A nice bit of bread and butter

I was asked recently to teach a lesson for the German students who were here on exchange.  The lesson itself was about cholera, specifically the spread of the disease in the 1800s in the new urban areas of England.  I was adapting a really good lesson that I’d recently used with my own year 8 class, which had been prepared by a colleague.  It went really well with my year 8’s and I thought that the German students would enjoy it.

We started with a stick man which on which we drew and labelled a diagram of the symptoms of Cholera, we then read through a sheet about cholera in Sunderland, read a role play about the living conditions that prevailed and then filled in a table.  Finally we annotated the Court for King Cholera cartoon (thanks to the Passmore History Dept).  We focused on three questions – what was it like to have cholera, why did it spread so quickly, and why didn’t the precautions work?  Along the way we also dallied with what the precautions told us about how people in Sunderland felt about people from outside their area.

Nothing approaching a blog in sight, no bells, no whistles. This was really a ‘bread and butter’ lesson, but I really enjoyed teaching it, and I think the students enjoyed and learned much during the hour. I enjoyed it so much in fact that I feel compelled to explain why.

I realised, whilst thinking about the lesson on the way home, that I enjoyed it so much because I felt like a PGCE student again.  I felt able to invest quite a lot of time on planning and preparing for the lesson, because I was representing the school.  As a result I thought deeply about the aims of the lesson, the language I was going to use (especially important given the context of this lesson), the resources that I was to give to the students, and the activities that would be appropriate.  I relished the opportunity to see how these things went in the classroom, and whether my calculations about interest, language, activities and transitions were correct.

I was probably doing nothing more than bringing into my conscious thought a set of processes that I often complete in ‘auto-pilot’, in that much of the time I’m considering the lesson from the point of view of the learners, and constantly up-dating my plans ‘on the fly’.  Interestingly I don’t think I would have been able to alter my plans with the same degree of fluidity whilst I was teaching the exchange students.  This was possibly because I had thought very carefully beforehand about the new context that I was working in, and worked my activities into this constructed context.  As a consequence of my knowledge of the context being less immediate than that of the other classes I teach regularly, I would not have been as confidence to make such alterations.

I really did enjoy teaching a group of delightful children, who worked hard at the end of a day in which they’d been bombarded with information in a foreign tongue.  I’m glad of of the opportunity, and of the insight I’ve had into my teaching.

The New National History Curriculum (1) – Chronology

For some time the new ‘programme for study’ for KS3 history has been available here.  For some time I’ve wanted to post about them – mainly as a way of improving my understanding of it. 

So, here is my uninformed ‘reckon’ (to quote Mitchell and Webb), on the changes to the History National Curriculum.  This will be an increasinly irregular series.

I thought I’d start with Chronological understanding – mainly because it’s the first in the list, but also because I’ve had a chequered relationship with Chronology in the past.  My long standing suspicion of ‘chronology’ stems from my own inability to remember dates, and the reductionist tendency that I believe it can encourage in pupils (and teachers).  Before I realised that it was draining my energy I used to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing on the TES history web board about it.

Chronological understanding:
a. Understanding and using appropriate dates, vocabulary and conventions that describe historical periods and the passing of time.
b. Developing a sense of period through describing and analysing the relationships between the characteristic features of periods and societies.
c. Building a chronological framework of periods and using this to place new knowledge in its historical context.

and from the explanatory notes:

Chronological understanding:

This is essential in constructing historical narratives and explanations. It involves using precise dates to establish sequences of events in an enquiry, using chronological terms and vocabulary (eg century, decade, BC and AD) and knowing the names and key features of periods studied. Understanding of periods should develop into a chronological framework describing the characteristic features of past societies and periods. Pupils should identify changes within and across periods, making links between them.


This strikes me as an interesting way to think about chronology, and a much less arid one than the old description of "Pupils should be taught to recognise and make appropriate use of dates, vocabulary and conventions that describe historical periods and the passing of time" which is in the current National Curriculum.

For a start there’s the change from a focus from teaching to learning – in the old description pupils are "taught to" whereas in the new they are ‘understanding’, ‘developing’, ‘building’.  This seems to reflect a move towards a much more active pupil.  This focus on activity is also reflected in the use to which ‘chronology’ is put, which is best illustrated by the explanatory notes.  These notes clearly show an intention of the authors to encourage pupils to use chronology in constructing ‘narratives and explanations’.  The use of chronology in enquiry, and not for it’s own sake, is at the forefront of this approach.


Secondly, there’s the idea of the development of a ‘chronological framework’, which really reminds me of something that Christine Counsel once wrote about. I don’t have the book with me (since completing my diploma – more on this soon – I don’t have access to an academic library), but as far as I remember she distinguished between the kind of ‘fingertip’ knowlegde that one picked up in the heat of an enquiry, with the broader ‘sense of place’ (my phrase here) that remained after the enquiry work was done.  Too often I think that chronology has been confined to a ‘tick box’ conception of dates in order, and has not been connected with this sense of framework.  Ian Dawson (at his excellent www.thinkinghistory.co.uk site) has an interesting article entitled ‘Time for Chronology‘ which introduces the idea that teaching chronology is about teaching understanding of conventions, also a sense of period, and the ability to set chronological frameworks within a "wider overview of history, both chronologically and culturally".

The big question is, I suppose, where does this get us on the ground?  Having just completed a review of our Schemes of Work, I would say that we’re starting to think in themes, within individual studies, and, as a result of this, covering longer periods of history in schemes of work that are starting to resemble enquiry based schemes.  However, what we’ve not yet managed is to play with themes across schemes in the way that Dawson suggests – developing the idea of parliament or representation for instance across the