Picture A Box – Helping Year 9 Write Historical Narrative

“Picture a box. It’s made of wood. Maybe pine. It’s simple. Three feet long, two feet wide, two-and-a-half feet deep and open at the top. Now picture yourself climbing inside. Sit down. Feel the wood against your back. Run your fingers along the rough surface of the boards. Maybe you have to hug your knees to your chest just to fit inside. Picture someone closing the box. Nailing it shut. Picture the darkness.”

This the beginning of an episode of a wonderful podcast called The Memory Palace (1) by the writer Nate DiMeo. It is a collection of short historical vignettes mostly taken from 19th- and 20th-century American history: some are big important stories; some are small personal stories; some are famous; many are obscure. His calm, inviting delivery, so closely mic’d, is laid over subtle and beguiling music beds to give the whole thing a charm and an intimacy that makes it feel very special.

And it is always brilliantly, brilliantly written.

Because you’re hooked. Straightaway. You want to know what happens next. What is the box for? Why are we getting in it? What will happen next?

What happens next is that DiMeo tells us the story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown(2), a man born into slavery in 1815 who escaped from the American South to freedom by having himself shut in a box and posted to freedom in Philadelphia.

Brown’s story is remarkable on its own but, by introducing it to Year 9 through DiMeo’s telling, it can used to help them construct their own historical narratives. In the process, helping them bump into ideas about historical research, the limits of historical knowledge, writing with doubt and writing with an audience in mind.

A Bit of Background

I have often struggled with homework, particularly at Key Stage 3. It is obviously important: we don’t have the curriculum time to do everything that we need to do in lessons, it helps students develop good working habits and it increases parental involvement in their child’s historical studies. However, it is really hard to do right. Bits of ‘finishing off’ unfairly punish those who need most help and/or work the slowest while, at the same time, removing any opportunity for challenge for the most able. It also suggests that learning history outside of the classroom is some sort of punishment. If the task is too small or too easy, it is a waste of time. If a task is too big, the conscientious will drown in it and everyone else will give up or turn in perfunctory or slap-dash work that is not worth your time marking.

Then there is issue of where homework sits vis-à-vis the in-class curriculum. If you use homework tasks that are about the topic you are teaching you can cause yourself all kinds of problems: ill-defined research tasks can lead to more misconceptions than are helpful and can de-rail a carefully planned lesson; tasks that ‘pre-teach’ or ‘flip’ a lesson create chaos when they are not completed by all students leaving the uninterested, the disadvantaged and the unwell excluded from your lesson; and staff-created quizzes or set-tasks are great but incredibly time-consuming.

To address these issues, we often set homework as ‘projects’ that (sometimes) run alongside the taught curriculum. One such, is a family history research project where students are asked to find a story from their family’s history that is worth telling.(3)

But what to do with these stories? How can we turn a bit or research into actual history? And what other things can we teach at the same time?

The First Homework

Without giving away what they are going to be asked to do with it, students are asked to find a story from their family’s history ‘that is worth telling’. We emphasise that it doesn’t have to be a ‘big’ story about war and heroism (although that is great) but can be a small, personal story.

On the day that it is due, the following lesson takes place…

The Memory Palace

The lesson starts with the story.

With the minimum of background information, we play the students the ‘Picture A Box’ episode of The Memory Palace asking them to write down as many details as they can. (This is partly to try and ensure focus, but also to help them see how DiMeo does his story-telling tricks.)

We pause the audio sparingly; we don’t want to break the spell that is being cast. Most of the time, this is just to give students time to make some notes. However, there are a couple of times when a few ideas might need to be elucidated. For example, near the start, DiMeo describes Brown as having a wave of hair ‘like Frederick Douglass, when he was young.’ This image is not familiar to most of our students and needs an illustration. (4)

At the end, we ask students to tell the person sitting next to them what the story was about.

When this question is then asked again from the front it serves a dual purpose. First, it is a recall exercise and a comprehension check but also it helps draw out the way in which DiMeo tells us one story, that of Henry Brown, in order to make us think about a wider issue – the question of what freedom means. This revelation can happen naturally but often requires a prompt question such as: “The story concerns Henry Brown, but what is it really about?” or “What would your English teacher say this is about?” or “What does Nate DiMeo want us to think about, other than Henry Brown?”

Once we have established that this story is resonant of a wider theme (5), we can on to think about how DiMeo goes about telling us the story. The next question is either: “What is the most important part of the story?” or “Where does Nate DiMeo start telling the story? Why?”

The most important part of the story is the escape from slavery. It is the box. We know this because he starts with the box. The ‘picture a box’ line isn’t just a beautiful oblique ISM (6), it is also the crucial turning point in Brown’s life. The box marks the transition from one part of his life to another; from slavery to freedom.

However, DiMeo is too clever to just use that image once. He hooks us in with the description of the box but, immediately, drags us back in time to Brown’s birth and early life. We learn about his belief in the importance of love deal that leads him to do a deal with his ‘good’ master that, if he was allowed to marry, he would work hard for the rest of his life in return for a promise that he and his wife wouldn’t be separated. We learn of that master’s death and the betrayal of that promise by his new, more callous, owner. We stand with Brown as he watches his wife and children disappear. We hear about his plan to escape with the help of a, ‘man named “Smith”, who knew another man named “Smith”, who knew a man in the north who would help Henry Brown.’ We hear how he stuck his finger in sulphuric acid to give himself an injury that would allow him a small time off work in order to make his escape.

And then we taken back to the box. DiMeo almost repeats his description from the opening of the story but this time the narrative carries on forwards with Brown enduring a torturous journey to the north.

But that is not the last time DiMeo will use this idea – it will come back again.

Brown starts a career as a speaker at abolitionist meetings, telling his remarkable story. This, according to DiMeo, provoked ire from Frederick Douglass, because Brown’s drawing attention to his escape closed down that same route of escape for others.

DiMeo then tells us: “And then Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act and Brown was not only a fugitive slave, who could be legally kidnapped and taken back to his owner in Virginia, he was a famous fugitive slave.”

It is good to ask the students if they know what the Fugitive Slave Act was before playing then those few seconds again. We use this to point out that DiMeo expects us to understand many things about slavery, American geography and history but he doesn’t expect us to know about the Fugitive Slave Act. However, he doesn’t let this get in the way of his story. He tells us everything we need to know in one subordinate clause: “who could be legally kidnapped and taken back to his owner in Virginia”.

Brown is forced to flee to Europe where he and ‘Smith’ tour Britain and Ireland with the box telling their story. The success of the show meant that Brown had enough money to buy the freedom of his wife and children but Brown chooses not to go – ‘Henry Brown was a free man, and he was free to choose.’ (‘What would your English teacher say this is about?’)

When Brown returns to America he has a new wife and another child. He performed as a stage magician. One of his tricks involved disappearing from the stage through a box…

‘Picture a box…’

At this point, it is worth making more of that phrase. DiMeo can’t know every detail of the story he is telling. However, he can still write effectively and historically by inviting us ‘picture’ the box. There are many occasions where he asks us to imagine something. In this way, he is able to convey an image and emotion without making claims he cannot wholly verify. It’s a hell of a technique.

At the end of this lesson, having allowed the students to marvel at DiMeo’s mastery, having encouraged them to think about how effective the recursion of box is, having helped them see the ‘bigger theme’ of freedom, having shown them how DiMeo so causally shares his historical knowledge, we reveal that their task will be to turn their family history story into one in the style of Nate DiMeo.

