Using enquiry to make new A-level less daunting

We have started planning the new A-level at the moment and we’ve hit a problem. We can’t teach how we are used to.

With the current A-level (we teach AQA) we use exam questions to frame our lessons. This is easy enough as they are normally perfectly sized for a lesson or two and as the exam has been running for a number of years we’ve got a big bank of questions to pick from. For example I recently used ‘Explain why Kornilov led a coup in August 1917‘ to teach a lesson about August 1917 funnily enough. In my opinion, this is the best way to get them decent exam results. I’ll admit that it may not be the best way to teach ‘good‘ history and produce better historians though as it’s focused purely on the exams. Additionally, the questions are often a bit dull and so narrow in scope that it limits their thinking. But it works for getting them the grades and I won’t apologise for that.

Secondly, we teach the course in units. The current AS and A2 course are both split into five units. This makes it easy for us and the kids as it provides a flightpath of where we are headed. You can physically tick off as you move through the course – “phew we’ve done three out of five Year 12“. We give them a file divider for each unit too and it means their notes are organised.

There’s a problem here though. This won’t work with the new A-level.

Firstly in terms of the questions, gone are the narrow, specific questions and in come broader questions that require a breadth of knowledge and a lot of thinking. For example, one of the new specimen questions is ‘Tsarist authority remained strong in Russia between 1884 and 1904′ Explain why you agree or disagree with this view. This will require weeks of lessons not just one to answer. But I am not moaning, I wholeheartedly agree with this change as it is better history. But it is daunting. We’ve only got three exemplar questions to play with and as they are all so broad we can’t teach how we used to. We need to check their understanding of the course  on more than three occasions too!

Secondly, the new course is not five units, it’s two big units. This is too few for us for our ‘ticking off’ and file dividers to work. There is clearly more content than before and we really didn’t want to just teach content for content’s sake.

We needed a solution and decided on a new approach. That new approach is stealing what we do well at Key Stage 3 and moving it into A-level – adopting an enquiry based approach to learning. This isn’t original, the Schools History Project did it for the most recent series of A-level textbooks with Hodder, we liked that and hope that it’ll work for us.

Here’s what we’ve done so far.

We began with the specification. For our new Tsarist Russia unit there is a 12 bullet point list of content for the AS year.

aqa spec

We then took the scheme of work that AQA has provided for this unit (they will have schemes of work for all the units ready soon I have been assured) and ripped any additional guidance about specific content for each bullet point. Here’s an example below that uses the fourth bullet point from The collapse of autocracy unit above plus the content that AQA suggested for that bullet from their scheme of work.

aqa opposition

We then discussed whether this material should be a single enquiry or whether it should be two. For most we decided it could be a single enquiry and we came up with a question to cover the bullet point and the specified content. For the example above we came up with the question:

Were the opposition groups a real and present danger to the tsarist regime, 1894 to 1917?



Two of bullets needed two enquiries and as a result we ended up with a list of 14 enquiry questions that cover the entire AS course:

1. Was Russia’s weakness in the mid-19th century due to the Crimean War?

2. Does Alexander II deserve the title ‘Tsar Liberator’?

3. Was Alexander II or Alexander III the more successful tsar?

4. How successful was Russification as a policy in dealing with the mixed ethnicity of Russia?

5. How serious a threat were opposition groups to the tsar’s authority, 1855 to 1894?

6. Had Russia become a modern European state by 1894?

7. Was Russia’s failure in the Russo Japanese War the main cause of the 1905 revolution?

8. Did Nicholas II solve the political crisis of 1905?

9. Did Witte turn Russia into a modern industrial economy by 1914?

10. Did Stolypin’s reforms improve the lives of the Russian people by 1914?

11. Were the opposition groups a real and present danger to the tsarist regime, 1894 to 1917?

12. What was the impact of the First World War on Russia?

13. Was Nicholas II responsible for his own downfall in February 1917?

14. Was Lenin’s leadership the main reason the Bolshevik’s came to power in October 1917?


Fingers crossed this will sort out some of our problems. Firstly, it provides a flightpath. We’ll give the kids the list of fourteen at the start of the year and we can physically tick off the bits one by one. We’ve already made each one into a file divider for them too. Here’s an example:

aqa file divider


It also provided a manageable flightpath for ourselves. Sitting down with a calendar of weeks (we have roughly 24 between Term 1 and Easter) we then were able to allocate a rough number of weeks per enquiry providing goals of where we should be at each point in the year to cover the content in time to revise properly for the exams (we are still running AS exams). It might seem silly but it made it more manageable than just staring blankly at two big units.


But most importantly we think it will provide a richer, better history experience. Teaching to an enquiry question is the best way to teach. We all know it. It will provide structure to our lessons and make it easier for planning them (already we were coming up with ideas as we listed them). Additionally, we now have fourteen ready set up opportunities to assess them. We’ve decided that we’ll get them to do an extended piece of writing for each enquiry. They are not phrased in the same way as the exam questions but they are good history and as a result we can check their understanding of the content and see if they are making progress with their writing. If we make them better historians we will in turn make them ready for the exam anyway. Obviously, in addition to this we’ll use the three exemplar exam questions and fingers crossed any more we can rip from the textbooks to teach them exam technique, but for once this will not be the main focus of our work.

Come September we’ll see if this works.