Over the summer a large number of us realised that we needed an assessment guide to the new OCR SHP GCSE. After a ridiculous number of hours discussion we finally produced the guide below. This is fully endorsed by SHP and has been checked over by OCR. Please feel free to spread it widely, we made it to be useful.
Like many others from the history teaching community I recently attended the West London Free School conference. The main message which was evident in the tweets from the day and blogs write ups after was ‘all hail the return of knowledge’. As Christine Counsell said in her opening lecture with the move to a more progressive pedagogy in the 80s and 90s some practitioners had thrown ‘the baby out with the bath water’ and left knowledge languishing, where some have left it while they focus on skills instead. I can see some merit in this view. I’ve seen some horrors undertaken with pipe cleaners and play d’oh. I’ve suffered wearing DeBono’s blooming hats. I have had to do sodding brain gym.
As someone that is very passionate about the progression of my subject and the way it is taught nationwide I am glad that people are talking about knowledge again. I am chuffed that people are discussing how we can bring recent scholarship into the classroom. As a lover of stories I am over the moon that people are considering how we can use micro and macro narratives in the classroom.
But I have my concerns.
To quote Chris Culpin “stuff is not enough”. A great historian is not one who just knows more stuff. It takes something more than this. I teach Robert (that’s not actually his name). Robert knows more about military history than me. He can tell me the date of any great battle in the twentieth century. He can tell me the model of planes that were used, the shell they dropped, the model of the tank they hunted. If I teach him a fact he will remember it. Going into the exam next year he will probably know more substantive knowledge than the other students in my class. At the moment I doubt whether he will secure the Grade 4 or 5 ‘good pass’. Why? He is not a good historian as he struggles to think like one. He just likes knowing more facts. But this is restricting his progression as a historian.
Being a good historian takes a lot more than knowing stuff. It takes you to think like a historian. Thinking historically is an abstract and alien thing for kids. It is not normal. It’s that skill (and I use that word purposely) that if you are shown a source you instantly start thinking about what it can tell you about a period, why it was produced, what other evidence you might need to support it, why it is limited. If you think historically and you are given a solid enquiry question you can think of a logical structure to answer it, a way to hack through the jungle to find the light. If you are given a historical interpretation you can read between the lines to see what that historian is arguing and why they might have produced this when they did.
Obviously to do all the above you need substantive knowledge. I do not doubt that. You need it in bucket loads. But you also need something more. At the West London Free School people called this disciplinary knowledge (a term I like), other people call it second order concepts, some people just call it plain old skills. I don’t care which term you use. What I am trying to argue is that you need both.
My concern with the move toward a ‘knowledge rich’ pedagogy is that some people are already doing what others did in the late 80s and early 90s, they are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Our lessons should never just be teaching knowledge and not giving our students the chance to think about it, to form an argument about it, to investigate it. This is wrong. It will make our lessons insufferably dull and will put kids off history for a long time.
Should we being teaching knowledge rich lessons? Of course we should. But we also should be explicitly teaching skills alongside this and getting our students to think like historians. Christine Counsell and Ben Walsh both actively argued at WLFS that you need to teach substantive and disciplinary knowledge and they are of course right. The Schools History Project and Historical Association have been actively advocating this for decades and it would be a travesty to throw out this hard work. Getting kids to think like historians should be the goal of every teacher and this needs to not be forgotten.
Interpretations – they don’t need to be daunting
As any of you who follow my Twitter feed will know I have been thinking a lot about interpretations in the last few months. This is down to two reasons:
- The new A-Level and GCSE is forcing me to teach interpretations more than I have ever done before.
- My Bristol history network (the pizza group) is focusing on interpretations this year. This is all we have been talking about.
Interpretations – the least taught second order concept
Now this might be a generalisation but I bet that of the historical second order concepts that you least teach in your classroom, interpretations is top of the pile. Why is this case? It’s no more tricksy than sourcework and I bet you all do that. I think part of the reason is that interpretations work always seems really daunting.
- “My Yr8s can’t cope with the vocabulary of Historian Y”.
- “My Yr10 find it difficult enough knowing one time period but to do interpretations you need to know two, the one the extract is about and the second about the time it was written”.
These are all valid concerns and echo some of my own fears about teaching interpretations over the years. But this doesn’t need to be the case.
