Sometimes I look with envy at colleagues in my school who seem to glide through life on a calm sea. You know the ones, their lessons slip gently from aims, through to activity and plenary, and are tidied up before the bell goes. They have done their class register. They have already completed their reports. They do their recording on time, and they never double book themselves or forget that there’s an extra staff meeting the week after next.
I am not one of these people. However, after a weekend at #SHP12 I am starting to think that, although I should get better at doing my admin on time, those smooth running lessons aren’t necessarily the ones that I should be aspiring to. There were several common themes that emerged, but for me, an important one was that learning is about problems, and that unless we find the problems, the arguments that can be had about a topic – learning will be much less interesting.
For instance, Christine Counsel’s workshop (which I missed) on the importance of a strong enquiry focus gave two of my colleagues much to think about – and a growing appreciation of the potential for intervening in a learning process, to twist things about or to push things further to help pupils think in ever deeper ways. I learned a great deal from the amazing workshop by Rachel Foster, from Comberton Village College, which led us along the path of thinking much more deeply about the milestones we might pass on a journey of change and continuity. This talk left me buzzing with the fabulous idea of giving students a series of pictoral metaphors to describe change and continuity, before then giving them the vocabulary to help them use these metaphors in historical writing. Both of these examples hold obvious risks – they’re ‘hard’, and sometimes un-comfortable when, as teachers, we’re not quite sure how they’re going to play with the pupils. However, with risk comes reward, and these two workshops showed that the rewards can be really impressive.
A smooth lesson is sometimes one where teacher and pupils have decided to settle for second best (I should know, as I’ve taught a few of these myself over the years). An important ethos that these amazing workshops had in common, was one of going the extra mile to challenge the pupils. In Dale Banham and Russell Hall’s session on the ‘ingredients’ for active learning at A level, one of my answers to a question was described as ‘OK’, but ‘not quite good enough for A level’, and I was asked to think again, to refine my answer and have another go. Many of us have moaned over the years about the lack of independence in 6th formers, and whilst Banham and Hall didn’t have a magic bullet, they did start off with a clear idea of the high standards that they expected from students at KS5, but they also had a clear strategy about how they were going to support them in reaching this standard. Their love for their subject and obvious enthusiasm for ‘beautiful work’ was infectious, and made me want to read Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, and The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, which they both referenced.
Tim Jenner and Paul Nightingale provided us with a (very thoughtful) whistlestop tour of using source driven enquiry. They made us think about the number of times we’ve finished a GCSE lesson with a ‘what is the message of this cartoon’ question, before offering us a huge number of engaging and inspiring source activities with real history at their heart. The simple task of making one student look at and describe a source, whilst the other has to look at the board at a list of inferences and listen so as to judge to whether the source would support all these inferences, was excellent. Quickly we started to work together, and the list of slaves at a sale came alive. The question that Paul’s students generated from this source at the end of the activity was ‘did Slavery succeed in wiping out all traces of African culture in the slaves?’, which strikes me as a pretty impressive and interesting question to ask.
Simple things can please very complex minds, as we were shown by Neil Bates and Richard McFahn. Richard is clearly a tea obsessive, and Neil’s students clearly had the time of their lives connecting tea, booze, drugs and industry. A subtle tea theme, built up with innovative games, strong enquiries (such as the brilliant ‘did the National Gallery waste £500,000 on Arkwright’s portrait) did bring coherence and real-world interest to at study on the Industrial Revolution.
As if that weren’t enough for one day, an SHP Conference would be worth it just for the plenary sessions in the auditorium. Ben Walsh’s spirited defence of history teaching against the prevailing winds of prejudicial criticism not only made us laugh, but stiffened our sinews, and a personal highlight for me was that I got to be the 17th Century in one of Ian Dawson’s living timelines in the evening plenary. Then I went to bed. Whilst over the #shp12 slashtag I read that others were ordering pizza, I fell into bed in Guiseley, happy, but with a very full brain.