A myth free day?

You may have been following the lively debate stimulated by Daisy Christodoulou’s book, ‘Seven Myths About Education’. If not you can follow the link to find out about the myths. I see those myths everywhere, they pervade every aspect of our education system so what is most interesting for me is how many people have denied there is any evidence of these myths at all or, as in this case, agreed that they exist but argued that they do not explain any weaknesses of our education system because they just are not very influential.

I am head of department in a traditional public school. If those myths aren’t influential surely they must barely come onto my radar? Well, here is the diary of a typical day. See if you can spot any myths…

Dear Diary…

I got into school in time to look over my first lesson of the day. I would be giving my year 10s back their source work questions on usefulness. I reminded myself that I must stress to them that to do well in the history exam they must remember that what defines a L4 for this answer is a discussion of the relative importance, or relationship, of provenance and content. I was worried we were a bit behind and I’d have to rush through the next topic but it was just crucial to nail this technique.

Period 2 I was free and wanted to look over possible new text book options for the Year 9 who generally study three topics in depth over the academic year. Hodder’s latest offering wasn’t what I wanted at all. It had seven brief ‘enquiries’, jumping from a few weeks on the British Empire to a comparison of Hitler versus Stalin and then onto a study into Equal Rights. The text book focused on developing concepts and processes with topic knowledge as a vehicle. I moved on to OUP’s KS3 history text. Well the headline marketing stressed it had ‘an added focus on skills’ and the list of how this text book could support teachers listed that the text book provided the following material: enrichment; differentiation; starters and plenaries; assessment; interesting, relevant  and engaging lessons and 21st century applications of technology.

The section on the book’s provision of an assessment framework caught my eye. ‘The marking framework is suitable for all schools, whether you decide to continue with levels or use a performance-level system such as Blooms or GCSE indicators. I rubbed my eyes and pushed the pile aside. I guess publishers know their markets but it wasn’t what I wanted.

I picked up my Year 13 politics essay marking and told myself I MUST crack on and not waste precious time. Each essay has to be given four different marks. One mark is for knowledge and the other three marks are for skills the student demonstrates. Grrrr, it takes flippin ages to mark these…

The bell went for break and one of my year 11 tutees interrupted my reverie. She wanted to chat about what to study at A level. She is very bright and her chemistry teacher had told her that chemistry was an ideal A level choice because of the transferable analytical skills she would develop. We had a brief chat and I looked up a few useful details for her on the internet but it wasn’t working. I realised the problem was that my tutee was leaning on the IWB. All the classrooms had them but I didn’t find mine especially helpful. Then I went over to the staff room for an essential cup of tea, via my pigeon hole to pick up my post. There was the inevitable mix of school tour company flyers and CPD options available for schools to spend their money on:


I drank my tea quickly because I had some photocopying to get done for my Year 12 lesson after break, to supplement their text book. Their A level text was just so light-weight. It was actually easier than the books I used at GCSE 25 odd years ago and simply didn’t provide enough knowledge for the students to develop or support the arguments they make in their essays.

Lunch was munched quickly because we had our departmental meeting to fit in. I wanted to discuss extending the use of weekly/fortnightly testing from the GCSE years to A level. Regular testing of historical detail just isn’t a very common practice in schools so some of my department had been pretty sceptical initially, especially testing straight recall of facts and a number had argued that it was understanding that was key and so we had begun with a term’s trial of regular factual testing. However, they now agreed that fluency of knowledge had helped the students’ understanding and were now very positive about trialling a similar format at A level. We then chatted about how even our brightest year 11 students seemed to struggle with the GCSE question that asked for ‘effects’ of events. We discussed whether the solution was more practice of ‘effects’ questions to get the technique or more explicit teaching, drawing attention to effects of each event. Did they lack skills or knowledge? Finally we discussed preparation of a student applying for HSPS at Cambridge. He had asked for sessions to help improve his thinking skills ready for the Cambridge ‘Thinking Skills Assessment’.

I got home in time for the usual tea/homework/bedtime routine with the children. I’d very reluctantly started doing some handwriting practice with my son. He is in Year One but still forming lots of letters incorrectly. It is funny that his reception teacher had actually taught my eldest daughter six years previously and given her plenty of handwriting practice but the emphasis had switched so far towards child led activities that there had been considerably less teacher led formal handwriting practice for my son – and it really showed. After his reading and bedtime story I remembered he had been given homework, learning to halve numbers, in his case up to twenty. We normally play a few counting games before lights out so I asked him what half of eighteen was. “Silly Mummy,” he replied, “We did that last week.” It seemed halving was over and he was onto shapes now.