Students are invited to think about a number of things:

  • What is the ‘bigger theme’ of their story? (Love, friendship, betrayal, the way information is lost over time, the fragility of memory…)
  • What is the most important event in their story? (In other words, where should the story start?)
  • What contextual information do they (and the listener) need to know for the story to make sense? (What is their ‘Fugitive Slave Act’?)

Providing answers to these question is their second homework. (7)

The Third Homework

Students research more of their story and/or the historical context and submit it as the second homework. This is then fed-back upon. (I use MP3 feedback because I speak more quickly than I write and typing just involves printing or emailing which is a pain.) This is the point that a teacher can remind the student of all of the techniques that were discussed in lessons and try and help them write their particular story.

The third homework is for them to record an MP3 of their story with, if they can manage it, musical beds like those used in The Memory Palace.

We don’t give much guidance on the technicalities of this. Partly because there is such a plethora of recording and editing software out there for a multitude of platforms, it would be futile for us to insist upon Audacity/Garageband/Voice Record Pro… but also because learning how to solve technical issues in the age of the internet is something that they should do anyway.

The Results?

Have been stunning.

This year I have had submitted some of the best homework in 15 years of teaching. Students have combined great story-telling with historical research. They have thought about the audience for their narratives and they have considered how they can write about things they do not know without failing to tell a story.

I would share them here but, given how reluctant they have been about sharing them with other people, I haven’t even asked.

Thank you, Nate DiMeo!


(1) The words are DiMeo’s but, as I transcribed it, the grammatical choices are mine. If there are mistakes or you have a quibble, it is my fault not his.

(2) Do yourself a favour and listen to the episode before you read my ham-fisted account.

(3) For those for whom this is difficult, teachers are encouraged to have a few examples of interesting famous people’s stories that would do as a stand-in: Douglas Bader, Harriet Tubman, Walter Tull, people from the local war memorial…

(4) At this point, students have studied a bit of c.19th US history.

(5) ‘Resonant’ in a ‘Christine Counsell 5Rs‘ sort of way.

(6) See https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/resource/30/making-history-curious-using-initial-stimulus-mat for explication of oblique ISMs.

(7) To be honest, I have juggled these tasks in many different ways. This represents what I think has been the most effective order so far.

Rate My Teacher(‘s Rating) – Why Reading Academic History Should Be a Performance Management Target

The Claim1

This is a short post in defence of the following claim:

“It is entirely reasonable that one of a history teacher’s performance management targets should be about reading history.”

Before we start, let’s be clear about what we mean. I don’t mean that a PM target should be: “Read some history and then plan a sequence of lessons around it.” The target shouldn’t be: “Read some history and then evaluate our Key Stage 3 provision.” I think that it is reasonable to have a PM target that says: “Read some history.”

It might be helpful for the teacher and Line Manager to agree that the reading should be around a topic that is taught, or likely to be taught, in a school. It may even be reasonable for the target to include something about a discussion with or presentation to the rest of the department about what has been read but I would argue that requiring evidence ‘impact’ is unhelpful and unnecessary.

The Reasons

A good teacher will be a better teacher if they know more about their subject

This seems axiomatic to me. Reading more history is not going to (likely to?) make a terrible teacher a better one. Knowing more about you subject is unlikely to help you if you are ill-mannered, scared, disorganised or unable to ‘see things from the other side of the desk’. Reading more history is not going to help you deal with any of those fundamental problems.

But, if you are a reasonable pedagogue, if you can plan a sequence of lesson and can stand on your hind legs and work a room, then knowing more about your subject can only help you. Whether that is because you know more about the specific topic you are teaching, because you are better able to contextualise your own knowledge and understanding or because you have seen historical problems broken down in different ways and ideas communicated in different language.

 

Planning should come from reading not the other way around

The trouble with a PM target that asks a teacher to read something and then show evidence of that work having informed planning is that this misunderstands the planning process.

If your department knows that what you want to teach your children then you should ask yourself whether you need the academic reading to support its planning. “Plan and resource a significance enquiry on King John” is not an unreasonable PM target. So, why not just make that the target? I hope that any history teacher worth her salt will read around a subject before, during and after planning but if the department needs a scheme of work, then don’t dress this up as something different.

Because at the heart of the problem is the fact that, if you are reading a history book, you probably don’t know what it says. So how do you know it is going to help you?2 What if you read, say, Marc Morris’s book on John, rated it highly, enjoyed it and learned a lot but it didn’t help you with a significance enquiry? What if it were little help in setting up lessons that would allow students to make judgements of significance in the () Rob Phillips-Christine Counsell-Kate Hammond sense of the word? Will you fail your PMR? Will you therefore lose your job? Will you therefore fail to keep up with the mortgage? Will the bitter, unspoken, recriminations of your loving-but-stressed-out partner lead you to develop an all-encompassing self-loathing that will leave you unable ever to experience real happiness?

If your PM target requires evidence of having done something with reading, take the reading out of the target and make the thing you actually want the thing you actually measure.

It is really, really, really, really, really hard to measure the impact of your CPD activities

I realise that this sounds like a contradiction of the first point I made but bear with me while I use a tortuous metaphor to explain.

When you are learning a musical instrument, particularly if you are learning jazz, rock or folk styles, it is advantageous to be able to improvise. There are very human beings who have such an intuitive musicality that they can improvise well without knowing what they are doing. If you want to get better at improvisation then doing more improvisation is a good thing. However, practising scales, arpeggios and learning some music theory is better. Building up an arsenal of tricks and licks that you can deploy at the drop of a hat will make you sound better than you are. But it requires you to have learned them in the first place. But how will you know which technique you will need until the first bar of the solo?

Historical knowledge is like this. (I suspect that it might be true in other subjects but I don’t have the knowledge to make this claim.)

If you read more history, particularly about the topics you are teaching, it gives you a toolbox of illustrations and examples to elucidate the points you are making. You might use these in the planning of your lessons but you will use more in the delivery of your planning. For example, I am never going to teach a lesson on the summer holidays of Gustav Stresemann but, if you want a vignette to illustrate the instability of the Weimar Republic, how about the fact that, when he went on holiday, Stresemann bought black, white and red flags for his children’s sand castles? The hero of the ‘Golden Years’, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the architect of Locarno still hankered, at least on some level, for a return to the days of the Kaiser.3 In my experience, teaching the Holocaust is time when having a number of these illustrative vignettes is most important. This is largely because it is a topic that, partly because of the way it is taught at my school, that generates the most debate and the largest number of questions. Very often I find myself trying to explain the concentration camp system and relying on Primo Levi’s summation of the insanity of the system: “Hier ist kein warum.”4

 

If you don’t measure what you value, you end up valuing what you measure

Let’s be honest. Do we think that reading history is important? We tell kids it is but we also tell them that it matters if their shirts are tucked in.

Do we really value the study of the past?

The subtitle of this section is a cliché but it is true. If we do value reading history, then can we not find space for making this part of our jobs?  Certainly because it will help us do those jobs better but also because it makes us better people. Also, because, although students should never see a teacher’s PM targets, if our institutions cannot model the valuing of things that are important then the I worry for the kids in our care.

 

Enthusiasm is well-being

There is a lot of noise about well-being in teaching and most of it is tosh of the first order. But, let’s be honest, we all know plenty of teachers who are deeply unhappy and many who deal with the stress of their jobs in deeply unhealthy ways.

Yet, at least in secondary schools, we all chose to teach a subject. We are, most of us, graduates in a subject we once loved (or at least could stick for three years at university). If your school wants to make its staff feel better, tell them that something they enjoy and are good at is good for the school. Do this because it will make them feel better. Do it because it is true. So what if it is something would have done anyway? If they were doing good stuff of their own volition, it’s still good stuff. We shouldn’t make them do (possibly less useful stuff) just because they want to do good things.

