Playing Games

We all know learning should be fun and games are especially welcome to liven up your lessons. I am going to share some of the classic games used to prepare kids for the source work at GCSE and A level.

Tabula Rasa

This is a game of let’s pretend. You instruct the class to pretend they don’t know anything at all about the topic you have just taught them and then present them with some sources on that very subject. Ask the class to ‘act like Sherlock Holmes’ using the clues in the sources (rather than what they know) to answer the questions. It is really rare for any kid to work out that it is impossible to infer much about anything without some prior knowledge. Kids also like this game because they don’t need to find any knowledge to include in their answers, which can be a slog.

Tabula Rasa Extreme

In this game the teacher really does teach nothing about the topic before presenting the sources. I saw it played by classes on my PGCE many moons ago when the old SHP ‘skills based/no knowledge required’ paper existed. At the other end of the spectrum it is used regularly by prep schools when preparing students for the sources section of the Common Entrance exam. Unfortunately when kids don’t know anything about the topic answers can be banal and formulaic and so my best tip is to drill the class in more detailed pros and cons of different types of sources so they have plenty to say.

The Reliability Game

Students especially love trying to spot a bit of ‘bias’ and the Reliability Game encourages this- which is nice. Acronyms such as NOP or SWIPE are superb to ensure your students apply a safely mechanistic approach. It is important not to allow the kids to get too hung up about whether the source is actually typical or representative using their knowledge of the period because marks for most reliability questions only come from looking at PROVENANCE. Even if the only possible observations are banal you’ll need to play safe and play the game. To optimize marks I’d suggest teaching some stock phrases for weaker students such as ‘he is biased because…’ and ‘rose tinted spectacles’.

Utility Twister (a classic GCSE game)

This game has elements of Tabula Rasa. However, rather than asking the student to pretend they don’t know anything, kids need to think how a historian, who didn’t know anything much, might use the evidence in the sources provided.

It gets tricky because, while simultaneously pretending the historian needs the evidence from this source because he/she is ignorant, the student needs to explain HOW the source illustrates/explains issues they, the student, DO know about.

Oh, and don’t forget that all important discussion of provenance… There are lots of subtly different variants of this game and I strongly suggest ensuring you choose the right game rules for your exam board or you will be stung on results day. It is a credit to history teachers across the land that this game is played with such skill after only two years of regular practice.


I was told by an IGCSE examiner that the reason there were no reliability and usefulness questions on the international paper was because teachers abroad just couldn’t seem to get kids to answer them well. I felt a glow of British pride… Sources can still be used in essays though and so I use the ‘Illustration Game’ with my IGCSE students.

For this game the kid doesn’t have to pretend they know nothing – they can use their expertise. However, they do need to pretend that the brief extracts supplied on an exam paper are especially insightful or illustrative of the arguments they are trying to make, even though they aren’t. This can be quite challenging when a child is faced with the source that was actually chosen for the comparison question and is pretty irrelevant – but then that is what makes this game so much fun!

Spot the Difference

This game involves source comparison. When you are faced with a mark scheme that requires discussion of similarity and difference between the message of sources you can find the sources in the question only have meaningful detail for one side. Tell the class just to keep looking till they think of something – anything! If you are really struggling to find a difference yourself my top tip is to get the class looking in pairs. The clever kid is sure to feedback something unexpected and then you can use that as an example with everyone.


There are so many possible variants of this game. One classic is to provide ‘fake sources’ that are actually just brief extracts from some textbooks. Then pretend to the students there is some worth in analysing these.
You can also fake a whole debate. It isn’t always possible to find brief accessible sources on a topic that illustrate a genuine historical debate, sometimes you have to settle for any apparent disagreement.

And finally…

The Contortionist (used for the ‘OCR A’ AS paper)

The game clearly has elements of Tabula Rasa Extreme because an OCR principal examiner told me that ‘an analytical physics student should get a C on this paper’ without any history knowledge. Many teachers were caught out in the first few years of this paper because they thought practicing ‘Utility Twister’ would be enough only to discover this game is more complicated…
While applying skills you could use if you knew nothing, the student must also use their actual knowledge to judge utility- but there are constraints. Sources must be analysed in groups. More than a few lines on an individual source will be penalised. Knowledge must be used to reach conclusions but you need to refer to a source at least every two sentences while doing this. Now that IS a genuine intellectual challenge. Who said A levels were getting easier?