There are a lot of interpretations out there – choose the most appropriate
There are a plethora of historical interpretations you can use in the classroom. Some are far easier than others. Here is a simple list I made:
No one is expecting you jump in the deep end by giving your Year 7 class a postgraduate paper. That would be nuts. But Year 7 can easily access a film trailer (always a winner to analyse as they are so opinionated one way or another) or an illustration from a children’s book. These can then be a gateway to more difficult interpretations – build up their confidence bit by bit. Equally Yr13 probably want the challenge of a more academic text as they can really get their teeth into it – mind you they’d love a Ladybird book too.
So look at this list and then work out how you are going to build up your students interpretation work through the years. You might start with a film trailer in Year 7, build to a Ladybird book account in Year 8 before looking at something like Schama in Year 10 before reading an academic blog together in Year 12.
So in short – don’t be intimidated by interpretations. Just pick carefully and plan ahead.
Thinking about interpretations is hard
Thinking about interpretations can be really difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. Admittedly trying to work out why a historian wrote about the Tudors in a particular way given the context of the time he or she was writing or his or her political ideology is hard. But don’t jump in at this end. At its simplest just giving kids interpretations and getting them to distil it is equally valid and part of the process.
Below is a suggested hierarchy of thinking. This is entirely based on my experience in the classroom and represents what how my students think and what they find difficult – your experience might well be different. I am not trying to say one is better than the other but just that as you go up this pyramid you are asking students to think of more and more complex concepts.
The first stage in any thinking about interpretations needs to be getting the kids to think about what is being argued in the interpretation – distilling the beast into a line or two. They need the gist of the message. Is it positive, is it negative is a good starting place. Nearly all students can do this. It doesn’t require vast amounts of knowledge and is achievable. We could and should be building this type of thinking into a lot of our lessons.
Once they have the gist they can then properly start analysing it. The easiest way to do this is through contextual evidence. For example if Historian X is arguing that one cause is more important than others, what evidence do you have that this is a convincing or a limited argument. This is exactly what the new A-Level interpretation questions are asking students to do funnily enough.
But you can beyond this and this is where we can start getting students really thinking. Beyond these first two stages students can begin evaluating the interpretation – trying to explain why and how the historian has reached their particular argument. The easiest way to do this is by assessing the purpose first as this is a concept most students can understand quite easily. Is the historian trying to educate or entertain or both. Does this change your opinion of the interpretation?
Going beyond this students can then begin to evaluate the interpretation through the historians stylistic choices. Does the historian use a metaphor or a simile – why might they do this? My Year 10s love this at the moment using the skills from their English lessons in my history class.
Now we get to the top of the tree. Once you get through those first stages of thinking you get to the pinnacle. To really evaluate an interpretation we preferably want our students to think about the methodology that historian has used to reach that interpretation – this is hard. And finally we should encourage our students to also consider the context of the historian. Does the historian have a particular political sway or were they writing at the time of a specific event that might have influenced them?
As you can see this is a lot of thinking and part of the reason that some people have avoided interpretations (I think) is that they have jumped right to the top. This is hardcore. It is what we should aspire to but we won’t always achieve this. Instead isn’t it better that we embed these thinking skills from Year 7 to Year 13. Maybe introducing analysis through contextual evidence in Key Stage 3 before thinking about purpose and style at Key Stage 4 and then context at Key Stage 5. This makes it all far less daunting and also means that we can preparing our students by building up their thinking and resilience.
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My social media feed (I mostly use Twitter) makes it look like education is polarising. Over the last few years two distinct camps have emerged; two camps that most of the people I follow have firmly pinned their colours to.
Group A (often called Traditionalists) – This group promote the fact that we should just give knowledge to our students. In their world the teacher is the font of all knowledge and their job is to pass this to the kids and their lessons are knowledge rich. Progress is kids knowing more stuff. According to them we need more academic rigour and less focus on skills. They don’t like discovery learning. This group is all about the subject.
Group B (often called Progressivists) – This group is all about the skills and the fun and the engagement. They want kids to know stuff but that isn’t their primary purpose. Instead they want to create engaging learning experiences where they learn life skills and lessons are often focused purely on getting them through the exam. They really like discovery learning. This group is less about the subject.
Why is a purely Group A approach limited?
- Knowledge is important but it is not the be all and end all of teaching.
- How much ‘stuff’ do kids actually remember at the end of the year? My lesson is three hours out of fifty per fortnight. It isn’t possible for them to remember that much and I am good at my job (I think). This raises an elephant in the room – if they aren’t going to remember that stuff why should I focus purely on them remembering stuff?
- Kids have to sit exams. If we don’t explicitly teach them skills and how to answer an exam question (whether we like it or not) they won’t do as well. And if they don’t get their grades we are affecting their university choices and job prospects.