 

The Question

So, how many history teachers reading this are going to ask for a PM target like this? How many LMs are going to suggest it or ask their LM to let their staff have it? How refreshing would it be if a process that can feel like a trial could be turned, at least in part, into something that makes a positive contribution to enjoyment and well-being at the same time as building professional knowledge?

 

 


1. DISCLAIMER: The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of my school, my MAT or any person living or dead including myself. Any resemblance to, or deviation from, any policies of these organisations mentioned (or not) are entirely accidental and should be regarded as the workings of a deluded mind.

2. If you are reading a history book and you do know what it says before you have read it, might I suggest reading something else?

3. Jonathan Wright, Gustav Stresemann: Weimar’s Greatest Statesman (ISBN-13: 978-0199273294) p.126

4. Primo Levi, If This Is A Man / The Truce (ISBN-13: 978-0349100135) p.35

“What Will You Pack, Sonny, What Will You Pack?”

It’s getting close to that time of year when we, like so many other schools, take a group of Year 9 students to the battlefields of the First World War.

Every year we go to the Somme and Arras because these are sites that have a connection to our local area. The Cambridgeshire pals battalion was the 11th Suffolks who had the misfortune to be at the first day of the Somme and at the first day of the Battle of Arras.

In this post I wanted to explain some of the things I take with me and how I deploy them on the trip. This is not an exhaustive list of the things we see, do and talk about but might give some ideas to those who are planning similar visits.

Setting Off: Fall-In by Harold Begbie or Who’s For the Game by Jessie Pope

As the coach pulls out of the school drive, it seems appropriate to start the trip by reading a poem from the start of the war. One of those jingoistic ones that the English department make Year 9 compare to Dulce Et Decorum Est. England, like the kids, was full of excitement for a foreign adventure.

This sets the tone because the poem will be familiar to them. The students should know that they already have most of the mental framework they need to contextualise the things they see but also that seeing the sites of real tragedy should help them contextualise their school experience; it should reinforce the idea the things we teach them are not strange abstractions but things that actually shaped people’s actual lives in the actual world.

“What will you lack, sonny, what will you lack?” asks Harold Begbie of young boys who have not yet volunteered to go off to France.

The Motorway: Rendezvous With Death by AJ Peacock

This is a book about men from South Cambridgeshire who fought in the First World War. It is constructed around the letters of Oliver Hopkin, a “perfectly ordinary young man” from the small village of Wilburton, just up the road from our school. However, it book also contains interviews conducted with veterans in the 1970s. Because the transcripts are verbatim, you can hear the idioms and rhythms of proper Cambridgeshire accents. These aren’t just stories, these are the well-rehearsed tales of good little old boys.

Some of the great stories include: the tale of the man who joined up because he had, in a fit of temper, painted the farm foreman with whitewash, the men who deserted the same day they enlisted because they wanted to go to the pub (they re-joined the next day) and the man who skilfully avoided promotion because being an NCO would interfere with his bookmaking activities.

We will use some of the stories about joining up when we are setting out. As we are leaving the Fen Edge, we will tell stories of men who did the same thing a century before

Eurotunnel: Tipperary / Pack Up Your Troubles / Hanging On the Old Barbed Wire

A ukulele is useful weapon on a school trip. If you can get kids to sing you have to spend less time overhearing conversations that make you realise the that you stand firmly on the other side of the generation gap.

Calais: Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

Many students will have read this excellent children’s novel about the First World War. Reading the extract about Tommo and Charlie’s Channel crossing reminds students of the naiveté of many of the young men travelled to France in the Great War. It also reminds them that history can be the subject of some good books as well.

Gordon Dump Cemetery: The Soldier by Rupert Brooke, For A Mother by Maggie Johnson

That line about ‘a foreign field’ is interesting in a classroom. It is moving when you are stood in a foreign field looking at flowers that grow from the earth of a grave of a boy who lived up by the church in the village you teach in.

However, that’s not the point where I struggle to hold it together. We are blessed to have brilliant TAs at our school and Maggie Johnson, one of our High-level Specialist TAs, plays a pivotal role in this trip. One of the bits that is ‘her bit’, is telling the story of a local family who lost two sons on the first day of the Somme. It is because of these brothers that we go to this otherwise obscure cemetery. Maggie wrote a poem about the duty she felt, not to the fallen soldier whose grave we deliberately seek out, but to his mother: she cannot lay flowers for her boy and so Maggie sees it as her duty, one mother to another, to fulfil that role.

This is the point where I go pretend to be interested in something in the hedge in corner of the cemetery until I can confidently talk again.

Thiepval: Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth by John Garth

Personally, Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit and the rest of Middle Earth holds little interest for me. However, the fact that one of JRR Tolkein’s best mates was an officer in the 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment deeply interests me. John Garth’s description of the death of Captain Rob Gilson, juxtaposed with a description of his father, a head master, presiding over a school sports day, interspersed with quotations from eye-witnesses and Gilson’s own letters is heart-breaking.

Reading this either at Thiepval, Lochnagar Crater or Gordon Dump Cemetery, it is Gilson’s description of his men as a ‘dear, stupid, agricultural platoon’ that catches in my throat. Gilson was a university man and aspiring writer; he wouldn’t have chosen to lead these men. Yet here he is, little more than a boy with a sense of noblesse oblige, expressing an honest affection for men whose fates are intertwined with his own even though their lives are worlds distant.

Lochnagar: Extracts from http://www.curme.co.uk/, The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook, the Battalion Diary of the 11th Suffolks

Over the years, I have been able to cobble together a fairly coherent account of what the 11th Suffolks, the Cambridgeshire Pals Battalion, did on 1st July 1916. This information has largely come from the brilliant collection of resources assembled and curate by Phil Curme on his website (link above). I have contextualised this using Middlebrook’s brilliant account of the first day of the battle and, over the years, found quotations, vignettes and stories from other sources including the battalion diary.

This is the time – when you can point to the jump-off point at Bécourt Wood, and you can see Sausage Valley, when you can point to the Suffolk Redoubt – this is the time to tell the story of this part of the battle, this part of the line. The part of history made by men from the same villages as the kids on our trip.

(In Case of Emergencies: Major and Mrs Holt’s Pocket Battlefield Guide, Major and Mrs Holt’s Battle Map of the Somme, The Battles of World War I: Everything You Need to Know by Christopher Catherwood

The Holt’s guides were given to me by the coach company who organise our tour. It’s a great little guide book and usefully pocket-sized. Useful to have if you are in need of quick reference about the sites and memorials. The map is also useful for final planning and last-minute adjustments to the itinerary negotiated with the coach driver on the day.

The Catherwood is one of those books that you might pick up in a garden centre. I think the claim that it contains ‘Everything You Need to Know’ may be a little ambitious, it is very useful for very quick reference to refresh my memory of context or to help answer students’ questions about the wider war.)

The Morning of the Second Day When We Head Off to Arras: The General by Siegfried Sassoon

“Good morning! Good morning!” I like the mercilessness of starting the day with more poetry. It sets the tone. Also, a poem about slogging up to Arras is appropriate when you are about to slog up to Arras. Most importantly, it’s so short I can do it from memory.

Arras Memorial: For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon

The Arras Memorial is often the place where students find the graves of and memorials to family members. It is often here that we ask them how we should mark this. Often they want to lay a wreath. Once I have explained its background, the often they let me have someone read this.

The Bus Home: War Exalts by Harold Begbie

An English-teacher colleague introduced me to both of the Begbie poems. It acts as a beautiful counterpoint to the first. By the time Begbie wrote this he had a much better understanding of what the war actually meant. I hope that it’s not too crass to say that by this point in the trip the students do too.