Given all the fun we have in lessons I was surprised when a child told me the other day she wasn’t enjoying history because of all the source work. I am at a loss to understand her problem…

‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’. My thoughts on the new history A level.

One of yesterday’s holiday jobs was to look in more detail at the new history A level specification from OCR. It made me depressed. I even woke up realising that I had been worrying about the blasted spec in my sleep. I’ve never had an exam specification themed nightmare before. However hope also ‘springs eternal’ and perhaps my initial reaction was overly negative. There is much to be welcomed in the new OCR specification.

Content: I am actually very happy with the content offered. I like OCR’s specification because it doesn’t have any prescribed topics and I want students to learn some early modern history with one teacher over two years, while doing modern history with their other teacher. While the ruling that all history A levels must cover over a 200 year span might mean less reinforcement between topics, there is sound justifiable rationale behind it. Most teachers I speak to don’t seem to look further than the content options when choosing a spec but those who have read my previous blogs will know I am concerned that the actual experience of teaching and learning the material is significantly influenced by the mode of assessment.

Assessment: I think my emotional reaction was because I had been really happy and hopeful about the assessment of the new A level. I have written previously about the way that assessment objectives that split knowledge and skills lead to ‘skills based mark schemes’ which distort the teaching of history (and my other subject, politics) and make marking unreliable. I was absolutely over the moon when I found out that this irrational split no longer exists in the assessment objectives of the new history A level. Instead AO1 acknowledges that good analysis can’t be judged separately from the understanding necessary to deploy well-chosen knowledge. It looks as if essays will no longer have this artificial divide when marked which is great news.

The new A level assessment objectives are below but briefly AO1 is for analysis, AO2 for analysing primary sources and AO3 for analysing interpretations:

AO1 Demonstrate, organise and communicate knowledge and understanding to analyse and evaluate the key features related to the periods studied, making substantiated judgements and exploring concepts, as relevant, of cause, consequence, change, continuity, similarity, difference and significance.

AO2 Analyse and evaluate appropriate source materials, primary and/or contemporary to the period, within its historical context.

AO3 Analyse and evaluate, in relation to the historical context, different ways in which aspects of the past have been interpreted.

The importance of high quality mark schemes: There is a very important reason why assessment objectives MUST be coherent. Currently they are used to make mark schemes. Mark schemes dictate how students must write answers and thus what you teach and also a good mark scheme is utterly crucial for sound marking. Testing whether marking is reliable, when the mark scheme is actually unsound and does not effectively describe progression, is like testing whether a water drainage pipe has any cracks when the pipe is made of paper. Mark schemes need to correctly identify progression. Recent mark schemes have been written to assess individual assessment objectives rather than allowing the examiner to make a holistic ‘best fit’ judgement. I see pros and cons to splitting your mark scheme into separate strands to assess different objectives directly:


• If students frequently perform better in one aspect of a task than another, split strands to the mark scheme can be fairer.

• They also make marking judgements more uniform (I purposefully avoided the word ‘reliable’ there…) as the mark schemes are more specific about allocation of marks.

• Exam boards can demonstrate that each assessment objective is being assessed and given correct weighting in the assessment.


• Often apparently distinct areas of assessment are so inextricably linked that trying to assess them separately is an artificial exercise (as with assessing knowledge/understanding separately from analysis).

• When objectives can’t really be separated it can lead to unpredictable marking as markers need to be specifically told what ‘features of AO2’ might be as it might not be clear otherwise, even to a real pro. However, this means there is less exercise of professional judgement when marking.

• Once a mark scheme has three or more separate marks to be awarded it becomes impossible to make a holistic judgement of essay quality. Given the frequent overlap in what is actually being assessed by different assessment objectives this often means students are penalised for the same fault as they are marked in each strand. I think that is a reason why we so frequently see apparently good answers with bizzarely low marks because of one area of weakness and perhaps explains why they don’t go up when remarks are requested.

So you really want to avoid splitting mark schemes when assessment objectives actually overlap and to avoid making it impossible for the examiner to make a holistic judgement.

