Four little words. Improving answers to source questions with minimal effort.

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.

nazi women

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!



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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.