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Like I said above, this is not an exhaustive list of the things that we do, tell and ask but it cover much. I would also recommend the brilliant tours done by the folks at Ulster Tower and the excellent new museum at Wellington Quarry. I would also recommend a good coach company. We have used Galloway in Suffolk for years, mostly because their drivers know the area so well and are able to share in the guiding, know about timings and are able to adjust their plans to suit our needs. The experience they bring is invaluable. Finally, if you are thinking of how to put more thinking into a school trip, you could do worse than read Andrew Wrenn’s article from Teaching History about sites as interpretations.

What Should They Know of England…?

…who only England know?

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[tl;dr If you aren’t interested in the ramblings and just want tips on using software, skip down to the next subtitle]

This question, bitterly asked by Kipling in his 1891 poem The English Flag, bemoans the “poor little street-bred people” who “yelp” criticism at the English flag. Kipling asserts that, because they have only known the succour of the motherland, they are ignorant of the sacrifices made in each of the four corners of the world to glorify the name of England. Those “who only England know” can only “vapour and fume and brag” and their criticisms of her Empire are those of ungrateful of spoilt children.

So, basically, Kipling’s a [insert amusing but not offence expletive here].

But while the poem is as embarrassing as a doddery old racist uncle, the phrase is interesting – when we are too close to something, we can’t see it. When something is normal it is invisible. Woods and trees and that.

The phrase came to mind recently when someone, not, I hasten to add, in the teaching profession, expressed the idea that Kids These Days were really Good At Computers because they were born with them and It’s All They’ve Ever Known. My friend even used the phrase ‘digital native’.

“Ahh,” I replied, despairing.

I realised that the anecdotes that might prove him wrong required too much explanation and were not nearly interesting enough to be useful in actually winning an argument on this point. At the same time I knew that that an argument on this point was not what he was interested in; he had merely said the thing that grown-ups are supposed to say when talking about kids and computers in order to fulfil the social obligation of responding with words to something I had said. He was merely keeping up his end of the conversation and, if I were to turn this into a proper debate about education, children, computing, technology or culture I would merely be laying an unfair claim on the precious, limited minutes we have on earth before our inevitable demise.

“Ahh,” I said. But inside, I was thinking about Kipling.

Because Kipling is right! Not about the Empire stuff (I listened when my mum told me it was mean to take other children’s stuff) but a native knows little about the country they live in. An English person who has never left these shores does not know how weird it is to consider ignoring people on a train politeness. They do not know that Americans often see our over-use of ‘please’ as condescension and bossiness; things a most English people would rather self-immolate than be considered. Until you have seen a different place, language or culture how can you make any judgements about your own?

So, what does a digital native know? What do they know of computers that only iPads know?

The problem is that Kids Today have only ever mashed the colourful buttons of familiar UIs on applications in carefully sandboxed environments, and therefore have literally no idea about how the shiny wizard-box works. The problem is that the natives don’t know what they’ve got. Kids Today Don’t Know They’re Born.

There is nothing inherently noble (despite what paunchy, bearded men in their late 30s might tell you) in having written an AUTOEXEC.BAT file or having created a HyperCard stack in the 1990s. There is no moral virtue in having inserted pokes into the code of a Spectrum game or instructed the BBC to GOTO 20 in the 1980s. There is, however, an advantage to having had had to deal with computers of a different generation. Having had to learn about command lines, floppy disks, hard disks, non-WYSIWYG word processors, RAM configuration gives you (and I am assuming that if you are reading this then you are of a generation that had to do some of those things even if the terminology is not familiar to you) a better understanding that computers are things that you can, and should, make do the things that you want them to do. If the past is a foreign country, then we are foreigners – immigrants into this world of post-skeuomorphic design where well-pitched algorithms, treating us like so much factory-farmed foie gras, encourage us into onanistic, self-referential cultural-gorgings in order to distract our bloated, fatty minds while they sell us down the river to sinister organisations (or organs of sinister states) who want to use our money and our votes for their own, increasingly surreal, ends.

So, before we resign ourselves to waking every night, sweaty and screaming, trapped in The Matrix / Blade Runner / Black Mirror / the Jetsons maybe we should think about how the machines could work for us. We are the perfect people to do it because we might, just about, remember when the machines did work for us. In the 1980s it might have taken twenty minutes to get the tape to load the program that would open the pod-bay doors but at least it would open the pod-bay doors when you asked it without selling your personal details to a foreign government.

Far, far, far too often in education people without enough knowledge, experience, time or aptitude make decisions about technology in schools without being aware of its implications on the staff and students who have to use it. The British education system is awash with software and websites for every possible part of school life. In the last year I have heard people in education say good and bad things about Quizlet, Show My Homework, Go4Schools, SIMS, Moodle, Floobaroo, GCSE Pod, Kaboodle, Dynamic Learning, Sporcle, Kahoot and Socrative to name but some. What worries me is that in very few of those conversations did I believe that the software was working for the teacher. Rarely was the software on their side. Rarely was the teacher was in control of the software. Instead, the software was controlling the teacher’s decisions and access to information, was trying to sell them something or was just a platform for advertising.1

Poorly designed software systems lead to poor practices, which give the poor teachers more work than is necessary, create poor ‘data’ on which poor judgements are made which affects the lives of the poor kids (and often poor, poor kids get the worst of it).

So, what I wanted to ask in this post is whether there are ways in which we should be using computers that might help us be better at teaching history. I don’t intend this post to be exhaustive and I haven’t time to promise a series but here is a start at asking the question: How much computing does a good history teacher need to know?

In this post, I want to suggest how one very common and very good piece of underused software can help you and your students.

 

[If you were after the short version start reading from here.]

 

Forget Outstanding – you want to Excel.

In the classroom…

The ubiquity and resolute ugliness of much of Microsoft Office belies the fact that actually some of the programs in the suite are actually really, really good. The best of the lot is Excel. It does what it is supposed to really quite well. One of those things that it does really, really well is pivot tables.

A pivot table is not one of those flimsy desks that schools only bring out at exam time but a way of quickly manipulating, and thereby analysing, data from a spreadsheet.

Using pivot tables can help your students make better analyses of data about the past and can make you a better analyst of data about students.

Let me give you an example…

Much has been written about the use of databases in the history classroom. The idea is simply that students can test historical hypotheses by looking at data from a database.

Perhaps the best example is by James Woodcock (@JamesVWoodcock) and Geraint Brown (@geraintbrown). They asked students to judge the impact of the First World War on the local area by using a database built from the information held by the Roll of Honour. Their significance enquiry was, “Was the First World War the ‘Great War’ for the local area?” They asked students to read an extract from EH Gombrich’s Little History of the World describing the First World War. They then asked students to infer why Gombrich thought the war was significant (i.e. students found quotations suggesting that Gombrich thought the war was ‘terrifying’, ‘ground-breaking’… etc.) Once they had identified some criteria by which WWI might be described as significant, students used a database about the local war dead to support inferences about whether those same criteria applied to the villages they came from.

This was a brilliant, tidy, thoughtful bit of planning that set the pupils an achievable task that was worth doing, that tied international and local history, that built on students’ previous work using evidence and that was planned in response to an on-going debate in the history-teaching community about second-order concepts (namely the work of Rob Phillips and Christine Counsell).

It ticks every box. I have literally never seen better planning… except that the database was on Microsoft Access.

Don’t get me wrong, Access has its place but this is not it any more. Since this work was first done there have been significant improvements in MS Office and some version of Moore’s Law even applies in English state comps. So, today, much the better option is to use Excel and the main reason for this is the ability to use pivot tables.

