Recently a group of my colleagues from the Bristol Pizza group had an article published in Teaching History on assessment. If you’d like to read it click on the image below:
Kids find using sources really difficult. And after a lot of thought this isn’t that surprising. This is the most difficult thing we teach.
Just think of the process you go through to analyse a source. Let’s do one together. Below is the classic David Low cartoon ‘They salute with both hands now.’ I want you to think about what the message of the source is and as you do it think about the process you go through.I bet it’s something like this. First off you might look at the individual little details. The smoking gun, the Valkyrie, the unkept promises. Once you’ve processed these you might then think about the overall message – the SA are scared. Then you might begin making some inferences about what Low is suggesting about the individual characters in the piece. Goebbels is clearly the lap dog. Goerring the ridiculous drama queen. Now, all the way through in addition to some really tricksy analysis skills you’ve also been consciously or subconsciously using your contextual knowledge of the period to work out these details. The fancy of you have linked this to the Night of the Long Knives but even those who may not have made this leap have worked out this is Hitler, Goebbels and Goerring. Is your brain hurting yet? Analysing sources, whether they be visual or text is hard.
Our department had one of our fortnightly teaching and learning meetings at lunch today. We did a show and tell of things that have gone well and then had a discussion about what works and why kids find it difficult. One of my colleagues suggested that doing source work requires three things:
- Contextual knowledge – the details of the period / event / person required to unpack the details
- Source reading skills. The ability to spot the tiny details and the bigger picture.
- Analysis skills. The ‘making leaps’ bit where you make inferences.
This is obviously a generalisation but I think he’s pretty much spot on. At our school I think the kids are grand at the reading and analysing bit but not so good at the contextual knowledge. Other colleagues suggested they’d worked in places where kids were great at knowledge and reading but rubbish at making the leaps.
I suppose moving forward the point I am trying to make is how do we bring these three points together. I am not sure I have an answer. Sorry! I am trying and intend on using the blog to write about a few ideas but in the meantime if you have ideas let me know!
It’s not often I write a review of a book on this blog but it’s not often I read a history book that I enjoyed as much as The House by the Lake.
It will be little surprise to those of you that read this blog or follow me on Twitter to hear that I am a Germanophile. I love Germany and German history. Sometimes I think that maybe I was born in the wrong country. So when I read a review of The House by the Lake in the Guardian last weekend I couldn’t resist buying it and a week later I’m done and feel compelled to write about it.
Now, I’ll be honest, normally it takes me weeks (and sometimes months) to read a history book. Teaching is tiring so in the evening I only have so much energy for a history book. But this isn’t a normal history book. It’s a historical narrative of one house told in the style of a fictional story and that is its charm. I love a good story and Thomas Harding is a great storyteller.
The house in question is a small house built by a lake in the village of Groß Glienicke on the outskirts of Berlin in 1927. The book chronicles the house up to the present day and in doing so tells the story of Germany in the 20th century. It begins with the Alexanders, a Jewish family who are forced to flee from Nazi Germany and then moves through the subsequent owners and occupiers until 2015. And in doing so the reader moves through the Third Reich and the war, the establishment of the DDR, the erection and fall of the Wall and all the other parts in between.
There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the individual characters who occupy the house and that is why it’s brilliant. Harding makes you feel for these people, no matter how questionable their actions. And through their eyes you see the unfolding narrative of the most important story of the twentieth century – Germany.
Every so often I read a book that I like so much I buy it for my friends and colleagues. I have bought untold copies of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects! This is going to be the book I buy for everyone this year.
This year the Bristol Pizza Group (a load of nerdy history teachers who meet for pizza and to discuss one issue three times a year) are focusing on using sources in lessons. At the first meeting we each shared what our students found difficult and therefore what we would focus on this year.
I decided I would focus on getting the kids to use more contextual knowledge to unpack the source. I teach really able students and they can rip apart the detail in a source without blinking. For example, give them a Court for King Cholera (one of my all-time favourite cartoons) and they’ll find the obscure bits and make some great inferences, telling you about what the kids playing in the dung heap might mean. But what they fail to do is link it to their contextual knowledge of the period. And they have great contextual knowledge. It seems to me that kids see normal content questions and source questions as two different beasts without realising that they can utilise their knowledge to slay both. And with new GCSEs with mark schemes that focus on using contextual knowledge I needed to do something.
This academic year I’ve been really trying to address this problem. I didn’t want to create some fancy pants overly long mnemonic or a laminated learning mat – it’s not me. I wanted to make a really tiny tweak to my teaching and it have an impact. So I thought for long and hard about how I could shift their thinking and sort of force them to use their knowledge. Then I came to it. Four simple words. This is not surprising.