I had my book club that night but as I rushed out I saw that my eleven year old was STILL working on the poster she had been set for maths homework and chivvied her to finish and get up to bed. Book club is fun but lots of talking shop as some of the other members are teachers (you have to feel sorry for the rest). It turns out that my friend’s school is one of two locally issuing Ipads to all students. That provoked lots of discussion…

As I hopped into bed close to midnight I took a peek at twitter to see what was happening. Hundreds of people had retweeted the comment “Strong teachers don’t teach content; Google has content.” As sleep drifted over me I wondered whether the denial of the pervasiveness of the myths is inevitable. When arguments are made convincingly but have implications for practices that are part of the fabric of your working life can you even spot those implications? Isn’t it easier to disassociate the myths from your own practice, to see them as something a misguided minority believe in, rather than question some of the fundamental assumptions your efforts have been built upon throughout your working life?

I’d suggest one way to see more clearly is to compare our education system with others. Consider that while much ‘traditional’ (non myth- based) practice is quite normal in our   schools there must be quite different assumptions that explain the really very different approaches between our system and those used in other countries like China. http://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/files/60/report-on-research-into-maths-and-science-teaching-in-the-shanghai-region%202012.pdf    It is true that there is much we actually do similarly to schools all around the world BUT it is when you ask how systems are different you can dig out what assumptions account for these differences. I’d suggest that the myths explain a significant amount of that difference between our system and those of some other countries. Anyway perhaps more on that another time…

[In the comments I am happy to discuss how those myths can be found in my working day.]




Fun Inflation – The curious incident of the Lebanese exchange students.

At this time of year it can be hard to engage our year 12 students. They have worked really hard and had enough but are required to reappear in school to start their A2 courses. They aren’t really up for hard work. A few years back I had some ‘less well focused’ classes and so was not exactly excited to find out their numbers would be swelled by the addition of a group of students from the Lebanon on a two week exchange. As usual I had planned a feast of fascinating and lively lessons to tempt the sated appetites of my beleaguered year 12s – but this year they were really not interested and not very well behaved. However, when the Lebanese students arrived things became even more challenging…

Those exchange students just loved history and politics lessons! They were thirsty to learn, excited by the fascinating stuff we were discussing (see it was interesting really) and even the ‘cool kids’ amongst them found my lessons novel enough to pique their curiosity.

Meanwhile my own, home grown students remained challenging. I was finding this all rather odd. It was as if I was in two separate classrooms simultaneously. Was I an uninspiring bore or an exciting sparky bundle of teaching talent? The news of my wonderful lessons reached the accompanying Lebanese teacher who came along to one lesson and found it all so interesting she asked if she could keep attending. I feel bad about it now but I said she couldn’t. I was finding it so stressful trying to keep my ‘real’ students in order and the last thing I wanted was an observer every lesson.

That experience led to my theory that ‘fun’ is definitely inflationary. Those Lebanese students were not badly educated in many ways (if their classroom contributions/written work were anything to go by) and they seemed happy with their own school life. However, the learning diet they were receiving from me was like chocolate fudge cake when you are used to a simple bread diet, no surprise that they were gulping it up.

However, if those Lebanese students were well enough educated and generally interested enough at their own school AND something similar could be said of my own students, exactly WHAT had been gained from all the efforts to make learning interesting and fun? Add to this my knowledge that my lessons were nothing like as focused on ‘fun and interesting’ as many  I read about in blogs and Ofsted reports… It struck me as likely that my own students would find some of those uber fun lessons exciting for a while when compared with what I serve up. This all leads to my rather obvious theory of ‘fun inflation’.

I do think telling students stuff they don’t really understand in a bland monotone would be boring in any culture and is to be avoided. There is such a thing as plain boring. Apparently the Lebanese students’ history lessons were especially boring and involved them just copying stuff from the board (which sadly rather explains the exciting novelty of my own teaching) but that doesn’t really take from my point. I theorise that the link between intellectual curiosity and interesting lessons is a bit like the link between happiness and wealth. It is hard to be happy when in poverty and debt and it is hard to be enthusiastic if lessons are hard to understand and, for example, delivered in a bland monotone. However, apparently after an initial burst of happiness lottery winners soon revert to previous levels of happiness and it seems that students soon find normal a lesson that would once have been exciting and novel.

Added to this, the assumption that lessons should be novel and exciting for students to want to learn also relies on you being more interesting than your colleagues.

My conclusion is that I will strive to highlight to my classes what is innately interesting in the subjects I teach. I will also try ensure there is some variety in our activities and so some lessons will be more fun than others. However, I won’t do as my NQT was recently advised and aim to make each lesson novel and exciting. I think that road leads to madness.

Teaching history traditionally – really traditionally.