[NB The screenshots for this post are taken from Excel 2011 for Mac, Windows versions of Excel do the same things but may look slightly different.]

1

Here’s the data from Woodcock and Brown’s local war dead in an Excel file. As you can see from the little arrows in the blue boxes, a filter has been applied which would allow a student to filter or sort the information in the table. Currently, the data is organised in order of date of death. This is good. It allows a student to get rid of irrelevant information and look for patterns. So, if a kid wants to know whether the war got worse or better over time, they could look at the number of deaths in each year and begin to make inferences about what they data tells them.

However, much better is when all of the data is selected and a pivot table is inserted.

2

The idea behind a pivot table is that data can be plotted against other data quickly and easily. To do this, all the user has to do is drag ‘fields’ into the areas in the Pivot Table Builder.

So, let’s ask that same question using the Pivot Table. As you can probably see from the screenshot, I have dragged the ‘field name’ Year of Death into the Rows section of the Pivot Table Builder. The result is that my table now has a row for every year of death recorded in the database. I have also dragged the Age At Death field name into the Values section. I now have a ‘count’ of the number of Age at Death records for each Year of Death value. This tells me quickly that three men died in 1914, ten in 1915 and nine in 1945…

3

Nine in 1945? I seem to have Second World War records in my data. So, all I am going to do is click the little drop-down arrow next to the words ‘Row Labels’ on my table and un-select the dates I don’t want. Et voilà – a filter.

So, does things get worse for the local area over the course of the war? I can quickly see that they do – there are more deaths in the later years.

4a

So, who is dying?

If I want to know more about the people dying in each year I can manipulate the data differently. By clicking the question mark next to the ‘Age At Death’ field name which is sitting in the Values section of the Builder I can change the data displayed. If I choose to summarise the data by average I can see the average age of death for each year… In three clicks!

5

I can see that, in 1916 the average age of death drops below 24. If I drop the ‘Age At Death’ field back into the Values section of the builder I can see the count and the average.

6a

This tells me that the war is very different from 1916 onwards. Is this the effect of Kitchener’s Army reaching maturity? Is the age lower because these aren’t hardened professionals anymore but ordinary boys who volunteered?

To find out which records are involved in that average, all I need to do is double-click and Excel will create a table for me of all the relevant records.

7a.png

I don’t need a Pivot Table to see that many of them died in France.

…but I’ve got a Pivot Table so I’m going to use it to find out more.

If I drag the ‘Place of Death’ field into the Columns section of the Builder I can whether the geographical spread changes over time.

 

7

Again, that 30 men dying in France in 1916 looks interesting… double-click… Excel gives me the 30 records. Using the ‘find’ function (ctrl+f on Windows, Command + f on Mac) I can see that all but two of these men have the word ‘Suffolk’ in their biographies – all but two were from the Suffolk Regiment. Sorting the data tells me that 12 of them died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I am not suggesting that Excel does anything new. I am most certainly not claiming credit for Woodcock and Brown’s work. All I hope I am doing is pointing out that helping our students to learn about pivot tables will make work like Woodcock and Brown’s more efficient and, therefore perhaps, more effective. Also, we are giving our students a valuable lesson in how to use a common, and commonly misunderstood, piece of software.

 

In the Office

 

So, having just ripped off Brown and Woodcock’s work, let me point out that you can use pivot tables to analyse your students’ data.

In this brave new educational world where ‘data’ needs ‘dropping’ and requires  ‘management’ by ‘data managers’, where  ‘accountable’ is another name for a stick to beat people, remember that you can use a pivot table to try and find some signal amongst the noise.

If you have the raw data it is just a matter of a few clicks to get a pivot table to tell you interesting things. If, in the dog days of summer, you are required to write the annual self-flagellatory confessional of a faculty evaluation. Why not use pivot tables to try and find out what factors really shaped your ‘data’.  Did girls or boys with high prior attainment at KS2 do, on average, better or worse than predicted on Paper 1 and how did that compare to Paper 3…? The answer to that, and a million other questions can be yours!

However, it is not just pivot tables that can help. Assistant heads, keen to tell the damned and the saved, might ask you to look for auguries of the future. Instead of counting eagles or spilling entrails, you could use the following Excel formulas.

  • CORREL – This formula gives the correlation between two data sets. If you ask Excel to calculate the correlation between, say, Year 7 test results and attendance, bad behaviour points, KS2 PA or reading age you can get an idea of which of those is most likely to affect a students’ attainment in history. The higher the number, the stronger the correlation. However, the cliché that ‘correlation is not causation’ is repeated so often because it is true. Your CORREL result will only give you a suggestion of the possible explanations of your students’ results2. It should raise questions rather than provide answers. If the strongest correlation is between reading age and test scores does your curriculum and/or your test need to be made more accessible? Are you asking the right questions about the way new vocabulary is introduced, used and tested? If the strongest correlation is between attendance and results that might mean that your lessons are effective and those that experience them benefit. If so, how can you support those who are absent? What can you do to help students catch up what they have missed? However, it might also that there is something else going on. What medical or social factors might absence be a proxy for? For instance, in your school do members of the GRT community have higher than average absence rates? Is your curriculum inclusive or exclusive of these kids? What is the role of the history faculty in addressing with this? What questions can, or should, you ask SLT about this?

 

  • RANK – Let’s just skip past the arguments about 9-1 at KS3, zombie NC levels, any system peddled by publishing companies the tests… Any tests that you choose to measure (MCQs, essays, assessments, long-answers expressed through the medium of contemporary dance…) at Key Stage 3 are going to be particular to your school. The way you teach the Battle of Hastings is not the same as the way I teach it so even if we set the same essay they results are not easily comparable. However, you are much more likely to be able to make meaningful comparisons within your school. If your kids produce work that you score (whether or not you tell the kids that score or not) it is very unlikely to tell you, on its own, how well your kids are doing in comparison to a national standard. Any attempt to say “This Year 7 test is of a GCSE grade 6 standard” is meaningless3. However, it might be meaningful to say that Student X’s scored a grade that was 46th-highest in the year. It is certainly data that can be useful at a parents’ evening.

 

In Conclusion

A couple of years ago a colleague revealed to me that she thought the best thing about Excel was that it drew the boxes for you.

This gave me hope.

If someone can get the GCSE results she does and have that little understanding, what might be possible if we gave more time and attention to the computer programs that are often free and accessible to us and our students.

Besides which, we, as the immigrants to this cracked dystopian future have a responsibility to show the digital natives what alternatives look like. We need to show them a different way of using the tools around them that they might, one day, see more of the strangeness of their world.

 


1. As an aside, a software engineer from one of the above BETT-prize-winning companies, once openly told me in a minuted meeting that the reason that the software didn’t send me useful emails was because not giving them the information quickly forced teachers to spend longer on their website. I refrain from naming them because I can’t quote the idiot verbatim and have no written record. Suffice to say that the fact that their data tables don’t line up properly is but one of their problems.

2. If you choose to use these results disingenuously, select those that suit your purposes and over-state your confidence in them to win arguments with easily-confused managers who believe in flight paths, that is between you and your conscience.

3. Of course, as data accrues over the years, you may be able to infer something about future performance: when the kids who have sat your Year 7 test have also taken their GCSEs you might find some meaningful correlation between the two sets of results. Although, you might not, of course…

Did the Bretons Break? (And What’s It Got To Do With Textbooks?)

Picture the scene. A cold morning in the middle of October. A dreich mist envelopes the fields. The air full old English and mangled French battle cries of two armies arrayed and poised for action. The repetitive thud, thud, thud of plastic swords and cardboard axes against shields of neoprene…

It is time once more to re-enact the most famous battles in British history.

