Let’s not overemphasise the fingertip knowledge

Knowledge is back on Britain’s education agenda. Whether it is debating knowledge vs. skills or traditionalists vs. progressives. Talk about knowledge is all over twitter and blogs. I must admit a bias in favouring the reawakening of knowledge. But I do think that we need to make sure we are emphasising the knowledge which is most powerful.

This is a particularly prevalent concern for a history teacher. As I fear that in teaching substantive historical knowledge we may just come to teach a list of key ‘facts’ and dates. Facts and dates have a place in history education. This knowledge is what Christine Counsell has referred to as ‘fingertip knowledge’. That is to say this is the knowledge which students need in their minds, or at their fingertips, during historical enquiries. Without knowledge of historical events students would be incapable of constructing answers to historical questions.

For example, let’s look at that classic Year 7 History questions ‘Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?’ How possibly could students answer this questions without knowledge of events. Moreover, this enquiry would need to take place over several lessons, requiring students to retain that knowledge over several lessons. Therefore, knowledge needs to be taught and students need to retain this knowledge during their enquiry.

However, the retention of this knowledge is not the ultimate objective of the history classroom. Instead what we must value is what Counsell calls residual knowledge. This is the rich historical residue that is left behind after students have moved to another enquiry or area of study. This is what can help to develop a sense of period (perhaps I will explain the importance of this in another post) or develop understanding of substantive concepts.

If my students retain knowledge of key dates, people and events then great. If I can give them a quiz and they get questions right in Year 10, about topics they studied in Year 7, then brilliant. I use retrieval tasks and timelines from memory. But we have to be careful that we do not spend too much time focusing on dates, people and events. Instead our focus on knowledge needs to be focused on developing students’ conceptual knowledge.

For a long time second-order concepts have been the focus of history teachers pedagogy. This focus is absolutely correct, as second-order concepts provide the organising principles for history teachers. When we answer questions in history, then we focus on cause and consequence, change and continuity, interpretation and significance. It gives shape to students’ learning. This is vital. But we also need to think about substantive historical concepts.

Concepts such as democracy, kingship, empire or nation are what have been called substantive concepts. These have a changing nature based on their historical contexts. For example, ancient Athenian democracy is very different to modern liberal democracy. Yet, they are both democracies. That is a challenging idea for young history students. It takes a huge amount of knowledge about the past to develop an understanding of these concepts. Students need to have studied these concepts through different historical examples.

Furthermore, teachers need to help students manage the cognitive dissonance which is needed to grasp the at times conflicting nature of these concepts. For example, trying to understand the role of slavery in Athens and its role in developing democracy. Substantive concepts are complex and at times contradictory. History is at times messy and that is the challenge. As a result, some of the powerful discoverieswhich have been made about how students learn, need to be utilised.

Therefore, it is using residual knowledge to develop students’ knowledge of substantive concepts which should be teachers’ long-term focus. We need to use retrieval and interleaving to achieve this (another post needed to go into that too). It is through focusing on students’ mastery of these concepts that we can best prepare them for further historical study. By grasping the complexity of these concepts students’ will have the language and contextual understanding to grasp future study.

Focusing on substantive concepts requires students to engage with fingertip knowledge. But when we talk about making knowledge important in the history classroom we need to be careful. We have to be careful not to focus on pub quiz knowledge, which so many have criticised those who value knowledge for wanting. That is now what I think most people want from a knowledge curriculum. A knowledge rich history curriculum should therefore be focused on develop students’ conceptual understanding and sense of period.

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Diagnostic Data: the importance of the Little Data

A few observations to begin

Any teacher today knows that most schools are data mad! End of year targets, Half termly reports, tracking of assessments and the list goes on, and on and on ……

As a young teacher this is all I’ve ever know, but it doesn’t stop me being completely and utterly aware of how unbelievably unnecessary it is.

I remember being a student teacher and constantly being told to level pieces of work in the name of ‘progress over time’. In fact on one occasion, I sent students away over half term to construct their own castles (back in the day when I was such a ‘fun teacher’). When they returned I was told by the Assistant Headteacher that I should level these. Need I say more!

Now in a post-level world some schools are leading the way in creating more meaningful assessment models. However, most schools still seem stuck in the same misguided mindset.

As Tom Sherrington has outlined ‘we continually attempt to make something complicated, very simple and we turn real meaning into a code.’ Why? Because this misguided mindset comes down to one fundamentally wrong assumption…..assessment is for measuring.

Those headline figures are always so attractive. BEST RESULTS EVER! 100% A*-C. This could not be more wrong. As the old teaching proverb goes ‘you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it’ and you don’t help students learn by measuring their learning and reporting it.

However, that is not to say we should not be creating data. We should! But we need effective DIAGNOSTIC data, which is about the students in front of us, and involves next steps to support their learning.

Creating Diagnostic Data

When I had my first observation as a PGCE student my feedback was ‘how do you know what every student in the class has learnt?’ At the time I didn’t understand what this meant. Later I dismissed this as unattainable. But now I know that at the end of every lesson I need to know if every student has learnt what they should have.

How have I been doing this? Well first a moment of honesty….I’m working on it. I don’t have some magic formula but I have borrowed some ideas from other bloggers which have really helped me to (as Hattie terms it) make the learning visible.

