A trip to the Black Country Living Museum

A month ago, we packed the family into our ageing Megan, and travelled to the Black Country to see relatives and visit one of my favourite Museums, the Black Country Museum.  Sharing a hotel room with your tweenage family was, it turns out, a bit like sleeping in a busy badger set. Sighing, coughing, burping and breaking wind keeps us all awake as, outside, urban foxes voice the sleepless frustration that bubbles away inside.  In the morning we emerged blinking to breakfast next door at the brewer’s fayre – the idiopathic y adding little authenticity to the atmosphere of disinfectant and yesterday’s grease.

Then on to the Black Country Living Museum. I have been to the museum several times during my time teaching in Reading. That we were prepared to travel from Reading to Stourbridge with a coach full of kids to visit the museum year after year illustrates how highly we thought of the museum as a learning experience.  Put briefly, I loved that trip when I was teaching, and loved the way that the children learned from it.

One of the great things about the museum is the way it puts human scale against the Industrial. Maddy hates ‘ humanoids’ as she puts it – hating being at the bottom of the unhappy valley where ‘almost humans’ explain things that have emotional significance. All of us NT’s enjoyed the way that these helped us see the individual stories that in turn enabled us to see the bigger picture, and Maddy was able to listen to and later to recall with interest their stories of underground food and drink – ‘tack’ underground as well as the dangers of each of the different methods of digging out the coal.

Most memorable from their point of view was the young man sitting in the mine bottom, waiting for the pit pony and driver at a ventilation door, so unimportant that he was not allowed a candle. We imagined the stories that the child would tell itself in the dark – waiting for the sound of the hooves or the glimmer of a candle to disrupt the 12 hour shift, sitting on the floor of the tunnel in silence.

The museum covers industrial technical history – in the shape of the mine already discussed, but also using a working Newcomen EngineUntitled

This engine was used to pump water from mines – it is amazing in action – dramatic smoke and a swinging pump arm full of crashing power in a tall room full of heat. Underneath the machine is the weirdly hypnotic ash-pit. My young nephew spent a good 5 minutes watching the embers flitting down to the cooling ash pile.

UntitledAbove ground, the first houses you see are earlier than many of the other domestic settings, Pitt’s cottage, a one story self-built home, which contrasts with the back-to-backs further in to the museum, one of which is set slightly later in 1891 (and highly suggestive of overcrowding and poverty) and the other, set much more comfortably in 1924.

Where I think the museum is missing a trick is in not making more of the change over time (or perhaps even change over geography) aspects of the different houses and displays that they have gathered from around the black country. There is an element of this – many of the shops on the top row are more obviously from the 1930s – though the school is earlier – perhaps late 1800s.

UntitledOften however we’re just ‘in the past’. There’s a wealth of information on the website, but not much available as you wander around. It would take a strong guide to explain the transitions and contrasts between buildings and chronological periods, but I think this would be a worthwhile aim of the museum.

UntitledThere are very strong guides at the museum – the children particularly enjoyed the lady in the Chemist shop. Despite looking the model of idealised Victorian female propriety she was more than willing to delight in explaining the use of suppositories. She also showed the children how ‘the Victorians’ made pills, which they were enthralled by.


It’s this handiness, the skill and often very hard labour involved in production that stays with me after a trip to the BCM. This is especially true of that the different kinds of metal work that the Black Country specialised in. Watching a man working in the Nail Shop not only shows the great skills involved in working metal and also in working metal so quickly that they could make a living out of it (there’s a great video on the page to show you how it was done), but the physical nature of the labour – the hardness of the work. The hammers, mangles, wash tubs, fire grates, carpet beaters, brushes, mops, files and other tools are on display in areas around the museum – in shops, in the hands of dummies, laid out on the floors of houses as if momentarily dropped or left. When you step back and consider how much of the work achieved by people using those tools is now achieved through the use of energy (in the form of fossil fuels, mostly) you realise how much the consumption of such energy has changed our lives.

UntitledI’m reading (slowly, it’s very long!) Frank Trentmann’s ‘Empire of Things’, which alongside this trip has made me realise how much today’s consumption of ‘goods’ is based on the provision of things like water, energy and sanitation that allows us to operate them, but which also gives us the time to operate and enjoy them. This is the other thing that I think the BCLM is perhaps missing – it’s implicit in the gas lamps, the coal scuttles and the water pipes, and in the bridges, canals and trolley buses, but I think that it too could be brought out more.