It is time once more for the wind to keep William in port with a wafted piece of paper. Time once more for one Viking to single-handedly hold the scrap-paper Stamford Bridge for hours. Time for Harold Godwinson to force-march an army south to the other side of the classroom to once again re-fight a battle he can only lose. Like the most craven of addicts, or the inmate of some circle of Hades, he is trapped eternally in a repetitive cycle of bad decisions that will ultimately and inevitably lead to his destruction. Every year he will ignore his brothers’ advice. Every year he will fail to take William by surprise. Every year his shield wall will break and every year an archer, from the back of the room by the pile of school bags, will nock an imaginary arrow, draw an imaginary bow and loose a fateful board pen into the mêlée. Every year Edith Swanneck will pick her way through the tangle of giggling, uniformed corpses looking for her lover.

And we love it.

One thing that trads and progs both love is an Ian Luff-inspired Battle of Hastings role-play. It is direct instruction and it is kids taking part for themselves. You might get kids to take notes at the end. You might create a huge  spider diagram. You might have students shouting ‘Stop!’ when they hear reasons why William won. This might be the basis of an essay or this might just be an introduction to Year 7 purely designed to get one-up on the geography department.

Whatever the reason and rationale it is a sequence repeated up and down the land. But, it is never the same twice. There are myriad subtle variations and nuances that each teacher brings to the story. We each embroider the narrative with our own favourite facts. We each add details to spin out the story, to cast the spell wider. You might amuse your Year 7s with Taillefer’s sword-juggling. You might take delight in demonstrating the use of a Dane axe. You might have all of the fyrd making scramaseaxes from shatter-proof rulers… These details may represent your swag, your pomp, your professional pride, your delight in conveying knowledge and story slightly better than you heard it. Or, maybe you are less petty-minded than me. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if you label kids as Gyrth and Leofwine or not. It doesn’t really matter if you miss out Edwin and Morcar’s heroic failure at Fulford. Most of the good-story bits are not essential to the narrative.

But some are. In your version of these lessons do the Bretons break?

When William invaded England, he did not just bring Normans with him; his army was a coalition of different elements ‘attracted by the well-known liberality of the duke’* as William of Poitiers would have it or, in Orderic Vitalis’s blunter phrase, because they were ‘panting for the spoils of England’. This meant that at Hastings, the left of William’s army was (probably) made up of a contingent of Bretons. There is a dispute about their actions in the battle and I believe that thinking about how we as history teachers deal with this issue raises a lot of other questions about the teaching of causal thinking and the resources we use to do so.

There are two near-contemporary accounts of the Battle of Hastings. The most famous is by William of Poitiers who was a trained soldier who became a priest and worked as chaplain to Duke William. He probably wasn’t at Hastings but knew, and talked to, people who were, including William himself. He wrote an account of the Battle of Hastings in his Gesta Guillelmi sometime in the 1070s.

The second source is a poem called the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, probably written by Bishop Guy of Amiens, someone connected with the French court, possibly within months of Hastings. The reasons for its creation are unclear but it may have been intended for the ears of William himself.

The event concerning the Bretons occurs about half-way through the battle. According to Williams of Poitiers, stout English defence by the shield wall at the top of the hill causes the Bretons on the left of William’s army to break. At the same time, there is a rumour in the Norman ranks that William has been killed. William rescues the situation by raising his helmet and showing his face. His men, given new heart by their leader, turn and begin to slaughter the English who were foolish enough to have left their defensive position at the top of the hill. Inspired by these events, William orders another cavalry attack and this time feigns a retreat causing enough of the English to break ranks to fatally weaken their defences.

The Carmen, relates similar events but makes no mention of the troops that broke being Breton. Also, in this account the first retreat starts off as a trick but, when the Saxons press the Normans harder than they expected, the feigned retreat becomes a real one until, as in William of Poitiers’ account, William, through sheer force of personality, saves the day and rallies his men. Again, as in the Gesta, after this there is a second feigned retreat with its terrible consequences for Harold.

So who to believe? Which version should be acted out in classrooms and gymnasiums all over the country?

At first glance, William of Poitiers’ account seems the most convincing; he was, after all, a soldier so should know what he’s talking about. Also, he probably spoke to people who were at Hastings themselves, and while the Gesta is almost certainly Norman propaganda, it appears in this instance as if William’s army is weak and foolish – they are broken by the English. In comparison to the Carmen which which has William trying a clever feigned retreat (albeit one that goes wrong)  this doesn’t seem to be hagiography.

But look again. It is William that saves the day and it is not, technically speaking, his men that broke – it is the mercenaries of the Breton contingent. William is then able to use that misfortune to his advantage as it gives him the idea for the famous trick that would break, or at least fatally weaken, the Saxon shield wall. William actually comes out better in Poitiers’ account than in the Carmen. Is William of Poitiers excusing this mistake by dressing it up as the fault of the Bretons?

Although there is potential merit in both accounts if we are going to re-enact the Battle of Hastings we should probably choose one version of events. So, do you teach the William of Poitiers version with William rescuing a terrible situation created by weakness of the mercenary Bretons? Or, do you have William trying and re-trying his famous trick until the Saxon shield wall is thinned-out enough to leave Harold vulnerable?

Like, I suspect, most of you, I teach the William of Poitiers version, despite the fact that, to my mind, the Carmen account seems more plausible. Does this mean that I am teaching students something that is untrue? Am I lying to Year 7? I would suggest that am doing neither of those things. In order to tell a narrative of the past, I have created a model of events. We cannot be sure which of the accounts we have is most accurate and while on balance, the Gesta seems preferable to the Carmen it would not be unreasonable to go with William of Poitiers’ account.

So what? Why does it matter whether you have 11-year-old’s on imaginary horses pretending to be Bretons or Normans?

It doesn’t matter at all. Except that if you have Bretons, the William you are creating for your students is a very different character from the William that would be conjured through the Carmen’s account. One is dynamic, daring and able to exploit an unfortunate situation to his advantage who is in striking contrast to Harold who makes some very poor decisions. The other William is a much less exciting figure who does have a skilful cavalry but, like an adolescent magician, has one trick that he rolls out again and again until it gets the reaction he hoped for.

Again, so what? So what if William of Poitiers’ Conqueror is a better character than the Carmen’s William? What does it matter other than it allows a history teacher to show off more through a more dramatic re-telling of events?

It matters because of what you want your students to do with your William – and here it is worth pausing to point out that I do mean your William. Students using the Battle of Hastings role-play as the basis of a piece of causal writing are not writing about the eleventh-century duke of Normandy, they are writing about the duke of Normandy created in your classroom.

Any causal explanation can only be a model of the events of the past. When you are leading a role-play like the Battle of Hastings you are in control of creating that model. When you ask students to explain why William won the battle, based on your (re)creation, you are asking them to fit together the pieces you created. If you created a William based on William of Poitiers’ account then it would be reasonable for a Year 7 to argue that William won the Battle of Hastings because of his tactical brilliance. This argument would be less easy to sustain if you have given them a William who uses the feigned retreat a second time after it nearly ended in disaster for him the first. That William may be dogged or determined but he may also be desperate and lack imagination.

But aren’t we engaged in a search for historical truth? Couldn’t we engage students with the complexity of the historical debate about these sources? Shouldn’t we be encouraging students to write using the language of doubt? Do we not have a moral and professional duty to highlight the temporary and contingent nature of historical ‘fact’? Could we not ‘extend the most able’ by asking them to do ‘research’ on this question?