First, low stakes testing and lots of it. This has really improved the quality of students’ knowledge. It makes clear to students as we move from one topic to the next that they are not leaving prior knowledge behind. It also helps to reduce the forgetting curve. But most interestingly for the purpose of this blog it creates lots of interesting data. With this I can instantly see what topics students struggle with and identify students who are having problems with knowledge retention. I can therefore DIAGNOSE issues students have with lesson content.

The issue then becomes about the crucial next steps. I rely on three (completely unrevolutionary) approaches here. Going over the correct answers, reteaching content or setting homework. Pretty simple but effective, and takes up very little of my time and energy.

My second idea is marking every book every lesson. I’ve seen a lot of posts about this so I won’t bore you with more on this but it works. The first time I read about this I just thought how am I possible going to have the time for that. But after trying it, I now realise that it can take minutes to mark exit tickets from every student and indicate whether they have achieved the learning intentions of the lesson.

The next lesson students come into the classroom and have a task to begin which is differentiated based on their success in relation to the learning intentions. This takes very little time but it is far more powerful than me giving detailed comments every so often.

Concluding remarks

It’s all well and good creating this data and giving students next steps but to make this truly diagnostic, teachers need to ask question.

I keep a record of all this data in my mark book. This allows me to identify patterns and search for solutions. Little Johnny isn’t meeting the learning intentions every single lesson. Why is this? What can I do about it?

This data also allows teachers to have discussions with others. Just this week I had a meeting about a student. Armed with all this data I was able to give very detailed information about this student. Could the same be said if I had a mark book with only levels and grades?

My point is that it is completely possible to know if every student has met the learning intentions of lessons. By recording this and creating data we can find patterns (about students and classes) and we can have meaningful discussions with staff and students about their learning.

Therefore data can be hugely valuable. But it’s not the big data, which measures the students, that matters. It’s the little data that matters, as teachers on the ground can utilise it to help students learn.

Making the Holocaust personal [part 1] – Aims and Objectives

As I began to teach Hitler’s rise to power and the Second World War with my Year 9 classes, my student’s interest seemed to immediately be on the Holocaust. As I now embark on teaching the Holocaust to my students I wish to ensure that I am able to do justice to such profound events. Therefore over a series of posts I will record here the process I am undertaking in planning a delivering these lessons.

What are we teaching the Holocaust for?

In teaching, the one word which I believe is more important than any other is ‘why’. When we select a topic we must ask ‘why are we teaching this topic?’ When we chose the content to teach as part of that topic we must ask ‘why are we teaching this content?’ When we select an activity to deliver this content we must ask ‘why are we teaching with this activity?’

In teaching the Holocaust these questions are perhaps even more important. As such an emotive topic, carrying so many connotation it is important that we are motivated to teach the Holocaust for the right reasons.

Interestingly in the work done by the IOE into the current teaching of the Holocaust it was discovered that the aim of ‘learning the lessons of the Holocaust’ was more popular among History teachers than aims which focus on understanding the Holocaust as an historical event.

For me the focus on learning lessons from the Holocaust seems an abstract idea. Of course it is possible for us to draw parallels with the past and contemporary issue but if this is our only objective then we can be doing the study of history a disservice.

Therefore what I aim to do is to understand the Holocaust as an historical event. Giving my students an insight into the development of an historical situation and its impact. In the case of teaching the Holocaust I therefore aim to give my students an insight into how and why the Holocaust developed and what impact this had on the lives of Jews.

How do I hope to achieve these aims?

As well as thinking carefully about our motives in teaching topics I strongly believe in the use of second-order concepts. The use of second-order concepts has become widespread and I hope that an explanation for their need is not required here. What I do wish to outline here is my choice of change and continuity as the second-order concept through which I will organise students thinking.

Change and continuity goes to the heart of what I want to achieve in my teaching of the Holocaust. Through a focus on changes and continuities to Jewish life over the Holocaust I hope that my students will be able to gain an insight into the changing nature of the Holocaust and the diversity of experiences.

Keeping diversity in mind I feel it is essential to emphasise that the Holocaust was a personal event, experienced by individuals. An event which stands out powerfully in my own educational experiences was a talk by a Holocaust survivor. From this very personal account I became hugely engaged and was able to see how his experiences developed and impacted his life. Thus, I intend to use personal accounts from Holocaust survivors to investigate how individuals’ lives were affected. A particularly useful resource for gathering personal accounts, which I will be using in designing these lessons, is a book edited by Lyn Smith, Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust.

However, I also want to provide students with a clear narrative to build their understanding around. For this I will be using Schindler’s List. As history teachers I feel we have become very good at using films for teaching about the past. But there is often a danger that films can become a secondary source like a text book which students learn from without any interpretation. Instead what I want to do here is to study the film critically through comparison with primary accounts.

In order to ensure that this narrative and these personal accounts are given the relevance they deserve I also intend to place these events in their wider historical context. Looking specifically at the events of the war as it develops and different cases to understand what motivated individual’s actions, such as Jewish resistance and the case of Battalion 101.

Next steps…

Here I hope that I have given you an insight into my rational for the teaching of the Holocaust. My next step is to plan a series of lessons to achieve the aims I have set out here, which will form the basis for a coming post. I look forward to hearing any thoughts and insights that anyone can offer.