Long-term lessons from lockdown learning

At the time of writing, the second period of remote learning is about to end in England and schools are on the verge of re-opening to all pupils. It has been an intense eight weeks, with many of us delivering timetables of live lessons for the first time. In a short period, we have had to learn how to how to adapt our adapt our lessons for the online classroom, ranging from the pedagogy of simplifying activities and finding ways of gaining contributions in the ‘chat’ to the endless practicalities of sharing resources, sharing your screen and logging attendance. In a half-term which has been so consumed by the challenges of short-term planning, I wanted to end by reflecting on the lessons I could take from this into the long-term, in particular what I have learnt about how we might develop our curriculum. Like many departments we have spent a lot of time in the last year looking at how to improve our curriculum and, like many other departments I am sure, we have used a number of Oak National Academy enquiries to help us provide a remote education for our pupils. In this blog I will reflect on what I have learnt from each of these enquiries about how to develop our curriculum.

Shorter and simpler enquiries may be better

One of the biggest planning challenges that confronted us at the start of this lockdown was how to adapt our Year 9 scheme on the causes of the First World War for remote learning. It is a scheme which has been through many revisions over the years and in its most recent iteration it features stories of the Great Game and the Scramble for Africa, as well as an extended reading activity in which pupils draw how the alliances formed based on Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers. As much as I believe in rigorous history for all, this really seemed a step too far for remote learning. To save simplifying each lesson in turn, we decided to use the chapter ‘Why did a murder lead to war in 1914?’from the textbook Modern Minds [1], along with short live lessons featuring discussion and teacher story-telling. The result was that, after four lessons, pupils had completed the enquiry, outcome task and all.

This really got me thinking about the length of our enquiries. Our normal enquiry on the causes of the First World War takes the best part of a half term, if not longer when you factor in the lessons to plan and write an essay at the end. However, through teaching a shorter enquiry on the causes of the First World War, we had the curriculum time for pupils to also complete Hannah Cusworth’s brilliant Oak Academy enquiry ‘What do the stories of the ‘often forgotten armies’ reveal about the Western Front?’, based on the work of Paula Lobo. [2] Through sacrificing the depth of our causation enquiry, pupils had gained a lot in terms of breadth through studying the stories of armies that have been too often overlooked in our national story of the First World War and sadly our history curriculum as well. Moving forward, it is clear that shortening some of our Key Stage 3 enquiries would give us the time to build the broader, more representative curriculum we are after.

Evidential enquiries at Key Stage 3 are essential for pupils to understand the discipline

When we sat down as a department last summer to review our Key Stage 3 curriculum, we were aware that there was a big evidential hole in our enquiries. Pupils regularly used sources in lessons, but without using these as evidence to construct their own claims about the past, let alone looking at the evidential issues arising from different kinds of sources. This became all the more apparent to me during this lockdown as I read an otherwise brilliant ‘Interpretations’ exam question, in which one of my Year 11 pupils referred to Interpretation A as a source. To them a historical source was synonymous with a short piece of text, rather than something remaining from the past as distinct from an account written by a historian.

The reason this stood out me more than usual was the fact my Year 7 pupils were in the middle of an Oak Academy enquiry on medieval peasants, built around historical sources. Jonny Sellin’s brilliant enquiry ‘Which sources reveal the most about medieval peasants?’ begins by clearly defining what we mean by a historical source and then explores what we can learn from different historical sources about the lives of medieval peasants. [3] As well as carefully addressing the unique value and limitations of each source, the relationship between these sources and historians’ claims about the past was clear throughout. To top it all off, at the end of the enquiry one of my Year 7 pupils wrote: “I think each source is useful in its own way and finding the right source depends on what you are trying to learn about”. If a Year 7 pupil can show such a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between historical sources and interpretation, then it is clear we need to build in evidential enquiries at our Key Stage 3; only then can our pupils not only avoid anachronism at GCSE but- more importantly- understand the discipline of history as its own unique form of truth.

A broader curriculum achieves so much more than breadth

The real curricular challenge we have been wrestling with as a department over the past year is how to build a broader and more representative history curriculum. Teachers like Hannah Cusworth have argued passionately for a more diverse history curriculum to ensure that all pupils can feel part of the history we teach. [4] Meanwhile Claire Holliss has argued for a more representative history curriculum on the grounds that it is both richer and more rigorous, as it gives pupils a more complicated account of what happened in the past. [5] For us as a department, we wondered whether part of the answer might be developing a more global history curriculum, one that would shift Britain away from centre-stage and allow pupils to study the history of other places, as well as look at significant events from a wider perspective. [6] With much excitement, we designed a possible outline of a new, more global Year 7 curriculum, which we were part way through when schools closed in January. Not wanting to teach a new enquiry for the first time online, we seized the opportunity of using Hannah Cusworth’s fascinating Oak Academy enquiry on medieval Mali. [7]

The enquiry ‘What does the life of Mansa Musa reveal about medieval Mali?’ provided the perfect opportunity to broaden the history on offer to our pupils, whilst also following nicely from their recent work on the spread of Islam. However, as I discussed pupils’ ideas with them and read their answers to the enquiry question, it struck me that broadening the geographical focus had achieved far more than I had expected. It had helped pupils build a rich picture of medieval Mali as a wealthy, ambitious and connected empire, but it had also helped them build a richer and more complicated picture of the medieval world. Pupils seemed amazed by how Mansa Musa travelled so far on his Hajj and how a picture of Mansa Musa featured on the Catalan Atlas made in Spain. They could see how the medieval world was a time when countries were connected through trade, pilgrimage and the work of scholars. They were also building an understanding of empire as a substantive concept, one which would both enhance and contrast with their study of the British Empire in Year 8. A broader, more global history curriculum really can offer our pupils a richer, more complicated and more connected understanding of the past.

[1] Jamie Byrom, Christine Counsell, Michael Gorman, Derek Peaple & Michael Riley, Modern Minds: The twentieth-century world

[2] See https://teachers.thenational.academy/units/what-do-the-stories-of-the-often-forgotten-armies-reveal-about-the-western-front for Hannah Cusworth’s Oak National Academy enquiry. See also https://lobworth.com/2020/05/14/what-do-the-stories-of-the-often-forgotten-armies-reveal-about-the-western-front/ for Paula Labo’s blog outlining the enquiry and her narratives of the ‘forgotten armies’.

[3] See https://teachers.thenational.academy/units/which-sources-reveal-the-most-about-medieval-peasants-ba6d for Jonny Sellin’s enquiry ‘Which sources reveal the most about medieval peasants?’

[4] Hannah Cusworth (@hannahcusworth), ‘Putting Black into the Union Jack’ – Curricularium Talk, May 2020

[5] Claire Holliss, ‘Representative History: Why and How?’, workshop at West London Free School, January 2020 (@CitoyenneClaire)

[6] The idea of a more global history curriculum is still very much in its early stages for us. I am hoping to write more about it at the end of the year, reflecting on what we have learnt from teaching a more global Year 7 curriculum.

[7] See https://teachers.thenational.academy/units/what-does-the-life-of-mansa-musa-reveal-about-medieval-mali-3c3c for Hannah Cusworth’s enquiry on medieval Mali

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