The magic of teaching a history lesson with coherence direction and purpose

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There was a magical moment in a lesson I recently observed where you could almost see on pupils’ faces the relevance of the lesson collectively ‘click’.  Following a retrieval practice exercise on the Reformation and actions of Henry VIII at the beginning of the lesson, and the discussion of these responses, the beginning teacher displayed a timeline on the board in line with the school policy.  This timeline placed these events in the chronological sweep of Medieval period through to the modern day.  With each click the timeline then became populated with other things the pupils had learnt during their experience of the Key Stage 3 curriculum so far and then added a few other ‘big events’ of the periods following the Early Modern with which they might be familiar. 

Nothing dramatic thus far and, in the pursuit of curricular intent, implementation and impact, nothing I haven’t seen before in a multitude of other schools.  Often these timelines, to ‘show’ the pupils where their learning fits, feel like a nod to a policy which is fulfilled by ‘going through the motions’.   But what became apparent really quickly was how effectively this particular contextualisation device was being utilised by the beginning teacher.  After a fairly routine and pedestrian ‘starter’, suddenly the students were totally hooked. 

So why was this students’ effort at chronological contextualisation so successful?

They’d been supported by their mentor to completely understand the bigger picture of the history curriculum across Key Stages 3, 4 AND 5; critically they have been supported to consistently teach all three key stages.  They had totally grasped why this single isolated lesson mattered, not just in the immediate sequence of lessons, but in the bigger picture of the whole curriculum.  As they began their relatively brief but highly focused exposition (with some questioning) around this timeline, their every breath clearly communicated the relevance and purpose of the lesson ahead.  They made links with the students’ prior learning on Doom paintings and the role of the church in the middle ages.  Through questioning they helped them see why they had retrieved that particular set of knowledge at the start of the lesson, and then they extrapolated beyond this lesson to explain several different ways in which they would encounter the impact of the Reformation throughout their forthcoming historical studies, concluding with a reference to the schools’ A Level, explaining they would revisit these ideas when learning about The Troubles.  And as the next task was introduced, there was an energy, and excitement in the room.  The pupils had collectively ‘got it’ and they applied themselves with real focus and purpose. 

On the University of Nottingham History PGCE we focus a lot on planning lessons and sequences of lessons which have coherence, direction and purpose.  Allowing pupils to see why they are learning particular aspects of the curriculum, and where this knowledge and understanding will lead them, is empowering for their learning.  This small but critical episode from a beginning teacher’s lesson illustrates how this has to begin with the teacher themselves understanding these things.  It also shows how important it is for mentors to give their beginning teacher a timetable which allows them to see the curriculum in the round.  This beginning teacher was able to speak with confidence about the different ways in which this substantive concept would be encountered throughout the curriculum because they had been entrusted to teach across that curriculum.

The Magic in Purpose

Many lessons have magical moments.  But there is nothing more magical than when the purpose ‘clicks’ for pupils and they engage with that purpose for themselves.     

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