OCR specification it is 20%, double the tariff of the other specifications. It is also the only specification to assess understanding of the historical environment in a separate exam.

The second and perhaps most significant difference is that the specification ‘offers centres a free choice of site within a clearly stated set of parameters’, with the hope that this will lead centres to study a local site ‘that will enhance learners’ developing sense of identity’. The choice of site is not totally free, as there is a list of ‘parameters’ (though these are really guidelines to help centres choose workable sites).  Like the other boards there is no ‘requirement’ for a site visit, but the specification does say that one is ‘desirable’.  There is no requirement for the study to relate to any other part of the specification, though I would imagine that many schools will choose to find a site related to the periods and substantive history that they will be teaching elsewhere in the course.


The alternative specification, in common with those offered by the other boards, embeds the historic environment within another study. Also like  most of the specifications set out by the other boards, the historic environment study makes up 10% of the final marks of the GCSE.  Like AQA, OCR have embed their historic environment study within the British depth study.  There are two environment studies. “Urban Environments: Patters of Migration” is the study for the BASA ‘Migration to Britain’ depth study, whereas for both “The English Reformation” and ‘Personal Rule to Restoration’ depth studies centres will take ‘Castles Form and Function 1000-1700’. This approach seems to imply an aspect of change and continuity that the others do not.

This approach also differs from the other specifications in that it involves both a Board and a centre specified site which ‘complements the specified sites’.  Again a site visit is ‘desirable’ if not required. The sites for both studies until 2022 are set out in the draft specification.

I will be making a more detailed survey of each of these specifications in the coming weeks, starting with the AQA spec.  I’d love to know what departments are thinking about doing with regard to the historical environment study – or whether it has figured much in your thinking so far?

Northern History Forum

IMG_0061Last night I attended the Northern History forum at Leeds Trinity University, ran a workshop entitled ‘Playing Games in History’ and met some great teachers, new and experienced.

Ben Walsh gave the opening address, and reminded us of the benefit of asking ‘why am I teaching this?’ every now and then, as well as giving us some fantastic website tips. These included:

Time Maps

I was there to run a workshop, which I did, entitled ‘Playing with History’.  My aim was not to offer any over-arching theory, but just to present (with new teachers particularly in mind) some techniques that I have been honing over the years to keep lessons moving with purposeful pace.   You can find the materials for the talk on this page.