Why is a purely Group B approach limited?
- Making a model out of pipe cleaners is a laugh but what you taught them in an hour you could have just told them in five minutes.
- A stop motion film is fun but where is the learning about the intricacies of your subject. Where is the grappling with the academic rigour of your subject?
- Skills are needed but you cannot teach skills without knowledge. You have to know something to test your skills. It can’t therefore be all about skills.
- Beating students with the exam stick takes out any fun or bits that are unique about your subject.
In short, teaching purely like A or purely like B will not help the students you teach understand more and learn more. It doesn’t work in isolation.
Why the rant though Mr Kennett?
What concerns me about the situation I have described above is that this is not what the majority of us do. In fact I have a suspicion that both Group A and B are the very loud but extreme minority of teachers. If you just teach like A or B I would also suggest that you don’t do a very good job. Teaching needs a bit of both A and B. Sometimes you need to just give them the facts, other times you need the kids on your side and creating an engaging learning activity that might be quite light hearted is needed.
My fear is that new teachers join social media and see the proponents of A or B who have a huge numbers of followers and think that therefore they should be like them and teach only like A or B. They shouldn’t. You need to be both A and B.
Why is social media like this? I suppose that arguing for one cause makes for a more interesting blog or Twitter feed. Sometimes people write posts just to elicit a debate or show off a particular point. There is nothing wrong with that – that is arguably what I am doing here. Except the polarisation of education isn’t what most of us actually do in the classroom. Additionally this is linked to the problem we have in politics on social media – social media is an echo chamber. You probably only follow people who think like you do. You scream at the converted and in doing so the popularity of their voice increases whilst the silent majority sit back and get unnoticed.
I am also concerned that some people naively link this to politics. Traditionalist = right wing. Progressivist = left wing. But these theories are not right or left wing. Hirsch, the Yoda of all traditionalists is left wing Democrat. He wants us to all teach more knowledge so that working class kids get the same cultural capital as the middle class and upper class ones do. I am not doubting that there is obviously some crossover between political ideology and educational theory but on the whole these two schools of thought operate in separate spheres of influence.
The unsaid (on social media) truth – good teaching needs A and B
Here is my week so far…
- I started the week lecturing Year 13 about the strength of the Soviet Union in 1941. I did this because they just needed some facts and they needed it quickly. Lecturing was the best vehicle to do it.
- I taught a lesson to Year 9 about interpretations of Operation Dynamo. I barely spoke. I let Year 9 work with different interpretations on their own, unpicking them and questioning them. Through this bit of discovery learning they learnt less about Dunkirk but a lot about how and why interpretations differ.
- I did a lesson with Year 11 just looking at how you answer source questions in exams. Each group had three or four source questions and they presented to the rest about how they would answer it. Their mock is this week and this was crucial for them to succeed in it and build their confidence during this crucial year.
- I used a textbook with Year 10 to learn about living conditions in the twentieth century. I introduced the topic and they made notes about the key features. At the end of the lesson I briefly wrapped up what they had learnt.
- Year 7 were finishing an assessment on medieval control. Once they had finished they designed book covers as if they were a historian assessing control. It was a bit of fun after a long bit of writing but consolidated their thoughts.
As I hope you have picked up, some lessons were more heavily weighted toward A, some were heavily B, most were a mixture of both. This is normal. In each scenario I planned for what is best for the kids. I did not let the very loud but extreme minority influence my planning, I used the technique that that led to the best learning.
We need to shout about normality
What I have described above is normal. I suspect this is probably what your teaching week might have looked like. Except Twitter doesn’t really ever show this. Now I am not saying that I want the polar opinions to vanish. I don’t. Sometimes polar opinions can make you think which is good. What I do want is more normality to appear. Those of us (the quieter majority of A and B) need to write blogs that show what we do.
Polarisation leads to dysfunction. This leads to increased polarisation which in the US has led to the rise of Donald Trump. Good Lord we need to ensure this dysfunction doesn’t happen to the debate in education.
Note: My colleague Sam helped me to write large sections of this!
With the old A-level the students could get away with quite a simple argument in their essay and they could still get full marks. What my team and I have realised with the new A-level is that this is not the case (well at least we think this isn’t the case!). The A-level requires a sophistication of argument and a depth of historical thinking that was not there before. As it wasn’t there before, it wasn’t in our schemes of work but we have been working really hard to tackle this.
Let’s take a question:
‘The Bolshevik state under Lenin, between 1918 and 1924, was just as ruthless as the Communist state under Stalin, between 1928 and 1941.’ Assess the validity of this view. [25 marks]
A simple argument could be: Yes Stalin was as ruthless or Lenin. OR Stalin was just as ruthless is some aspects but more ruthless in others.