A tiny phrase, but a phrase with power. What it does is get the kids to explain to the reader / examiner that they know why there are specific details in this source. It forces them to use their contextual knowledge.
Take the example below. Year 11 had been looking at The Aryan Family and I asked the kids to write down what it told us about Nazi ideas about women. The student below gives a solid answer. The first time he uses the ‘this is not surprising‘ he doesn’t give that precise contextual knowledge. But suddenly in the second occasion toward the end he brings in the idea of Ubermensch. Now that’s what I want to see. The same student had really struggled with this but the addition of four words and he’s doing it.
Below are another two further examples. This time from Year 9. In Year 9 we are studying the Holocaust and I planned a lesson looking at Nazi propaganda. In this bit of the lesson I gave them the two sources below. One is the Eternal Jew film poster and the other is of a Jewish worm and I asked them to explain how similar they were. Normally the kids would have banged on about the fact that they both look evil. But this time I told them they had to explain why they weren’t surprised by the similarities or differences and use the phrase “this is not surprising“. And their answers were better. As you can see both of these (and most of the class) linked the fear of Communism to the Russian revolution. Nice work Year 9!
When I shared this on Twitter some people were confused and thought I meant this as a technique to answer “How surprising…” questions. Nope. I think this can be used with any source question stem, a why published, a what is the message. It’s a really easy tweak that gets them to think a bit more.
A note of warning. This is not something that I tried one lesson and they got it. It has taken a bit of training. Not a lot to be fair (a few lessons repeating it) but now Year 11 are confidently using the technique and I am convinced they’ll approach the source questions in their exams this summer with a better technique.
So next steps. Roll it out. I need to begin this in Year 7 and keep pushing it. Then when they get to Year 11 they’ll be experts.
Every summer the examiner’s produce a report of common mistakes and common successes in each of the exams. These reports are invaluable to a class teacher to give you guidance about where not to go wrong.
Using this idea my department have started writing our own examiner’s reports after each and every mock. This isn’t exactly a new or hugely revolutionary idea I am sure that many of you do it but I was surprised talking to colleagues in other departments that this isn’t more common practice.
On one script you can only give a small handful of comments, unless you are a sadist who spends all night marking papers. But there are surely things that every student has made a mistake on? For example, our Post-16 at the moment are dreadful at using past tense and constantly write lead not led. Additionally, our Year 13 need to use more specific evidence to support their arguments. On a script I could write “more evidence”, and I do, but in an examiner’s report I can actually explain what that means with a few examples.
As we mark a set of mocks we make comments about common mistakes. We then have a GoogleDoc we enter the comments into or simply email each other. This honestly takes an additional 5 minutes maximum but we produce a whole A4 page of additional feedback for the students. They appreciate it, we feel like we’ve given better feedback and it works.
I’ve been asked to give the PGCE students in school a seminar on how to mark effectively and how to manage a marking workload.
Here’s my PowerPoint and below are the main tips I am giving, which are mostly about how to manage the marking. They are generic and not specific to history but I feel they should be useful to some but especially new teachers.
1.Plan to mark
We all plan our lessons extensively thinking about what we want to achieve and how we are going to achieve it. Do you plan to mark though? Do you think about when is the best time to mark and how much you are going to do? I didn’t but now I do. I look at the term and think about when are the low points and when are the crunch points and plan around it making sure that Year 13 don’t hand an essay in at the same time as Year 8. I plan so that one group might hand in one set of essays whilst another is doing one in timed conditions so I can mark whilst the other group works. Basically use your time effectively.
2.Choose your battles
You can’t mark everything and no one expects you to so choose your battles. Below is a selection of things kids do in my lessons:
Which of these should I mark? Simple answer, the one that will have an impact on their learning. Marking notes is probably a total waste of your time, unless you are checking the low ability kid has got the right content. Marking an extended piece of writing is probably far more beneficial as you can give solid feedback.
3.Think about who to mark first
You will naturally tail off with marking. If you have 30 books and decide to mark the lot (why that’s bad later) by the 30th you’ll just be ticking without reading. With this in mind mark those that matter first. I have 26 in my Year 11 group. 6 are underachieving. I mark these 6 first, then I do the others. This way they get me when I am fresh and awake.
4.Think subject specific
Generic comments on the whole don’t have much impact. If you want kids to improve in history you need to give them a history comment. If you want them to improve in geography you need a geography comment. You get the idea. Basically your comments MUST reflect your subject. Here’s one of mine (it’s a bit long but you get the idea).