I’ll end this rambling set of reflections with what was a real treat. I’m a wannabe baker (isn’t everyone these days) and as a family we really liked looking into the Victorian bakery. The heat (it was a cold day) was very welcome, the smells and the bread, basic human nourishment, alongside the excellent volunteer guide, made us think very carefully about how people lived, how they fed themselves, and enjoyed life despite the difficulties. Last week we watched the excellent ‘Victorian Bakers‘ on the BBC iplayer and recognised the bakery on the second episode of the show. We were really gripped by the way the programme explored the nature of bread production over time – how it changed, what stayed the same, how the meaning of bread itself changed over time.

Victorian England, and the Victorian Black Country in particular wasn’t one ‘thing’ or even a set of different class-based ‘things’ – it was a time of unprecedented change in almost every aspect of the way people lived, ate, socialised, organised, travelled, and how they voted and persuaded each other – which is what the Victorian Bakers and the Victorian Slum BBC programmes were so good at helping us to see. If I had one wish for the BCM it would be that they found ways to explain this in more depth – perhaps even to help us walk though, in and out of these changes and make explicit comparisons and contrasts.

Undergrad Day

17303176035_035cd2da96_zToday is undergraduate day. I’m teaching a module on SEN in the secondary school to my undergrad PE and Secondary Ed students in May, and I want to be well prepared. I read an interesting study by Benjamin Bloom earlier in the year (1984) about ‘Mastery’ and his attempts to solve the ‘2 sigma problem’, i.e. the 2 standard deviations in increased attainment that he found between pupils taught in ‘conventional classrooms’ and those who were instead ‘tutored’ one to one or in very small groups.  I think that aspects of this study can help me with my students.

This study seems to be one of the original studies that informed the current vogue for ‘mastery’ approaches in teaching and assessment. The recommendations are for iterative cycles of formative testing which allow a student to reach the desired ‘mastery’ level of attainment. I’ll not go into that now (perhaps I’ll plant a seed in the ‘post-garden’ and come back to it later). Suffice to say that I think that Bloom underestimates the time cost, and fails to make out what he really means by mastery (80% in a test score is the usual level – which we can see means pretty much nothing).

What grabbed me more is an idea that that Bloom develops from Leyton (1983) of techniques that “enhance the students’ initial cognitive entry pre-requisites” (who said that educational research can’t be easily understood?!). Broadly, this means ‘making sure they know and can do the things they’ll need to be able to do before they start to learn the new things that you have to teach them’.

Today I’ll be reading through my course materials, looking at the development activities I want them to do during the 10 weeks of the module, and working out a list of these ‘prerequisites’.  I’ll then scrap the first week’s sessions and turn them into a ‘prerequisites’ week.  I might have to think of a snappier title… any suggestions?

Where will this lead?  I’m hoping to make an ‘knowledge organiser’ which the students themselves have to complete, and which I’ll then check over formatively.  I’m sceptical that an organiser on its own will do anything (I need to make sure they read it and commit the ideas to memory for a start), but I’m hoping that if they have a first go at coming up with the ideas, which I then correct, this will give me an idea of where they’re coming from, and them a couple of chances to understand the material they need to know.   I’m hoping that my prerequisites audit will also help inform decisions about the way I structure the workshops and seminars that follow, as well as the content of the weekly lecture, as well as giving me some clear hooks and points to attach to ongoing quizzing.   I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bloom, B.S., 1984. The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational researcher, 13(6), pp.4-16.

Teacher Dashboard and Google Classroom #28daysofwriting

I used to think that ICT would ‘transform’ education, and that it could also ‘transform’ society.  Well, perhaps it will, but it hasn’t yet.  As I get more experienced it seems to me that ICT, like any tool, has its benefits and its downsides.  It also seems to me that one of the big problems with the use of ICT in learning is that students quickly learn to game whatever system they have been asked to work with, and that this works in the directly opposite direction of my main aim as a teacher.  I want students to slow down, to get caught up, to be forced to think again. They want a high score, or to get to the end, or simply to be finished, on to the next thing.  Even if they get beyond this, often they want what they’re doing to be ‘good’ (or sometimes ‘good enough’). ICT can make all of this far too easy.

That’s why I tend to use less ICT directly in the classroom than I used to, and when I do I always try to ask myself ‘why am I taking the extra time to do this using ICT?’ or ‘why are we learning this in the ICT suite instead of our normal classroom’.  Sometimes I can’t find a decent answer to this question, and then we go back to the classroom and to books and pens and pencils.