Our white bearded and semi –retired librarian chuckled at his apt choice of password for a head of history. “I’ve given you the Battle of Culloden,” he said. For one panicked moment I frantically ran through my knowledge of history. Culloden did bring up an image of mist on the heather, blood stained kilts and mournful bagpiping but I wasn’t sure of the century of that battle let alone the date. My schooling wasn’t a help. At primary we didn’t do much history, although I do remember drawing a very fine portrait of Henry VIII in year 6, with lots of stubble. Secondary schooling was largely modern world and sixteenth century at A level. At university I did lots of ‘early stuff’ and otherwise focused on American and South African history. My largely sixteenth or twentieth century teaching experience was useless. Fortunately our librarian could not conceive that I wouldn’t know, he explained that he would be emailing all password details. I’d got away with it.

It is mostly only among those ‘of a certain age’ I ever get that rising panic. I actually feel very well informed when at CPD with a younger generation of history teachers as I have filled in lots of gaps in my knowledge over time. However, I wish I had a framework of key events in British history that wasn’t quite so patchy… Therefore I was fascinated to discover that my own daughter was being given just that in her history lessons at her prep school this year. In Years 3-5 she had done some very nice topic based work but in year 6 classes are taught history by a subject specialist. Mr Clarke, also semi-retired, has defied the winds of change that have totally altered the shape of history teaching over the last three decades.

So far, utilising three 30 minute lessons a week he has taught about each British monarch from Henry VIII to George III PLUS the agricultural revolution, French and American revolutions AND the Napoleonic wars… Next week my year 6 daughter will be examined on about 15 pages of A4 revision notes. I suspect the marking on the longer answers will be of the ‘tick for each fact’ variety.

I admire the sheer audacity of standing against all pressures, to continue his approach. It has also prompted some very serious reflection on my part about the possibility of teaching chronological overview effectively. This previous blog explains my frustration that anyone could claim to be teaching wide sweeps of time without acknowledging that understanding will be a casualty. I still think the same.

Given those stated views what intrigues me is my actual gut reaction to my daughter’s experience. I’d better whisper it very quietly… I am pleased. Not at her having to plough through all those notes in her half term holiday but that she has the beginnings of a framework, a schema, from which better understanding can grow. And I’m jealous, she has actually studied the eighteenth century, something I have never done.

I’ve been forced to think about WHAT precisely I want my daughter to get from her history study. Once upon a time, as a keen NQT, I would have said ‘transferable skills’ and scoffed at any approach so focused on just ‘telling the story’. Now I know that skills don’t transfer readily between domains and are reliant on the quality of contextual knowledge.

Now I think I am just happy that she has enjoyed some stories from the past and that these provide ‘a framework’ so she will have more chance to understand references to historical events and greater capacity to expand her knowledge and understanding of these events in the future. Perhaps there never was a golden age when most children had that framework but I certainly meet adults that did gain that from their schooling and I’d love for all children to have what these members of an older generation take for granted. True, I do rather flinch at the selective nature of what my daughter has been told as ‘the story’ and would prefer her teaching to highlight ‘the nature and status of the knowledge she acquires’. I would rethink the extended writing and I am also sceptical about how much the class have the capacity to absorb or retain long term. I think the reason they retain some knowledge is because of testing and because the events are told as a story with colourful characters and on-going threads (the theme of religious conflict runs through the account).

However, I am persuaded from my daughter’s experience that sweeping (and deliberately/pragmatically superficial) narratives of the past should have a real place in history teaching, alongside depthStories are powerful learning tools and I think it is a tragedy that history teachers, of all people, disdain to utilise this power to build sweeping frameworks on which stronger historical understanding can later grow. It is odd that so many teachers and educationalists are far less critical of ‘Horrible Histories’ despite giving a similar justification to mine for Mr Clarke’s approach, in support of that programme.

However, sweeping frameworks are not enough. I do want more than this for my child, even in year 6, especially with an hour and a half a week to play with. Ultimately I want her to ‘think historically’ and I like this description of this goal from Tosh:

The most valuable objective of history teaching is to enable young people to situate themselves in time, to recognise the centrality of change and development in accounting for the world around them, to grasp the merits – and the drawbacks – of historical comparison and to draw on the past for a richer sense of possibilities in the future. Tosh J. (2008) Why History Matters, Palgrave Macmillan

Howson, who has written lots on how to achieve this goal argues that “fact cramming history’ [does] little to provide a meaningful big picture of British history and …[is] of scant use.” However, personal experience makes me wonder why some of the ‘older generation’ I come across, despite being educated rather like my daughter, seem pretty able to ‘situate themselves in time’ and use their rather good historical knowledge to do this. I’ll try and explain. Howson refers to Some research done to investigate the degree to which and the ways in which students used their understanding of the past in thinking about the present and future. Forty seven British school students were asked:

People say that the USA is the most powerful country in the world. Will the USA always be the most powerful ? How do you know?