5.Phrase it so they can respond
Kids don’t really read the comments you write in their books. They are inherently lazy beasts and will skim over it. If you want them to read it and really take it in phrase it as something they can respond to. If you do this you are essentially forcing them to absorb it. I’ll be honest I don’t care about this is what Ofsted are looking for, I just think it’s good practice.
6.Get them to do some of the leg work
Marking is hard but there is lots you can get the kids to do themselves. If it’s a simple task where they will be able to spot the good bits and the points for improvements get them to do. Either get them to do themselves or get their peers to do it. You’re mad if you think that a kid can do this properly on a four page A2 essay but a short 5 mark question at Year 10 of course they can. Additionally get the kids to lay the foundations for your marking. I think kids find it very difficult to actually spot where they can improve (if they can surely they’d have done it already) but they can spot what they’ve done well. Get them to underline the best bits in a different colour and then in the margin explain why it’s a good bit. Then all you have to do is tell them how to improve.
7.Little and often
I can’t mark a whole set of 30 books at once. If I do I get exponentially slower with each book. Here’s a rubbish graph to show this! It’s scientifically proven and made.
As a result I don’t ever mark a whole set of books at once. I normally do just five. But I do five a lot of the time. Five before school. Five at break. Five in a free. Five after school. Five in the cafe on the way home. That’s the set done. It takes me half the time and means I give better feedback as I am not permanently grumpy about it.
8.Location, location, location
Linked in with point 7 location matters. I can’t mark in my office, it’s cramped full of people and has rubbish light. I mark in the library, in the Post-16 atrium, in the canteen, outside when it’s nice. Anything to relieve my boredom at the task and get me a bit more focused. Also doing five books in one location and then moving to a totally different scenario to do another five speeds me up. Finally my favourite place to mark is the cafe near my house. With a coffee I am even quicker.
Finally find any ways, no matter how small to save yourself time. I get kids to hand their books in open on the exact page I need to mark. That way I don’t have to open each book and find the work before I mark it. I know that sounds pathetic but across a set of books I reckon it saves me five minutes. That’s five more minutes of Netflix and is therefore a winner. Find your ways of saving time.
This blog is about workload. At the moment this is a hot topic at my school. Everyone is tired, we’ve got new curriculum to plan, essays are stacking up and then to add to this fun Year 11 have just sat their mocks.
Teaching is a busy old job, but (blasphemy alert) so are other jobs despite what teachers say! I think it’s just a case of cracking it. I think that after 8 years I might have just done that.
Here are some of my tips. I am not claiming to be a great guru, nor I am trying to patronise, they may not work for you but they work for me. They have genuinely changed my work life balance. I actually have the second bit now. Lots of this involves marking but is not exclusively about marking.
So in no particular order:
1.) Cut yourself some slack – it’s only a job. Teachers are paid well but not well enough to lose bloody sleep over it. You can only do so much. It’s ok to say enough is enough.
2.) Don’t replan everything all the time. Sometimes I look at one of my lessons from last year and remember it didn’t work particularly well. Now I could replan it and it would take me an hour but for how much impact? If the answer is minimal don’t do it. Focus on what you do in the lesson instead, think of some ace questions or how you’re going to give really extensive verbal feedback to one kid in particular. I’m not being lazy, I am being pragmatic.
3.) Forward plan. Look at the whole term and work out the crunch points. For example this week is Year 11 mocks, next week is Year 13 parents evening. I need to mark things for both. As a result I marked Key Stage 3 like a demon at the start of the term in full knowledge I’d do less at the end. That’s ok.
4.) Mark in lessons. Those bits of my lesson where the kids are working it’s tempting to check your email and sometimes I do this but I am trying not to. Instead now I try to mark a few kids books whilst sat with the kid in question. You can’t do many but if I can sit down with five kids in one lesson and give them verbal feedback and write something in their books in front of them it has a great impact with them and means five less when I do a whole set.
5.) Don’t mark everything. If kids are just making notes, I am thinking of GCSE in particular, why bother marking it? It’ll have no impact on their progress don’t bother. OK for a few little ratbags who do less work you might want to check they’ve done it, but the vast majority will have done the notes so don’t bother. Instead focus on the bits that do matter. For GCSE I now only mark exam questions. At KS3 I only mark extended bits or often plenaries where they are wrapping up all their learning. It also helps to mark more regularly. Don’t take the books in once a term and then try to mark the last six weeks. It’s madness. Instead pick something really worthwhile to mark and do it every other lesson. I promise it will take less time.