Eagle eyed readers may have spotted that all three AOs judge ‘analysis’, AO2 and AO3 just give a specific context when analysis might be used. Perhaps those readers will spot the problem this leads to with the published mark scheme for assessing the history A level coursework essay worth 20% of the A level. The mark scheme is copied at the bottom of this post – do scroll down if you are curious. For this assessment the student uses a selection of primary and secondary sources of evidence to inform their analysis as they answer an essay question

The problems with this mark scheme:

• There are three strands so the examiners can’t make a holistic judgement of quality. [n.b. If you want to see a real shocker AQAs split is far worse]

• It is unclear how ‘analysis’ in AO1 is qualitatively different from the analysis needed for sources AO2 and interpretations AO3. I think in practice AO1 could mean judging how well the student reaches their own conclusion when not handling the sources or interpretations. That would be O.K. as it is not so hard to assess how well students examine the sources/interpretations separately from how well they discuss other evidence to reach an overall conclusion. However if that is what is meant by AO1 it should explicitly say so in the mark scheme? Goodness knows if I am right and I am very worried if not. The loss of clarity here is a serious issue.

• There is just no need to have AO2 and AO3 as separate strands. I have never to my memory, in my whole career, heard a teacher make the distinction between a student’s ability to analyse primary versus secondary sources.

If the writers of our history assessment objectives HAD to have three AOs then the choices aren’t bad at all. However, it is very depressing that each AO must be separately assessed using a three strand mark scheme. In my dream world mark schemes would be written to clearly describe likely progression in a specific task. It is a brilliant improvement that it looks like ordinary essays do now have such mark schemes and rightly so. Surely the assessment objectives should simply dictate the nature of the task? Does someone somewhere actually believe that by making each AO worth a certain number of marks they have in any real way achieved correct weighting for each AO?

Hopefully/maybe/fingers crossed we have better assessment than previously but I wonder if  that three strand split for coursework could mean the difference between an assessment that works well and one that is distinctly less reliable.

Top level (17-20 marks) of the mark scheme for new OCR A level coursework essays:  

AO1: There is a consistent focus on the question throughout the answer. Detailed, accurate and fully relevant knowledge and understanding is used to effectively analyse and evaluate key features of the period studied in order to produce a clear and well-supported argument which reaches a convincing and substantiated judgement. 17–20 marks

AO2: The answer has excellent evaluation of a fully appropriate range of different sources that are primary and/or contemporary to the period. The answer demonstrates the candidate’s own full engagement with the sources, using detailed and accurate knowledge in order to produce a well-supported analysis of them within their historical context. 9–10 marks

AO3: The answer has excellent evaluation of a fully appropriate range of different interpretations of the historical issue chosen, using detailed and accurate knowledge of the historical context in order to produce a well-supported analysis of the interpretations and to locate them effectively within the wider historical debate on the issue. 9-10 marks  

On teaching character

There are some traits we would like to encourage in children. I am very sceptical about the trend in schools to instil ‘character’. I’ll try and explain why.

Take one less desirable character trait – greed. If we know a person who is greedy for food do we expect that trait to be evident in other areas? They may be gluttonous but does that make them avaricious? If not greedy for money are they more likely to be needy, ‘greedy’ for affection?

Let’s think about a more desirable trait – love. Should we teach kids to ‘love’ learning by encouraging them to love in other areas? Does increased care for friends transfer to love of geography?

I hope my point is clear. I think that in the same way generic ‘skills’ are not as transferable as we think, neither are generic character traits. We have a tendency to assume a trait can transfer between contexts just because in our language we have a general word that can be used in different contexts. How much do we know about whether ‘resilience’ means the same thing in different contexts?

I have often wondered about how well we can build character because I teach at a public school which places enormous stress on the importance of sport in developing character. My gut feeling is that playing sport every day is a ‘good thing’. However, I can’t count how many times I have been astonished to hear of the skills and character displayed by a child on the sports pitch that I see no sign of in the classroom. Ability to work as part of a team learnt in sport does not seem to mean they will play their part in class group work.

It is clearly incorrect to state that generic skills or character traits DON’T EVER transfer to other contexts. However, they don’t necessarily transfer as READILY as we like to presume and it depends on how CLOSE or similar the two contexts are. For example I presume an accomplished horse rider:
Might use their skills to learn to ride a camel quicker than the average
But might not be much quicker to learn to ride a surf board!