In the past I have used classroom blogs a great deal, and know colleagues using them to great effect – Alan Kydd’s www.heathenhistory.co.uk for instance.   However, sometimes I don’t want a public blog for my class, for instance.  I want to know who is reading it, and I don’t want to worry about the administration of usernames and privileges.  What I do want is a quick way of getting information, links and assignments to students.  Previous experience with various VLEs has taught me that this can be an enormous pain in the bum, and that the difficulties that these things represent can quickly sap the energy from efforts to use ICT to help teacher/student communication.

Recently I’ve been looking at Google Classroom, which does seem to offer me some quick and easier solutions for the problems I have run into whilst using classroom blogs.  Classroom isn’t transforming my practice, but I am finding it useful for the usual things like homework reminders and answering queries from students.   However, what I like it for best is for fleshing out those throwaway remarks, or passing conversations we have with students who are interested in topics not directly related to our syllabus.  Links to extra reading, radio or TV shows, catch up notes and historical novels that we have discussed.

Teacher dashboard is a set of apps with even more potential, which I’m still experimenting with.  This service from Hapara gives you the ability to create a folder in your students’ google drive (not their personal drive, but one connected to their institution), and to send them google documents and other resources.  Using the dashboard I can then tell which students have amended their documents, and when they did so. I can also give them feedback on their work as they progress.   I’ve been using this with some year 10 GCSE students. Their assessment in 2016 will be on paper, so I’m reluctant yet to spend a great deal of time asking them to type answers into google docs.  What I have been using it for is revision presentations.

I have been asking students to go home after each lesson and make two or three slides to record what they learned in each lesson.  In this way I’m hoping that I can encourage them to see that revision shouldn’t be something that happens at the end of a course, or just when you have an important assessed test coming up.   In trying to use something I learned from making it stick – that effort expended in trying to remember something will help later recall – I ask the students to first draft their slides without looking at their notes.  When the first draft is done, then they should make the notes.  We have a short formative assessment every month or 5 weeks, and they hand in a printed version of their revision presentation as the test starts.

I can’t honestly say that this has yet had a huge impact on grades. I have noticed that their retention and use of important information has improved.  What it is doing is setting up a routine and expectation that revision is ongoing.  I also get an example of what they do when they revise, and I’m going to use this to help them revise better as the course goes on.

So, Classroom and Teacher Dashboard is ICT that isn’t revolutionary, but is genuinely helping me in my task of enabling students to learn.

Why I love: the Memory Tea Tray Game #28daysofwriting

Memory GameWhen I was little we would sometimes play this game on wet afternoons (there being no youtube).  It is much easier with pictures than objects, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use either.  I often use images as icons for particular concepts, events or historical actors, especially where there are several factors or issues that we’ll be exploring over a couple of weeks or half a term.   Sometimes I’ll give the students these images, sometimes I’ll ask them to associate images themselves.   If we’ve been studying a topic without using these images then this memory game is a good way of introducing them as a tool for revision.  This also works really well as a starter, as there’s an element of time which encourages them to settle and to raise their game very early in the lesson.

Before the lesson I will find images that allow students to discuss causes, consequences, or other second order concepts, or those that enable us to talk about substantive events, people, trends or other historical content.   I can then arrange them on a powerpoint slide with the instruction that students have say 10 or 15 seconds to memorise them.

In class I tell them to close all their books, and to have a pen ready at the side. They’re to look at the screen / board and memorise the pictures that appear.  After the allotted time I change the slide (you can set powerpoint up to do this automatically too) and tell them they have a minute to write down as many of the items as they can remember.

Here’s one I made earlier about the causes of poverty in Elizabethan England.  You’ll notice that there are several important causes I’ve missed off – a good way of extending this idea is to ask students ‘which causes are not represented?’.  To push this further I can ask them to remember the images at the end of the lesson too – which works well as a plenary if the images, or the ideas that they represent are then explored in the lesson itself.

#28daysofwriting – Feedforward

Spring in the GlassGoing to be very brief this evening, but I did want to record how I got on with feedforward questions. This idea, which has been doing the rounds on twitter, involves teachers making comments on work and asking for improvements, or asking supplemental questions designed to move students’ understanding on.

I tried it with my year 9s, which worked well. I think that this was because my feedback was based on the work we had done on generalisations over several classes, and the work they had to do was improve a paragraph that they had written last lesson, and which I had marked in the meantime.

With my year 8 boys I tried writing questions that I hoped would enable them to extend their understanding, or improve their responses to questions they answered last lesson. This didn’t go as well – perhaps because I had much less concrete set of learning objectives for the work. This led me to give out a much more diverse set of feedback instructions, and didn’t allow the students to use their experiences in the previous lessons in the same way as my year 9s could in interpreting my advice. Also they were year 8 boys, it was the last lesson on Friday afternoon, and I was asking for independent thinking in response to written comments.

Why I love: Hotspot Taboo ( #28daysofwriting )

hot seatQuick one tonight, as I’m determined to keep up this #28daysofwriting effort.  I’ve been thinking a lot about playing games in lessons which seem to help learning.  One of my favourite types of games are hotspot games – such as ‘yes / no’, ‘guess who’ or ‘just a minute’ where someone comes to the front to play.  Recently I’ve been playing ‘hotspot taboo’ with my year 7 classes. Using Ian Dawson and Dale Banham’s book on King John, we’ve been coming up with lists of words and phrases that it would be really useful to be able to use if we want to explain the problem that medieval English kings had with the French, the Catholic Church and their own Barons.

We write those three lists (one for each problem) on the board.  Then we see if volunteers can accurately explain each problem without using any of the words on the board, like a whole class game of taboo.

If anyone hears the player use one of the taboo words they get to shout ‘TaboOooo!’ and then come up and have a go themselves.  It is great fun, but it also forces students to think of ways of explaining the importance or effect or causes of things.

Why I love: Marking

Harvest TimeI’m trying to work on a “do more marking than planning” basis this week. Partially as an experiment to see if I can, but also because I wonder if I spend too long thinking of cool things to do, and not enough time finding out whether those cool things have actually had an impact.

Yesterday I posted about the ‘Target Notes‘ idea that I half-inched from Paul Ginnis. Today I thought I’d share what I did with the marking of them. I flicked through, and looked for really good examples of the kind of generalisation that we were looking for in the middle ring of our notes. I then compared these with sentences which were much weaker generalisations. I did leave feedback, and I was able to note which students had really got what I meant, which were still unsure, and to know those students who found the whole thing mystifying. The marking also gave me a really good pointer about who to ask questions of in class, to check whether things had been going in.

So, armed with my understanding about the progress made during the last lesson, I made a powerpoint called Making Explanations and Generalisations which I hope enabled the students to compare these stronger and weaker generalisations, and which we then used to come up with some criteria for assessing generalisations. This only took 10 minutes at the start of the lesson, but it gave the rest of the lesson good momentum. This was mainly because I told the students to be ready to write a really strong generalisation at the end of the lesson – based on the (have to admit it) rather dull note taking exercise that they would be completing in the meantime.

In short, the marking planned my lesson, and gave me an excuse to set them up with a plenary that would allow me to see if they’ve moved on.

Why I love: Target Notes

When I read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (£) one of the things that really resonated with me was the difference that the authors draw between ‘rule learners’ and ‘example learners’ – between those who can see the wood for the trees and those who can only see the individual trees.  Whilst I first thought that this was not an easy concept to fit over my experience of history teaching, there being no ‘rules’ in history to learn.  The more I thought about it in the light of my own teaching, the more important this idea seemed to be.  There are lots of students who know a great deal of things.  But, they seem to have difficulty being able to say anything about all these things that they know.

My year 9s are doing some work on slavery, we’ve been borrowing some ‘big picture’ slavery lessons from Dan Nuttall at Ilkley Grammar, and interspersing it with detailed lessons on slavery during the 18th and 19th Centuries.   I’ve been wanting them to be able to make generalisations about slavery, and to support these with evidence, and we’ve had some success.  To help others over the line, I borrowed an idea I also stole from someone else, from the Teacher’s Toolkit: Raise Classroom Achievement with Strategies for Every Learner (£), called ‘target notes’ – I encouraged the students to write explaining sentences about the impact or effects of the three ‘topics’ in the middle circle and examples to support in the outer circle.  Most of them did well, but a crucial number didn’t – and it’s these I can work on to help them understand the difference between the ‘rule’ or the ‘generalisation’ and the ‘evidence’.

Historial Fiction: Dave Martin’s Blog

SaintRadegondeMural_croppedJust a quick post to publicise Dave Martin’s excellent blog, which I was reminded of today after I promised a parent that I would recommend some historical fiction for their son’s class.  The site is really helpful.  Not only does it contain lists of books, grouped by period, it has suggestions of things to do, and links to further professional and research reading.