6.) A-level. I have six lessons a fortnight. At both Year 12 and Year 13 we now have one hour of just note taking. I make a list of what I want them to do and they note take knowing I’ll go through it next lesson. I leave the door open and sit in the corridor with a desk and call the kids out one by one to mark their essays with them. I can’t do everyone in a hour (I teach 22 in each class) but I note down who I’ve seen and rotate each fortnight. In an hour I can do ten kids leaving only twelve essays left to mark which takes less time.
7.) GCSE. I am sure like you I have at least one double lesson per fortnight with my GCSE class. It’s this double that I expect them to hand in their homework. Their homework is always an exam question. In the double I plan my lessons with less direct input from me and in two hours I can nearly always whip around the entire class and mark their work.
8.) Homework doesn’t have to be extensive. I agree with the principle of homework but setting pieces that require marking all the time is exhausting. Instead set them preparation for the next lesson, e.g. research or an essay plan they use. I don’t do this all the time but at crunch points it helps.
9.) Videos are ok. I am not talking about shoving on some crap Hollywood turd of a movie that is irrelevant but showing the kids a decent documentary now and again is fine. I showed mine a Channel 4 one about the Dambusters today which was great. Kids shouldn’t sit their passively but give them something simple to do – mine was framed around the difference between WW1 and WW2 today. It’s fine now and again and gives you breathing space.
10.) Plan time so that your assessments follow each other, e.g. plan for Year 9 to do their assessment after Year 10 have just finished theirs.This may sound mad as you get everything at once. But you also gain some time as they are working in silence so you can mark Year 10 whilst Year 9 are working.
11.) Be honest with the kids. Kids hate it when they’ve put effort in on a piece of work and it isn’t marked. They are right to be annoyed. But if you know you are going to take longer than usual just be honest and explain why. “Sorry Year 8 it’s going to be a fortnight til I get to that as Year 11 have to be my priority at the moment”. Being honest is better than just hoping they won’t notice.
12.) Don’t write blogs. They take up precious time you can spend on teaching and learning. Whoops.
I’ve never taught Weimar culture very well but it’s a topic I love. So this year I spent a while replanning my lesson. I was very pleased with the outcome so I thought I should share it.
This lesson should follow a whole scheme on Weimar and as a result students should have solid contextual knowledge of the period. Using this knowledge get the students to discuss “Why would art and culture flourish in late 1920s Germany?”
Task 1: Teacher Introduction. Set up the scenario for the lesson. Last year the British Museum held a landmark exhibition on Germany. Neil MacGregor chose 50 objects to represent the history of Germany. One of these represented Weimar culture. Your task is to work out which object you would choose.
Task 2: Source sheet. Give each student a copy of the culture sheet. Across it are objects representing Weimar culture. For each they must list what they can see in one colour. Then in another colour what this object tells us about Weimar Germany.
Task 3: Pick your object. Get the students to individually pick one object to represent Weimar culture. They need to write a substantial paragraph justifying their choice.
Plenary: Reveal what Neil MacGregor chose.
Having just been up to the SHP Conference in Leeds I felt inspired. I love history teaching but sometimes the external and internal pressures on the job (curriculum change, budget cuts, government initiatives…) mean I forget this.
When I forget this I like to remind myself why I do what I do. I return to my manifesto, a list of things that make a decent lesson. A prompt to make me return to the basic principles behind my job.
I’ve had a manifesto on my website for a while:
But following SHP I decided I’d tweak it. This is very obviously influenced directly by the SHP principles, which are a guiding light in history education but I wanted my own list. We each teach differently, in different scenarios and I wanted my manifesto to reflect my priorities. So on a very boring Geography field visit I got thinking. This produced Draft 2:
I put this on Twitter and following some cracking advice from @MilHums and @EduOfficerAnnie I tweaked it again with another draft. This one including enjoyable lessons and Annie’s idea about depth and breadth in terms of space as we wanted to include local history somewhere, something we are both fascinated by. Here’s Draft 3 following this advice.
Then I showed it to my department, who loved it and we tweaked it again, adding more about interpretations and separating enjoyable lessons for it’s own point. We also reworded quite a lot. This produced a lot more drafts and we thought we were done with Draft 8:
Then we thought again! We reworded a few bits and pieces and finally settled on this:
What is the point of all this? We have new staff starting in the department in September and we wanted a document we could share with them to make it really clear what we strive for. We sadly talk about this kind of thing down the pub, a lot, and the drafting of this has been great, meaning we all share the same vision. We’ve talked about sharing it with kids, although I might tweak it to be something along the lines of a good historian strives for, but you get the idea.
A few people on Twitter have suggested they might make their department make a manifesto too. What a great idea. If you do please share it.