A more sophisticated argument could be: Both leaders were as ruthless as each other but they were doing it for different reasons. Lenin’s ruthlessness came from an ideological stance but Stalin’s came from a personal obsession with power.
The big question arises how do you get the students to make these more sophisticated arguments. Put simply it requires more historical thinking. To reach the more sophisticated argument you have to think of the questions behind the question. For example: What do you mean by ruthless? What were the motivations behind the leaders’ ruthlessness? Who was the ruthlessness aimed at or who suffered the most under it?
We’ve been wrestling with how we help the students do this but two things have worked well so I thought they were worth sharing.
1. Make the difference between sophisticated and simple arguments explicit.
I was concerned that often the history made it difficult for the kids to get this understanding. So I made it a lot more simple. I chose the medium of cats. I like cats. So below are arguments that range from simplistic to sophisticated about why cats are brilliant:
I explicitly went through this with all my A-Level classes and now every time we do an essay I dig it back out as a visual reminder. This week we also used it judge the students conclusions against this scale where we agreed as a class where each students’ argument lay on this line. I appreciate that this is silly but sometimes kids like that and it helps them remember.
2. The cake analogy – getting them to think of the questions underneath the question
My Head of History led a great meeting this week where we discussed the difference between a Band 4 (A grade) and Band 5 (A* grade) answer. He pointed out rightly that it was about sophistication and that this required the students to think about the questions under the question. As a result of this we discussed a few examples (the ruthless one above is one of them). We decided we would demonstrate this to the students and then discussed the best vehicle to do this. What we realised as a team is that this fancy pants thinking is great but it only needs to be a bit of the essay. If the student doesn’t actually answer the main question and instead focuses on this ‘extra thinking’ they will go off on a tangent. Hence we came up with the analogy of a cherry cake:
buy modafinil bangkokWe need the kids to keep MOST of their essays simplistic or they will not actually answer the question. If they don’t do that they will fail. Actually the sophisticated bit is the cherry on the cake, it is probably the 5 to 10% of an essay, maybe the last few lines of each main paragraph or the bulk of a great conclusion. So we’ve made a LOT of cherry cake slides. In the next fortnight we are all going to demonstrate this to our A-Level classes whenever we introduce an essay question. Fingers crossed in doing so the kids will get the message so often they will start doing the extra thinking themselves.
Interpretations are hard
Like all of you, I’ve been grappling with the increased demands of both the new GCSE and the new A-Level. I think one of the biggest (and most positive) changes has been the increased emphasis on historical interpretation. Our GCSE (OCR SHP) has a large focus on interpretations and we are clearly going to need to teach this a lot more.
Looking through the specimen assessment materials there is a lot about unpacking historical interpretations:
- Thinking about how and why an author has reached a particular interpretation.
- There is also quite a bit about comparing historical interpretations in terms of their content, message and purpose.
- Finally there is a long question where the students are required to evaluate a given interpretation.
All this is ace, but a bit daunting, and we have been planning some explicit interpretation lessons into our new Norman England unit to help the students get to grips with it all. To do this we needed some historical interpretations to get our teeth into so I bought the Ladybird history of William the Conqueror and I am fast of the opinion that it was the best £3 (thanks abebooks.co.uk) I’ve spent in a while.
Why use Ladybird books?
- They are written in dead easy language for a student to understand.
- They are ridiculously subjective and argue a very specific narrative.
- They have wonderful images that are ace interpretations in themselves.
- They are short!
Using Ladybird to teach historical interpretations – some lesson ideas
1. Evaluate a specific interpretation
On our OCR paper the last question is worth 20 marks. You are given an interpretation and must say how you agree or disagree. At the moment we have two sample questions (more are coming) but we needed more to get the kids exam ready. The interpretations they give you in this question will always be pretty one sided and subjective so you can argue against them. Often it’s really hard to find short snappy statements like this that the kids can evaluate – believe me I have picked through Marc Morris to find such quotes. But good old Ladybird is full of them, here’s one:
What a cracker. After I’ve done all my lessons on William trying to gain control England I am going to introduce this to the kids as a summary and then get them to pull it apart. They’ll find evidence that it is an accurate statement, then find evidence that it is not and finally I’ll get them to rewrite a more accurate version. This is perfect preparation for these longer questions.