If you’ve read Matthew Syed’s ‘Bounce’ you might remember him describing that as a champion at table tennis he expected to be able to use his fabulous reaction skills to return very fast tennis serves. He found out that apparently the same skill, returning service, was based on much more context specific knowledge than one would assume. In fact ‘quick reaction time’ was not a generic transferable skill after all.

I think character traits are, like skills, not as generic and transferable as is blithely assumed by schools setting up policies to inculcate good character. Politicians are promising to prioritise character development but I think all these efforts are doomed to fail because no one seems to be asking whether apparent development of character in one context can transfer to another.

I suspect the answer is ‘not readily’.

How useful is lesson observation?

I observed our department’s new unqualified teacher yesterday. Goodness knows how tough it must be but he is doing really, really well.

Oops… I have just made a statement that has become controversial. How can I possibly know how well he is doing? The message from twitter and a spate of blogs recently is that student learning can’t be observed; that single lesson observations are remarkably unreliable ways of judging teacher quality.

I do actually pretty much agree with those arguments. Schools across the land need to hear that message and stop judging the quality of someone’s teaching based on one lesson, or even a twenty minute snap shot. It IS crass to do so and often our judgements tell us more about our own teaching preferences than the effectiveness of the teacher we observe. If you are unaware of the research that demonstrates just how unreliable individual lesson observations are for judging teacher quality I urge you to read this.

However, and it is a big however, I question the assumption of some that we can’t make any judgements from lessons and thus provide other teachers with guidance.

Our new teacher’s lesson was on the events leading up to WW1. I first taught that lesson twenty two years ago, using some of the same resources as he used yesterday. Subsequently I must have taught hundreds of students of all abilities that very material. As I sat quietly at the back of the classroom I realised I just ‘knew’ what was going on. I could ‘read’ the lesson; see each teacher dilemma, anticipate the pitfalls. I just ‘knew’ how much was being learnt and I just ‘knew’ what some of the class didn’t understand. I might not be able to see inside every child’s mind but I knew the sort of learning that transpires longer term from that teaching. Those are big claims but I don’t know how else to describe how it felt. I had some insight into what was going on because I have done my time in the history classroom, earned those metaphorical leather elbow patches. If you’ve read Gladwell’s Outliers you might remember his observation that the apparent ‘talent’ of the expert who reports they just ‘know’ is actually the product of years of experience. I’m really not claiming infallibility (far from it) but I agree that all my experience does not count for nothing.

Ask yourself who you would rather give you feedback on a lesson. Would you prefer an observation by a teacher of another discipline with a few years solid classroom experience or an observation by a highly experienced practitioner in your own subject with a proven track record of success? Actually if I had neglected that class recently and the lesson was near the end of a series then definitely the former! I would be able to pull the wool over their eyes…

That is the problem with these sweeping pronouncements in education. Apparently research shows homework is not useful, that setting is worse than mixed ability, that class size doesn’t matter and now that lesson observation is unreliable. The problem is that there is some useful truth in all that research. I really don’t think we should dismiss all education research out of hand. I am grateful to the researchers that have demonstrated just how unreliable individual classroom observations can be. Thank goodness brain gym and learning styles have been debunked. However, the more general the conclusion, the less generalisable the finding can be to the classroom.

The usefulness of observation really depends WHO is observing and WHAT the school believes they can judge from the observation.

*YES as an experienced history specialist I can give real constructive help to a new department member but NO I could not judge a French teacher’s (or really any teacher’s) effectiveness for PRP or performance management based on a few lesson observations.

*I feel some confidence that I could identify genuine strengths and weaknesses in an INDIVIDUAL lesson of history when I am familiar with the material covered and especially if I have taught that content often before. Even then any specific grade I might give that lesson would not be reliable.

*A history specialist would be less able to reliably spot the weaknesses in a science lesson though. Their comments on things like behaviour management might be helpful but they just wouldn’t understand enough about what the teacher is trying to achieve and any judgements would inevitably depend on teaching style preferences and weak proxies for apparent learning such as degree of student engagement. I could spot something really bad but my ability to judge well would be limited. I think this is the truth we need to accept from the research.

Let’s not dismiss lesson observation out of hand but let’s also take the research on board. I would argue that WHO is observing and WHAT they are attempting to judge are crucial.