Hodder History Expert Blog

Learning from experience
By William Bailey-Watson
02 Oct
After leading a History department for the past five years, I have left the classroom to take charge of History teacher training at Reading University. Here are nine aims, born from experience in schools, that will underpin and guide this foray into the world of ITT (Initial Teacher Training).

1 Take best practice from the classroom into university teaching.

My experience of being a good History teacher must be central to my identity when leading the ITT programme. The level of content will be more advanced, as will the ages of those I teach, but that mustn’t mean I neglect pedagogy. Thus, among many other habits, I will continue to quiz for knowledge retention, revisit key ideas and concepts, identify differing starting points and preconceptions, use hands down questioning, design appropriate assessments, and recognise the limitations of the working memory.

2 Prioritise understanding over activities.

In my experience of CPD sessions in school or at university, trainees and teachers alike, often prefer to be given practical ideas to improve their teaching, rather than focusing on underlying understandings. (And, boy, there are lots of different things, at different times, that trainees need to wrestle with in order to understand!) This preference is alluringly manifested by the positive buzz created in the room as attendees want to implement practical ideas, thus giving the tangible sense of a successful session. However, learning is a change in long-term memory, and this will not happen through activity-sharing alone. Yes, I will provide examples to further their conceptual understanding and help them visualise how the theory might look in the classroom, but in guiding adults to get better at teaching, my focus must be on what lies beneath the activities.

3 Emphasize subject-specific reading.

There are many things to be learned from Lemov, Willingham, etc, and their works will be used in early sessions. However, History is a distinct subject and teaching it requires a distinct understanding of how students think and learn about the past. As an example, I could ask trainees to read Cristodoulou’s recent generic work on assessment; however, my reading list will rely more heavily on Lee and Shemilt, who covered similar ground in a History-specific context back in 2003. Our subject is special and distinct, and I want to keep it this way.

4 Better subject knowledge creates more opportunities to be a good History teacher.

On my first PGCE placement, a teacher told me that I only needed to stay 'two pages ahead’; i.e. when teaching Year 7 about Thomas Becket, I only needed to know the topic like the Year 7s themselves would, two lessons later. This is meaningless for History graduates, who have years’ worth of reference points to inform and flavour their contextual substantive knowledge of the period, but the essence of the point stuck with me far too long. In the longer term, this approach is not enough. In-depth subject knowledge makes planning quicker and sequences more likely to be based on genuine enquiries; it enables the fielding of questions so that opportunities that arise from children’s curiosity can be seized upon; and it allows us to make decisions for ourselves about the curriculum without falling back, unquestioning, on precedent and the established ‘canon’. Consequently, every week, our trainees will read History, and academics from the university’s History faculty will join us to share their expertise. Rather than ‘one level above’, our mantra is ‘be the expert in the room’.

5 Create a community and share the experience.

Teaching can be lonely. I recall barely surviving at times during my NQT year, losing sight of the joys of my job. In part this was because I felt increasingly isolated, no longer talking about History and the best ways to teach it with similarly enthused peers. As a priority I want to create a community of trainees, of mentors, of anyone who wants to be involved, to talk about History teaching. I recently met a History teacher in Leeds; for two hours we bounced ideas off each other, nudging, pushing, formulating, redefining, drawing upon experience. I was energised, not just because I felt I understood my craft that little bit better, but because I had met someone who cared as much as me. My new position allows me to reach out and actively create this.

6 Put bread and butter lessons on a pedestal.

During my (fabulous) PGCE, we focused on lessons with pizzazz. I distinctly remember a small section of one session being called ‘Bread and Butter Lessons’, which turned out to be code for ‘textbook and questioning lessons’. In my first year as an NQT, I got to November and fell asleep one lunchtime: I couldn’t keep up the pizzazz. Special lessons can often require elaborate resources, raised voices, overrunning the bell, and it wasn’t until my seventh year that I stopped feeling guilty about teaching a good ‘bread and butter’ lesson. I cannot allow my trainees adopt this mind-set. From the outset, I need to put bread and butter on a pedestal, and ensure that trainees can do these well, time and again. Once we have ingrained the principle that bread and butter is actually Brioche and Jam when it comes to effective History teaching on a routine basis, we can start to add the pizzazz.

7 Safeguard the course from fads.

If one goes wandering into the online, education debates, it is easy to find History teaching made both unhelpfully over-elaborate and oversimplified to neglect nuance. During my time in schools I have seen all sorts of fads pass through with very little understanding of the research and principles behind them. ITT courses, and especially those at universities, need to take that step back and not get drawn into this. We can teach the context of the current professional discourse, but if education is to take the best of what has been passed to us, succumbing to populist trends devalues the most important thing that universities can offer.

8 Alert trainees to the potential tension between university and schools.

Following on from 7, unfortunately, I have much experience of schools obstructing best practice, from generic progression models, to hearing experienced colleagues insist that individual activities must be broken into all/most/some. This can cause tension between the university and school-based sides of the course, prompting Christine Counsell’s quip that effective university instruction can resemble something akin to an ‘underground resistance movement’ once the trainees go on placement. This tension has the potential to confuse and cause stress to trainees, and the path of least resistance might be to simply go along with what schools tell trainees – that is the ‘real world’ after all. I hope this will not be an issue, and (see No. 5) I am desperate to work together with mentors and schools in partnership, giving them a real stake in the planning of the course. If, however, there are school-based initiatives or expectations that undermine the quality of our trainees’ History teaching, I intend to uphold the highest standards for what I see as being best practice. Given the importance of trainee-mentor relations, on a practical level this might end up as simply cage-rattling, but they need to know where I am setting the bar. Consequently, I will alert the trainees to the tensions they may face and, hopefully, arm them with the tools and conviction to operate without kowtowing, within systems that may require them to carry out practices which undermine great History teaching.

9 Critical reflection is not just for the trainees.

It is a real privilege to train History teachers, but I am new to it and keen to improve. Each week I should practise what I preach and reflect on my teaching, my reading lists, my handling of situations, my interactions with schools, my feedback from observations…the list could be endless. This is daunting but teaching is hard, and improvement needs conscious critique; I learned this the hard way after I started to plateau in my second year. Whether by blogging, continuously tweaking or returning to the drawing board, I am open to learning an awful lot this year.

William Bailey-Watson is Lecturer of History Education at the University of Reading
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