2. Compare Ladybird and another interpretation
In the exam the students must compare two interpretations. If one of these interpretations is Ladybird this is all made a bit easier as its language is dead easy and there is a clear purpose of it being written – it is to entertain little kiddies. So in our new scheme of work I’ve built in a lesson where they compare the Ladybird interpretation of the Battle of Hastings with Simon Schama’s (from History of Britain).
What’s good about this is that actually in some respects they are pretty similar as both emphasise Harold’s mistakes but they are hugely different as they have totally different purposes. Using the Ladybird one is good as it makes it less daunting and is good scaffolding. You can build their confidence at analysing the Ladybird one first before introducing the far more complex Schama interpretation. If you did this the other way you might scare a few kids off.
3. Unpick a single interpretation
On the exam the students have to unpick a single interpretation, identifying and explaining how and why the author / artist produced this interpretation. To do this illustrations are brilliant and the Ladybird books are stacked full of them. Here is the page for the Harrying of the North:
I think reading these two pages that in many respects the author here is pretty sympathetic to the Normans, you can see it in the grumpy face of the northern Saxon and the language they use. Yes they acknowledge that it was “wilderness for more than fifty years” but they also suggest that this was about restoring order implying the northerners were to blame. Lovely stuff to unpick. Finding interpretations that are so easy to unpick is really hard. Ladybird books are full of them.
WARNING: I am fully aware that the following is statistical hell. There is no sure fire way of doing the below. It is one method and it won’t be perfect but I thought some people might find it useful.
Have you got the foggiest what a grade 5 looks like? Do you know a grade 9 when you see it?
I certainly don’t and nor do my team. Yet.
Since the start of September all my team have been asking how we are going to grade 1 to 9 on the new reformed GCSE. In all honesty there is no real way of working it out precisely. BUT the kids are asking, the staff are asking and pretty soon the parents will be too. So below is a method I used to work out some rough percentages of what I think it could look like for the OCR SHP History GCSE.
Here is how I worked out this beast:
1. Work out the average grade boundaries
On the OCR website I pulled out the raw scores to achieve each grade over the last 3 years, so in our case what was needed to get an A* on the Medicine / Germany paper, the public health paper and the controlled assessment. I did this for each paper over the three years and then did an average of all the averages. In our case it looked like this:
2. Use this to work out 7, 4 and 1
The government have said that the percentage of students achieving 7 will be broadly in line with those achieving A grade and above now. They’ve also said that those students achieving 4 and above will be broadly in line with those getting C grade and above. And finally they’ve said that those students achieving 1 and above will be broadly in line with G and above.
Well if we know the average grade boundary for an A grade we can assume this will be the grade boundary for a 7. Same for a 4 and a 1. Bob’s your uncle that’s three of the pesky grades done.
3. Calculate 5,6,2 and 3
The government have said that grades 2,3,5 and 6 will be arithmetically calculated. 5 and 6 will be equal points away from 4 and 7. Therefore if you know 4 and 7 you can work out the difference in between them. 5 is just 4 plus one third of the difference and 5 is 4 plus two thirds of the difference. You can do the same with 2 and 3. Now you’ve got grade boundaries for 7 grades.
4. Wave your wand over 8 and 9
This is where it gets a bit fishy. 8 sounds to me in all the guidance like our current A*, so I just put in the grade boundary for the A*. Then to make 9 I worked out the difference between 7 and 8 and added it to 8 to give 9. This is the least exact bit of the bunch but I needed something. You now have 9 grade boundaries.
All in all the one for OCR SHP History GCSE for us looks like this:
Now you can take this further and we will. We also need to work out whether we are ‘on track’ or not and this is going to be difficult, but it’s not impossible. This is how we are going to do it.
1. Work out the average percentages per grade at your school
I took the last five years results and calculated the average percentage per grade achieved at the end of Year 11. Then I created a cumulative percentage, so the average percentage that achieved A and above etc. etc.
2. Follow the government guidance
Again (and I repeat) the government have said that the % of students achieving a 7 or more will be broadly in line with those achieving A or more and that those achieving 4 or more will be broadly in line with those achieving C or more. Therefore if we know the average % of our students that achieve A grade or more normally and those that achieve C grade or more normally we have two benchmarks to judge ourselves against. Lovely stuff. For us (we are a high achieving school) this looks like this:
Below are all the resources that were presented at the free Building confidence with historical sources CPD event on Monday 13th June at Redland Green School. The links below are to a GoogleDrive. We advise that you download from Google as the formatting of looking at them in the GoogleDrive might make them look a bit odd!
I wrote a blog for Innovate my School on immersing pupils in history. If you want a read take a look at: