Ten Things to Remember when Teaching History …

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Mike Maddison, former HMI and Ofsted’s National Lead for History, writes about what he regards to be the most effective building blocks of highly inspiring and successful school history teaching.

As a senior leader in a large secondary school in the North of England, as an HMI Inspector for nigh-on ten years, as Ofsted’s National Lead for History for nine years and as an independent consultant for the last five years, I have visited dozens of schools and hundreds of history lessons.

I have always reflected on what I have seen in relation to teaching and learning in history, much of which has been wonderful and some of it quite exceptional.

In this article I have tried to distill some of the more important key points which time and again have proved to be the most effective building blocks of highly inspiring and successful history.

So here they are – in no particular order. If you recognise yourself or your strategies, thank you for the privilege of letting me share those experiences with you and your pupils at the time and with colleagues now.

1. Teach through historical enquiries

Time and again, classroom visits have shown that enquiries are the most effective subject pedagogy in history, not least because when well drafted, they make pupils think. This became clear when I was writing History For All in 2010.

Schools are one of the few places where, on the whole, questions are asked to which the answers are already known.

So, we should ask questions about the unknown – for example, in addition (or perhaps instead of) looking at the tried-and-tested aspects of William and his victory at the Battle of Hastings, how about focusing on the not-so-often covered themes, such as the extent of the impact of the Norman invasion upon the lives of the people across England? There is plenty to think about here.

In addition, drip feed the evidence you present in each enquiry and make sure that some of it is contradictory. In this way pupils will assimilate much more detail and be able to argue in greater depth.

And finally, make the enquiry meaningful to pupils’ lives and current events. Show how what they are learning about links to the bigger picture and to trends and themes which arise again in preceding and succeeding centuries and eras (for the importance of enquiries in history, see Michael Riley’s seminal work on enquiry questions).

2. Develop pupils’ historical questioning

We want pupils to be thoughtful and curious. So, encourage them to ask questions, support them in having doubts and enable them to see the full picture so that they judge accurately and fairly.

Effective history teaching and engaging exploration of the past enables pupils to understand and appreciate the present. In the words of one Year 9 pupil, ‘studying history stops people believing rubbish’.

3. Create time for historical debate, discussion and reflection

Too often teachers are in a hurry to move on, frequently before pupils have really assimilated what they have learned so far.

So, slow down and build in time for pupils to talk about their ideas, ask their questions and challenge each other and you about the enquiry being undertaken.

Pupils need to articulate their ideas orally and to hear the thoughts of others to help them write effectively. So, give them time.

4. Focus on analytical and discursive writing in history

Creative and descriptive writing clearly has its place in the history classroom. However, in recent years the pendulum has been somewhat stuck at this end of the literary writing spectrum.

Instead, focus much more on analytical and discursive writing. Perhaps forget  the newspaper article, the diary entry and the letter because they often only highlight the bland and sensational.

In their place, pose questions which require pupils to draw together a range of evidence and argue a case, for example, ‘How much change did the Vikings bring to the areas they conquered from the 8th to the 11th centuries?’ Go on, make them think!

5. Focus on historical knowledge

History is a cumulative and not a hierarchical subject. As a result, the more pupils know about a period and a topic, the more they can draw upon and deploy as they present their case.

Over time their understanding and ability to argue orally and on paper becomes more sophisticated and they learn how best to use that knowledge.

All knowledge has a purpose. It influences how we think, and how we join that new knowledge with that which has already been learned and so our thinking develops further.

It is then, in Kate Hammond’s words. all about making use of our detailed knowledge ‘to ‘flavour’ the construction of a claim, knowledge which may be revealed implicitly rather than explicitly’.

6. Engage with historical scholarship – “foreground it” in enquiries

As we all move away from our degree courses and training, we can become slowly divorced from scholarship. Other matters take priority and reading the latest research on the topics we teach can slip off the agenda.

We must reconnect with scholarship and stay plugged in because, how can you create an enquiry if you haven’t studied the latest scholarship?

And once you have read the latest research or listened to a relevant podcast, use that knowledge to create your enquiries and let the pupils access that same research. In Tim Jenner’s phrase, ‘create a culture of reading’.

7. Do not avoid emotional, controversial, sensitive and contentious issues when teaching history

As history teachers, it is our duty is to explain because, if we don’t, who will? A sound history education is also the antidote to fake news.

As a result, we must engage with the controversial and the contentious to ensure that pupils understand clearly and can more readily sort fact from fiction.

We live in difficult times and one undoubted benefit of studying history is that it can help make pupils comfortable with uncertainty and this is of immense importance at this time. So do not hold back – tackle the difficult topics about which pupils need to know, not least for example, the cost of the British Empire for those who were subjugated.

Use the latest scholarship here and in relation to the impact of Empire, for example, see William Dalrymple’s latest work on India.

8. Focus upon access and challenge for all and not differentiation for some

The term ‘differentiation’ has become an increasingly misunderstood aspect of teaching and for some people in recent years it has become synonymous with dumbing down within the curriculum.

Making work easier for some pupils by removing some of the more difficult aspects does pupils a disservice. Such an approach is to be deplored, in my opinion. As a result, do not use the word ‘differentiation’.

Instead, think about ensuring that all pupils can access the work being set. Ensure that you have different routes available so that all can achieve the outcome desired.

Within those routes establish the level of challenge appropriate for those pupils. Do not avoid historical terminology, make all pupils comfortable with first order concepts by regularly revisiting them and, above all, think about the level of language of any texts used. (For helpful ideas on developing vocabulary and language in history, see Lindsay Bruce’s excellent advice).

9. When giving feedback, a history piece of work deserves a history comment

This seems obvious but so often when marking pupils’ work and giving feedback the comments are literacy focused and generic.

Literacy is important but so is history. Just make sure that the feedback you give is meaningful and motivating for the pupils and gives them guidance as to how to improve their historical thinking by developing their knowledge and understanding. If it’s not, don’t bother!

10. Use historical enrichment to support learning

The current pandemic has led to visits to historic places being virtually wiped out. However, Covid 19 must not be allowed to destroy all enrichment.

If you cannot visit, engage with providers who will visit you especially those who will do it remotely, for example, the virtual classroom at the National Archives.

However, enrichment should mean doing anything beyond what is usually undertaken within the classroom. So, don’t be afraid to do something different.

And finally …

In all that you do, focus upon developing pupils’ historical thinking, that is the ability to investigate, consider, reflect and review the events of the past.

Use overviews and depth studies to achieve this. Always model what you expect.

And remember that these are two of the most important questions to consider in teaching:

Why are we teaching, what we are teaching, how we are teaching it, when we are teaching it?

What do I want pupils to know do and understand at the end of the enquiry/term/year/key stage that they didn’t know, couldn’t do and didn’t understand at the beginning?

Once you have answered these, plan your lessons.

Have a great year, enjoy your teaching and stay safe!

<h3>In Summary</h3>
  • Teach through historical enquiries

  • Develop pupils’ historical questioning

  • Create time for historical discussion, debate and reflection

  • Focus on analytical and discursive writing in history

  • Develop pupils’ historical questioning

  • Focus on historical knowledge

  • Engage with historical scholarship – foreground it in enquiries

  • Do not avoid controversial, emotional, sensitive and contentious issues

  • Focus upon access and challenge for all, not differentiation for some

  • Use historical enrichment to support learning

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