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23 September 2015

Back to Versailles again: Explaining, accounting for and evaluating interpretations

And so we come to it... it's the third week of September and that means it must be time for my annual trip to the Paris peace talks and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles. Normally, we'd take a look at the terms of the treaty and then study the German reaction through some of the most famous cartoons of the period. But this year, I want to do Versailles a little differently.

I've also been thinking about the way I work on historical interpretations with my classes and looking for some opportunities to stretch and challenge my most able students. This particular area of the discipline is ideally suited to that, as understanding and working with historical interpretations is generally regarded as one of the most challenging aspects of the subject. So I've set to work planning a new lesson.

The ideal starting place for this was to revisit the academic discourse around what student progression in this concept looks like. Sidestepping the issues which accompany any such progression models, namely that progress is often patchy and students do not move forward in neat, linear steps, I've decided that there are essentially three moves which I want my students to make:-

1. I want students to be able to explain the existence and development of a historical interpretation, by setting it in the context of the time period it was created in, the viewpoint of the creator and the audience for which it was created. For my least able, this would represent good progress.

2. I want my middle ability students to be able to compare two interpretations, accounting for their differences by setting them firmly in context, deploying precise historical knowledge to support their explanations.

3. For my most able, I would like them to be able to go further by evaluating the validity of two different interpretations. This decision will have to be based on sound historical evidence. This will be a challenge for the students (and it made me think carefully when planning it).

So I've made a lesson to address those three areas. Here's what I'm going to do:-

Firstly, we're going to work on contextual knowledge, which students will need in order to explain how and why a historical interpretation has come about. We will do this in streamed ability groups, with half the groups working on post-war Germany and half working on post-war Britain. I'll supply them with a short summary and ask them to make a diagram focusing on the impact of the war and public opinion in the post-war years. Groups will then visit each other and teach each other briefly, using their diagrams.

Then we'll repeat this process with two interpretations of the Treaty of Versailles. Half my groups will look at a German interpretation of the treaty and half will look at one from a British perspective. Again, groups will visit each other to be taught briefly and I intend to follow this with some hinge questioning to check that the message of the cartoons has been understood.

At this point in the lesson, we will break into three separate routes.

 The least able groups will work with teaching assistant support to write an explanation in which they account for the existence of one of the cartoons, explaining its message and setting it into the context of when and where it was created.

Middle ability students will work with me and will write an analysis and comparison of the two interpretations, accounting for their differences by setting them into context.

For my most able students, I want them to be able to hit that highest stage by evaluating which of the two interpretations holds greater weight. This judgement has to be underpinned by sound evidence and reasoning, so I'll give them a pack of evidence cards which they will use to support either the German or British interpretation. This they will follow up with a written, substantiated judgement.

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1 September 2015

Keeping the established department moving... this year's historical theme of the term!

As a Head of History, I am very lucky to lead the team I do.  Staff turnover in the department is low, so it is a stable and highly professional team of colleagues and the department ethos is characterised by a high degree of trust.  As an established team, we have built up a wide catalogue of tried and tested resources and lessons which are in place across the department.  As committed and capable professionals, staff in the department have all gone on to acquire additional positions of responsibility within the school.  

Two years ago, this raised some two issues for me as Head of Department. Firstly, in a department with such a broad base of existing materials and lessons, how to foster continued creativity and experimentation among staff and avoid teaching and learning from stagnating. Secondly, in a department where staff have whole-school roles which so often require their focus, how to facilitate their continued development as subject specialists.

With these goals in mind, I introduced a termly focus, which I called 'Historical Theme of the Term'.  In the first year of this project, I asked staff to take responsibility for developing a new lesson based on the theme of using of visual sources in History.  Staff were asked to present their lesson materials to the department later that term.  When this came to pass, there was llively discussion. Materials were then distributed across the department for delivery in colleagues' classrooms. 

The focus for 'Historical Theme of the Term' changes each year, according to the development priorities of the department. Last year, there was a need to develop provision on new areas of content as a result of the implementation of our new Key Stage 3 curriculum.  This time, staff were asked to create and deliver a series of model lessons on one of the new units of work. It is important to note that staff were given considerable freedom over their chosen unit of work, allowing them to develop their own overarching enquiry and structure their unit of work freely. The returns from staff were even better that year. 
Having focused the team on developing new areas of content last year, this year I'm keen for us to return to the procedural concepts which underpin the subject.  So in this year's 'historical theme of the term', I'll ask department members to engage with academic research on their choice of second order concept or process and prepare a short paper to present to the rest of the department outlining what shapes progression in that area, together with common misconceptions and barriers faced by pupils and some suggested teaching strategies for overcoming them.  This is to be accompanied by a model lesson built around that particular concept and which can be shared around the department.
You can see the brief for this year's historical theme of the term below. 

The outcomes of running a project like this are positive all round. For the department, it promotes a culture of sharing resources and practice between colleagues, and a culture of working 'for the team'. For individual staff, it promoted creativity and engagement with teaching research, keeping staff practice and planning fresh.   As Head of Department, it helps ensure the team have a degree of ownership over what is being delivered and how and maintains their focus on being subject specialists, among the other hats they wear around the school.

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