Planning excellent history lessons

I want to start off by saying that I by no means believe this is a comprehensive guide to excellent history lessons, merely my take on how we can better structure our lessons to get the most out of our students. I was trying to think about which lessons have made the most impact over recent years that have led to our departments progress score being so positive and how that can be applied to other contexts. Not only that but I am acutely aware of the fact there will be a large swathe of history NQTs in September who have barely taught in a classroom and will need as much guidance as possible in planning lessons that are engaging and get the most out of the students.

I tried to put on paper what I would consider to be the “Principles of history teaching” and came up with the following ideas:

  1. Building deep knowledge – as Christine Counsell calls it – both fingertip (what they are learning directly at the time) and residual (ideas such as democracy, dictatorship, empire that stretch across subjects)
  2. Conceptual understanding – cause, consequence, change, continuity, significance, chronology and diversity
  3. Source analysis
  4. Historiography and interpretation analysis to enhance understanding of scholarship

A lot of these could have a blog, chapter or even full book dedicated to them. We must consider the above as the fundamentals to our classroom practice and constantly be thinking about how we can help the students engage with them. If we do the above four elements well, no easy task, our students will thrive in history as a result. Hopefully at some point I can work with the wonderful people out there on Twitter to properly break down each of these aspects for new history teachers.

Keeping to the rule of four, I also started to think about the things that we should try to do in absolutely every history lesson within reason:

  • Students should engage in historiography and/or source work
  • Students should constantly check/peer check their work and correct or improve it as it is reviewed as a class
  • Students should engage in questions that are academic – routed in historiography, and concept driven
  • Students should engage in retrieval practice

I’m aware that any time somebody claims something must be done it is deemed controversial for one reason or another but I honestly can’t see a reason to not do any of the above. How it is done can differ – as Kate Jones always says there are many ways to do retrieval practice other than through quizzes, but I think the four points above should feature in just about every lesson. If they don’t, we need to make sure they have been replaced by something just as high-impact and well thought out. My reasoning behind choosing the above is that I believe they are the best way to embed knowledge that is deep-routed and conceptual, while also making lessons and curricula as academically based as possible. Scholarship should form the basis of our lesson themes in history because scholarship IS history. Too long has it gone ignored in the majority of lessons around the country.

This brought me onto my next train of thought. Are there some straightforward lesson structures we can put together that would help new or struggling teachers in formulating a lesson with these ideas in mind. There will be many variants of this but I came up with two basic structures for lessons.

Lesson structure 1 – Knowledge building

  1. Do Now/Start of retrieval (quiz or other form) – title and date on the board – 5 minutes with 5 minutes going over max
  2. Teacher providing context within prior and future learning – 5 minutes – Introduce key vocabulary and get students to write down any important bedrock information and knowledge they need to engage with the lesson. Ask questions here to tie this lesson content to others..
  3. Knowledge building – 15 minutes – comprehensions are my favourite here but there are many other ways of doing this such as video clips (just keep them short and have question based worksheets). Go over the questions/knowledge as a class and get students to add to their answers (using green pen) based upon the work of the teacher and their peers.
  4. Historiography 1 – 5 minutes – Introduce an opinion from a historian to the class. This can be a longer piece or a one sentence view. Questioning opportunity – do they agree with the view? Think, pair, share. Maybe a brief debate focusing on knowledge they have looked at thus far
  5. Application/building – any other layers of knowledge you need them to know here? You could do source analysis or a significance task here. Short academic writing/response to previous historiography? 15-20 minutes.
  6. Plenary – 5 minutes – can be a chance to introduce historiography that is opposed to the one in point 4 or you can generally test and recap knowledge. Could be a source on the board you analyse as a class.

Now – there are times when you need to spend time on these activities so they are superficial. Knowledge building can often take longer than 15 minutes and academic writing rarely takes only 15-20. However – if you place this as a general way to address a topic it’s hard to go wrong. It could be over multiple lessons for large topics such as the Night of Long Knives.

Consider all of this to me doing a bit of an Ed Sheeran – Thinking out loud, if you will. I would love to hear ideas and feedback on this and what others consider to be principles of excellent history teaching, or indeed examples of lesson structures they think could be shared with newer, less experienced or even struggling staff.

I have some other ideas on lesson structure within the context of a feedback lesson, but I feel like a feedback lesson requires an entirely separate post.

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