It’s been a while, almost 7 months in fact, since my last blog here. My initial enthusiastic rush of blogging frenzy back in March, written in 4 or 5 days at the end of the spring term just before I disappeared to China for two weeks’ holiday, petered out upon my return to school for the summer term when internal changes reduced our leadership team to only 3 people and I suddenly found myself doing at least 2 people’s jobs.
So I thought now was the perfect time to resume regular blogging: my wife is 38 weeks pregnant with our second child and I’m responsible for the imminent opening of our School Direct training programme to applicants for September 2014. I’ve got loads of time on my hands, so why not?
I’ve decided to resume penning my thoughts to any who will listen because I believe what I have to say is important, vital even. That might sound arrogant, but as one of my fellow bloggers and inspirational pedagogue David Didau said here, I think I have earned the right to share my ideas because I have put an enormous amount of thought into my approach to teaching over the past 2 years. I am increasingly convinced that I am using a pedagogy – genre pedagogy – that has the potential to transform the educational outcomes of my pupils and as I said here (final paragraph) to democratise abstract, academic knowledge for those who have the least access to it. In short, this is a pedagogy for the oppressed, one which will enable marginalised pupils to gain the powerful knowledge they need to be successful (not a pedagogy of the oppressed, as proposed by Paulo Freire and which teachers like Tait Coles here seem to have rediscovered recently – Freire’s ideas would, I believe, only result in further marginalisation of the least powerful in our society).
So, I plan to blog about the new scheme of work I am planning and delivering to my year 10 history class. This blog post will set the context for this work and lay out what I intend to do and achieve with the class. I will then blog at the end of each week (with a gap for my imminent paternity leave!) on what I did in individual lessons, evaluating them and sharing some thoughts on what I’ll do in the next week.
My year 10 class are set 2 out of 3, with baseline KS2 levels (average English & Maths) of between 4c and 5c, meaning their ‘target grades’ (school’s terminology, not mine) are between grades C and A. However, as Tom Bennett has said in the past here the idea of targets (even when they’re given the label ‘aspirational’ or some other such optimistic name) is incredibly limiting, so my aim is for every pupil to achieve an A or A*. And I don’t just say that to sound morally superior; I genuinely believe that every pupil in the class is capable of achieving the top grades if only my instruction is appropriately organised (to paraphrase the American psychologist Jerome Bruner). The key is whether I can successfully teach them to organise and express their knowledge and understanding well enough by teaching them to write the key historical genres needed at GCSE.
We are following the OCR History B (Modern World) specification and the section I am teaching is the depth study Unit AO17 ‘The USA, A Land of Freedom? 1945-75’ (having begun their GCSE course in year 9 the pupils have already studied ‘International Relations 1919-39’). The content of this unit is outlined here on pages 33 and 34 and is organised into 4 key questions:
- Key Question 1: Why was there a ‘Red Scare’ in the USA?
- Key Question 2: How successful was the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s?
- Key Question 3: Who improved civil rights the most in the 1960s and 1970s?
- Key Question 4: How far did other groups achieve civil rights in America?
These key questions give me a crucial starting point in deciding how I can best equip my pupils to achieve top grades in this part of the paper. They represent distinct genres of historical writing, which I have matched against the genres of school history identified here by the brilliant Caroline Coffin. So as well as thinking about the content pupils need to learn to answer those key questions (helpfully laid out by the spec.) I am thinking also of how to teach them to produce those historical genres, which are as follows:
- Key Question 1: Why was there a ‘Red Scare’ in the USA? Factorial Explanation
- Key Question 2: How successful was the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s? Argument – Exposition
- Key Question 3: Who improved civil rights the most in the 1960s and 1970s? Argument – Discussion
- Key Question 4: How far did other groups achieve civil rights in America? Argument – Exposition
(My plan is to potentially alter key question 4 so as to include the final argument genre of Challenge, which would necessitate changing the question to something like ‘How far do you agree that Native Americans improved their rights more than Hispanics and women in the period?’)
These genres match pretty well to the kinds of questions pupils will face in the exam; this section of the paper always includes a sequence of questions as follows:
a) Describe… [4 marks]
b) Explain why/how…[6 marks]
c) A judgement question like ‘How far…’, ‘To what extent…’ or ‘Do you agree…’ [10 marks]
Therefore the content I deliver related to each key question will be taught whilst also working towards producing the relevant focus genre for that key question, using the teaching and learning cycle outlined here.
A slight complicating factor in this neat journey to exam success for my pupils is that this part of the paper also includes a section of source-based questions. There are three questions, each based on a different source, from the following types (and each worth either 6 or 7 marks):
- What is the message of the cartoon?
- How useful is this source to an historian studying…?
- Why was this source published in…?
- How far does this source explain…?
- Do you agree with the interpretation in the source?
As a result, I will also need to explicitly teach pupils how to approach each of these types of question, which don’t fall neatly into Coffin’s taxonomy of school history genres. Consequently, I will include within each of the teaching and learning cycles above a ‘mini-cycle’ that works towards producing one of the source-based questions too. Therefore during the first cycle – teaching the content about the ‘Red Scare’ with the focus genre of ‘factorial explanation’ – I will also teach the ‘How useful is this source to an historian studying…?’ genre using a range of sources on the topic of the Red Scare.
In focusing on the specific genres and how pupils can learn to produce them, I will be considering 3 interrelated levels: whole text, paragraph and sentence/clause.
We will firstly look at the stages and phases of these distinct genres at the whole text level, ensuring pupils understand the larger ‘building blocks’ of each piece of writing and how each section contributes to the genre achieving its purpose of explaining or arguing about the past. My analysis of their last assessment tells me that the pupils in this class are pretty secure in their knowledge of whole-text organisation, so hopefully this will be a simple recap – the next two levels are where the challenge lies for them.
We will therefore move on to look at how information at paragraph level needs to be organised. This is where I can push pupils from using everyday language to express their historical knowledge to using more specialised, abstract and formal language (from ‘Lots of people were scared of Communism’ to ‘There was widespread fear of Communism’. I also hope to demonstrate through this the limitations of the ‘P-E-E’, ‘P-E-A’ or ‘P-E-E-L’ formulae that we unthinkingly drum into our pupils, instead showing them how much academic historical explanation is organised as:
Event/factor expressed as an expanded nominal group
caused/led to/brought about or resulted from/was caused by/was a consequence of
Event/factor expressed as an expanded nominal group.
The French invasion and occupation of the Ruhr Valley industrial area in January 1923
Was the result of
Germany’s inability to keep up with the reparation payments mandated in the Treaty of Versailles.
Which then opens up opportunities for them to expand on these events, drawing on their contextual knowledge, rather than straitjacketing them into point-evidence-explanation, yawn, yawn, yawn.
Finally, we will focus on the sentence and clause level, ensuring pupils understand what makes up these two units of meaning and equipping them to write sentences that make sense and which clearly express their historical knowledge, something many pupils in the class – almost all of whom are EAL – struggle with.
That’s as far as I’ve got in my planning. I start teaching this unit on Wednesday 6th November so I will post again before then to outline my plans for the first week of lessons in the scheme.