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…


5 thoughts on “Playing Games

  1. This brought a wry smile to my lips. My daughter is currently struggling to work out what on earth she is supposed to do with the “sources” in her OCR controlled assessment. They appear to consist primarily of photographs that have been copied and recopied so frequently they are nothing but black smudges – not that it matters because what can such photos really do except act as illustrations? The comments with regard to use of sources in the Examiners’ Report seem to contradict what she has been told by her teacher…who apparently believes it is a good idea to mention that a photo of a baseball stadium is reliable because it couldn’t have been faked… she is a very academic girl, very logical, and this is making her incredibly frustrated.

    1. Yep. That is exactly the problem. I nearly mentioned the smudgy pictures myself!
      I do genuinely think it is a credit to history teachers that we get kids to perform such feats of logical contortion so adeptly.

  2. I don’t see how History teachers can live with themselves–Chairman Mao would be green with envy at such a clever scheme for cutting a whole generation off from their culture. I do hope you actually get a chance to teach a little history when you aren’t coaching them for exams.

    One of the most curious aspects of History teaching in England is the omission of the great tradition of English radical thought. I’d be interested to find out how many GCSE A*s have ever heard of Paine or Priestley. If they’ve heard of the latter, it would more likely be from Chemistry than History.

  3. I think most newly trained teachers don’t know any different and so aren’t critical of sourcework. This neatly illustrates that the ‘critical thinking skills’ history teachers are told are their priority to inculcate through sourcework are an empty waste of time if there is no knowledge.

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