Well, yes. Yes to all. Each of those (with the possible exception of the last which smacks of planning-by-booking-a-computer-room) would be a valid thing to be doing with Year 7 which, at other times, I would happily help students engage with but they are not what I am using the Battle of Hastings role play for in this instance. In this instance, I want to see how students can construct an argument and support it using the information they have been given. To this end, I am going to deliberately select and limit the information they have. I am going to create a simplified model of the past – a Duplo version of history. This is not an insult to my students and nor should one imagine that it makes the task of explaining William’s victory at Hastings simple. Textbooks do this all the time. In our GCSE book, in the section on the Reformation, the complexity of the ‘new learning’ of humanism and boil it down to a couple of paragraphs. Essentially, it says ‘Erasmus wanted a Greek Bible – oh and there was a thing called the Renaissance.’ This would be appaling if the syllabus questions were about the Renaissance but if we are looking at the impact of the Reformation on English people, then, yep, ‘there was a thing called the Renaissance’.

I have read many calls for an increase in the use of texts and textbooks in history classrooms. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it should be realised that a textbook is, if it is used thoroughly, a course book – its contents become the syllabus. Necessary decisions about omissions and simplifications are taken by the authors and editors and not by the teachers using them. This is fine if that is what is wanted and is recognised by those who use them. If, however, it is assumed that textbooks are neutrally-voiced and transparently convey historical truth then there are problems.

Similarly, this issue highlights issues when anyone tries to make any comparisons between classrooms and schools. I have heard many calls recently for all history marking to be done through comparative judgement and there is a lot of merit in this. However, it is difficult to know how a level playing field might be constructed to allow this to happen. If the William created in my room is a ‘Poitiers William’ then, as noted above, the conclusions that might be reasonably drawn about him are not the same as those that might be drawn about the ‘Carmen William’ who existed briefly in the Sports Hall of the school down the road. So when looking at essays, how can I judge the difference between them? If one of the essays doesn’t mention the first feigned retreat is that an omission by the student or did it never happen in their particular Hastings-verse? How might I judge?

Similarly, what good will it do my students to buy into some sort of knowledge-organising, testing system that has not been designed for their particular course? If I have chosen to simplify Charles I’s religious beliefs for Year 8 to ‘he’s a Protestant but he wanted services to be beautiful’ what merit is there in a bunch of questions about Arminianism? It’s not that Year 8 are incapable of understanding the subtleties of seventeenth-century beliefs but that is not the focus of what I am asking them to do.

To sum up, what I suppose I am arguing for is teachers who have deep and rich subject-knowledge in order that they can know what simplifications and omissions they are making. That they have a firm grasp of what thinking they want students to do with the information they are given so that they can make those simplifications in a deliberate way. It is also vital to recognise that any assessment of student work has to have some reference to the syllabus they have been taught (whether that is created by the teacher or taken from a book) as even potentially trivial differences in approach, such as whether the Bretons broke or not, can have profound implications for students’ work.

 

 


* Much of the history for this comes from Marc Morris’s excellent The Norman Conquest ISBN: 9780099537441. As always, mistakes are all mine.

1991 And All That – Why I won’t be buying anything from Pearson Progression Services

Lost in the Supermarket

PBlog1This week I was in a branch of a major supermarket trying to find some new swimming shorts for my 2-year-old son. Amongst the cartoon-violence-film-franchise trunks and unicorn-loveheart child bikinis I chanced upon three pairs of day-glo knee-length shorts – one pink, one yellow and one green, each in eye-watering neon with a black stripe across them. The vividness of the solid blocks of acid colour pitched me straight back to the summers of my youth. I would have seriously coveted these shorts in my pre-teen years and I felt a pang of nostalgia for a time when I didn’t yet know that the answers to life’s great mysteries were, very often, themselves mysterious.

It turns out that I am not the only one who has been wondering what it would be like to return to 1991…

An Introduction From a Trusted Friend

The Historical Association recently told me that they were “pleased” to bring me a message sent via email from the publishing/examination behemoth Pearson touting a tool to help me “find new ways to track and report on your students’ progress in History after the removal of National Curriculum Levels”.

However, when I looked at what was on offer my heart sank like Cambridge United’s dreams of winning the Second Division playoffs. [1]

Let me explain my disappointment. The package on offer claimed it would allow me access to a ‘Progression Map’ that “builds on our 12 step scale, breaking down the curriculum and providing clear progress descriptors, prior knowledge requirements and boosters for additional challenge.”

At first glance this might look like Pearson have just replaced the National Curriculum level descriptors with Pearson-defined level descriptors. However, unlike the National Curriculum level descriptors, the Pearson ‘Steps’ are designed to be applied to individual pieces of work and are designed to be divided ‘horizontally’ to allow fine grading.[2]

Also, unlike every National Curriculum since 1991 that has had level descriptors that deliberately interwove their different elements, Pearson has taken the trouble of dividing the descriptors ‘vertically’ as well; divorcing ‘Cause and Consequence’, ‘Change and Continuity’, ‘Evidence’, ‘Interpretations’, ‘Structuring and Organising Knowledge’, ‘Using historical vocabulary’ and ‘Chronological Understanding’ into different ‘sub-strands’. This would, I suppose, allow you to clearly separate your assessment of a student’s understanding of ‘Using historical vocabulary’ from their understanding of ‘Cause and Consequence’ etc.

However, there is more. In order to keep track of my students’ progress through this 12-step programme they had, “developed a straightforward, time-saving and reliable approach to monitor learning throughout KS3 and KS4.”

What Pearson is selling is a re-write of the 1991 National Curriculum and an Excel spreadsheet.

Why I Won’t Be Buying

It is sad that an international organisation such as Pearson with its abundance of resources and  huge influence is peddling something that is so conceptually flawed. The criticisms levelled at the (mis-)use of the NC Levels [3] are exactly applicable to this system and while retro seems always to be the order of the day, the memories of those arguments are too fresh and the scars to raw to revive them here. However, what is worth saying is that Pearson are selling this conceptually-flawed product without having taken the trouble to even address the flaws in its execution.

It would be churlish to cherry-pick and isolate phrases from the Step Sub-Strand descriptors to challenge or question. I’m not going to spend time here making jokes about flux-capacitors and the phrase “Learners are able to manoeuvre within their own chronological framework with ease”. I’m not going to ask you whether “starting to make judgements about sources and how they can be used for a specified enquiry” is more or less difficult than making “supported inferences about the past by using a source and the detail contained within it.” Nor, am I going to point out that a huge publishing house has published documents that use both spellings of judge(e)ment on the same page. It is precisely because writing these generalised descriptors is so hard that their creation is meaningless. It is for precisely these reasons that the application of these generalised statements to individual pieces of work is meaningless.

I would, however, like to draw your attention to the Baseline Test that Pearson invites teachers to set Year 7 after a brief topic on the Norman Conquest.

The idea of a baseline test for the beginning of a Key Stage is a good one – it gives the teacher some idea of the strengths and weaknesses of their students. It can be used to tailor support, intervention, extension etc. etc. With appropriate caveats, it is not unreasonable to compare the results of this test with later ones to help inform some judgements about students’ progress and, perhaps, the efficacy of some aspects of a teacher’s performance.

However, in order that a baseline test is effective it must be a fair test. The Pearson Year 7 Baseline test is flawed in many, many ways: [4]

PBlog2

3 – Are ‘Romans’ and era? Shouldn’t this read ‘Roman Britain’, ‘the Roman period’, ‘the Roman era’, ‘The period of the ascendency of Romano-British culture in South Eastern England’…?

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4 – If ‘The Dark Ages’ is an era, don’t at least two of these labels also require the definite article?