In response 75% offering no explicit historical perspective at all and only 8% were able to draw on historical knowledge and understanding to illuminate perspectives on the present and the future. The researchers concluded that the ‘majority of students did not instinctively draw on historical knowledge…and [the weakest students] found it difficult, even when prompted to connect the past, present and future.’

What is it these students lack? Of course, you can’t draw on historical knowledge you do not have. It would be interesting to find out whether these students actually KNEW about past empires and the fact they rose and fell. Cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Willingham have demonstrated the crucial importance of detailed knowledge to analyse effectively. The skill of analysis is dependent on the quality of your knowledge. So far, so good for Mr Clarke. His sweeping framework means students are more likely to have chronological knowledge that allows them to ‘situate themselves’. Perhaps that older generation also utilise their deep and wide-ranging knowledge to think historically.

However, I think Willingham also gives a fascinating explanation of why students are unable to ‘instinctively’ draw even on knowledge they may possess.  Willingham gives an example of students who have learned to thoughtfully discuss the causes of the American Revolution from both the British and the American perspectives but don’t even think to question how the Germans viewed WW2. He explains that this is because ‘thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about’. In other words the mind is naturally distracted by superficial details (what Willingham calls the ‘surface structure’) e.g. the story of WW2 and can’t see how what they have learnt about considering alternative perspectives can apply in a new context (what Willingham calls the ‘deep structure’). He explains that the ability to identify the deep structure (i.e. realise it would be productive to think about alternative perspectives/the rise and fall of previous world powers) requires two factors:

  1. Being really familiar with a problem’s deep structure. This comes from long term repeated experience with one problem or with various manifestation of one type of problem (e.g. you continually look at a range of perspectives in interpreting the past.)

“After repeated exposure to either or both the subject simply perceives the deep structure as part of the problem.”

This raises an issue with an approach that continually invites students to identify ‘deep structure’ when they do not have the expertise to identify it. Students could not ever give a historical perspective on American world power without knowledge of past empires and ALSO having been repeatedly exposed to the idea of the rise and decline of empires (the deep structure.) Identifying that deep structure ‘instinctively’ is the product of expertise.

However, Willingham also says that identifying deep structure is helped by:

  1. Knowledge that one should look for a deep structure (e.g. knowing you are on the lookout for alternative perspectives/earlier examples of world powers/causes of events).

Howson suggests that “progression in history is about moving from default positions with respect to certain ideas about the past and helping students make moves that allow for more powerful conceptions.” I would agree that as we teach, for example about empires, we should aim to help our students understand those more powerful conceptions. However, the research outlined is more problematic if the starting assumption is that generic and transferable historical understanding is being tested when actually depth of knowledge is of such crucial importance to the quality of responses. If I had been ask to explain the significance of Culloden in the context of on going Scottish/English tensions would I have failed because I lack a generic sense of historical perspective? I am not sure progress towards a generic understanding  of these second order concepts can be independently assessed.

So I disagree that my daughter’s teaching this year is of ‘scant use’ because knowledge is essential to ‘situate yourself’ in history. However, I also want my daughter’s teaching to continually highlight those important second order concepts and written work should invite students to consolidate what they have learnt in class about those concepts, so that they are more likely to gradually build the expertise to ‘instinctively’ think historically. I think this should be built into long term planning but is also often incidental (such as when I recently drew my class’s attention to the parallels between Russia’s desire for a sphere of influence in Poland in 1945 and in the Ukraine today). Because I knew my daughter was studying the conflict between Catholics and Protestants I bought her Joan Lingard’s  The Twelfth Day of July, a novel about a friendship between a Catholic and a Protestant in Belfast and then to help her see how there were other religious conflicts I bought her One More River by Lynne Reid Banks about a Jewish girl caught up in the Five Day’s War. It was a natural thing for a history teacher to do. This makes me wonder if enriching a more narrative approach is something some history teachers have always done.



Willingham, D. “Critical Thinking, Why is it so hard to teach? AFT Summer 2007 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/AEPR.109.4.21-32#.U48r1rFwbcs

Howson, J. “Potential and pitfalls in teaching ‘big pictures’ of the past” Teaching History Sept 09  http://www.history.org.uk/resources/secondary_resource_2692_8.html

Howson, J. “Is it the Tuarts and the Studors or the other way around?” Teaching History May 2007 http://www.history.org.uk/resources/secondary_resource_706_8.html