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5 – An emperor or empress would be the ruler of an empire (and an Empire?) and be just as much of a monarch as a king or queen.

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6 – I looked at the mark scheme and realised that I got this one wrong.

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7a – It would not be unreasonable to describe a way of explaining a set of historical facts as a ‘cause’. A cause is identified (constructed?) by a historian, therefore it is a way of explaining historical facts. An ‘interpretation’ is not a way of explaining historical facts it is a construction made from (the selection of those things that the historian determines are pertinent) facts.

7b – Interpretations happen because of something else. That is in the nature of ‘interpretations’ of history: a historian’s Marxist beliefs will cause them to have a Marxist interpretation etc. Long-term causes of historical events are, in turn, caused by other things.

7c – A short-term cause of William’s victory at Hastings didn’t happen a short while ago. Things that happened a short while ago and had an impact can also be consequences of something else.

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8 – I’m not even going to start to pretend that I understand the subtleties of what (bastard) feudalism is/was/whether it ever existed… but I do know that it would be perfectly reasonable to offer, “Because it wasn’t a feudal society,” as an answer to 8b. Would this count as an explanation?

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10 – Wouldn’t it be more useful to phrase the question as the difference between what the historians are saying in Interpretations 1 and 2?

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13 – This implies that the historian’s questioning itself is evidence of why William won as if William ushered in a new era of evidential thinking in the discipline of history. I think they mean ‘usefulness’.

 

Does It Really Matter?

Okay, so some of the questions are clumsy in their execution and some suggest some clumsy thinking. Again, this wouldn’t be terrible if you cooked this up with a colleague in the last week of term because you needed an end-of-year test but if you are one of the world’s largest educational publishers it’s probably a bit embarrassing. However, I would argue that much more importantly (and I know that some friends and colleagues will roll their eyes at this point and suggest that I have spent too long in the company of Mr. Hyperbole) that the system that supports this test is dangerous and unhelpful.

It is not unreasonable to give numerical scores to questions on a history test. What is unreasonable is to use those numbers to draw unsupportable conclusions.

According to Pearson’s Baseline Test Markbook, all elements of question 7 are at a Step 4 level of difficulty but each answer is worth only 1 mark. This is the same value as question 1 which is only rated as Step 3 level. This happens all over the test and this causes problems.

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While I appreciate that the screenshot of the fake data in the markbook is probably illegible, please take my word that students Joseph Bloggs and Anne Nother have the same overall score: Step 2 Developing [5]. This is despite the fact that Joseph Bloggs had failed to get right any of the simpler questions (i.e. those rated at Step 2) but aced those rated 4 and got somewhere with those rated 7. Anne Nother got all of the simpler questions right but did less well on the more difficult ones. Are these students at the same level?

Well, yes and no. The data about how each student performed on each individual question is interesting and can be useful and pertinent. However, this system is designed to smooth out all of the nuance and produce a summative grade. This in itself is still not necessarily a problem. So long as everybody is clear that the grade given refers only to the performance of that student on that day on that particular test, this average can have some meaning. However, the problem is Pearson are implying that the score on that test has some relation to a student’s capacity to perform according to complex level descriptors.

It does not.

The fact that the students scored 13 marks on the test tells us that they got 13 on that test. It is fair to say that the Bloggs scored below the class average on that test. It is fair say that Nother scored 26% on that test. It is fair to say that one of them probably doesn’t know what ‘a decade’ is because they got question 2 wrong.

It is not fair to use that score to describe either of them as Developing Step 2.[6] The score in no way relates to the descriptors. If a student is doing some parts of Step 7 but not Step 2, it doesn’t mean that they are doing the things described in Step 4.

Creating mean averages and then extrapolating judgements about a student’s capabilities is a gross over-simplification and while it does all people to generate pretty line graphs it is impossible that they generate any meaningful information. They generate a lot of noise but very little signal.

The Illusion of Reliability

So what you ask? So, the system is imperfect; it’s better than nothing. It gives heads of department/heads of year/heads some rough-and-ready data to help them out. I would strongly argue that it is much, much worse than nothing. The problem lies in the illusion of reliability that numbers give information – if you put together a system that generates numbers, it won’t be long before some idiot assumes that they mean something. After that, it won’t be long before people are judged on whether those numbers appear next to particular students’ names. After that, it won’t be long before sets/rewards/trips/badges or promotions/pay awards/professional reputation/the ability to put food in your child’s mouth are dependent on those numbers. After that, it won’t be long before the stakes for not getting the numbers are so high that teaching is to the test and marking is done with one eye on self-preservation. After that the numbers obscure the things that they are supposed to be measuring. After that, habit, fear and exhaustion will lead us to a place where we are teaching students how to get numbers rather than get excited about the past.

The abolition of the National Curriculum Level Descriptors has provided us as professionals such a wonderful opportunity. Paying money for a system like Pearson’s Progression Services is just Stockholm Syndrome – a self-defeating desire for the comfort of our previous imprisonment – don’t succumb.

Matt Stanford


[1] Okay, so technically that match was in 1992 but that season started in 1991.

[2] A student can be ‘beginning’ step 4, ‘developing’ step 4, ‘securing’ step 4 or ‘excelling’ step 4… no, hang on… ‘beginning’ to understand step 4, ‘developing’ to understand… no, hang on… ‘beginning’ to perform at step 4-level, ‘developing’ to perform at… no, hang on.. ‘securing’ their understanding of step 4 before ‘developing’ their… no, hang on… 4a, 4b, 4c… or was it 4c, 4b, 4a…?

[3] For example, Burnham and Brown in Teaching History 115 & 157, Fordham in Teaching History Supplement 153, Ofsted in History for All, 2011, Final report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels, 2015.

[4] I am prepared to admit that at least some of these criticism verge on pedantry. However, had any of my colleagues suggested these questions I would ask them to consider the following changes. If we expect accuracy and clarity of thought from our students, shouldn’t we expect it from ourselves? However, if you have a low-tolerance for smug nit-picking please feel free to skip on to the section entitled “Does It Really Matter?”

[5] They are developing Step 2? Their understanding of the historical thinking required to achieve Step 2 is developing from slight to comprehensive?? They are developing Step 2 into Step 3???

[6] Step 2 Descriptors:

Cause and Consequence Step descriptor: Learners show a basic comprehension of causes and understand that things happen in the past for more than one reason. However, they view these relationships as unmoving or definite, i.e. X was always going to cause Y. They may display a simple understanding of consequence.

Change and Continuity Step descriptor: Learners can identify basic differences between our lives and the lives of people in the past, but will often see the present as a time when problems of the past have been solved or sorted out.

Evidence Step descriptor: Learners have a sense that historians need to look at evidence about the past to find out what happened, but they see this evidence as independent and able to speak for itself. For example, they may believe that a report or relic has its own truth without any interrogation.

Interpretations Step descriptor: Learners can decide what they think about the past (e.g. I think that King John was bad) but cannot link this idea to the way in which history is constructed. They may be able to repeat stories that they have been told about the past, but cannot see that these stories are interpretations.

Knowledge Step descriptors: Learners begin to use simple historical terms, such as years, and understand that some things happened a long time ago. However, they are unable to distinguish between different lengths of time. They may be able to talk about periods that they have studied (e.g. Ancient Greeks, Romans) but cannot fit these into their existing knowledge. Learners can remember historical vocabulary with some relevance within a given period (e.g. Roman emperors, Viking longships) but struggle to use it to describe the period or features of the period.
Learners can recount simple stories about the past (e.g. myths, battles) but are unable to move beyond what they have already been told or to combine knowledge together.