Two years ago I arrived back from my Easter break to find that our training day would be led by an external consultant who would be training us on ‘critical thinking, learning to learn and thinking skills’. I cannot say I went in with any particular degree of enthusiasm and within minutes I had switched off. After ten minutes or so my phone buzzed in my pocket and I found I had received a text message from another history teacher at a different table. “What would you rather be doing?” he asked. “Teaching geography” was my instant reply.
The first training day I attended as a teacher was in 2006 and since then I have found very few to be of any real interest or use. Occasionally I had something good to do: I remember particularly a session run by the staff from our school’s Hearing Support Centre where they spent an hour running through different strategies we could use in our lessons to help students from the centre. These people knew their stuff and I learnt a lot. Sadly, such sessions tended to be the exception rather than the rule.
My despondency, however, does not stem from a belief that teacher CPD (continuing professional development) is a waste of time; I happen to think that it is of vital importance. My concern, rather, is that training days are often insufficiently subject-specific. More generic training (e.g. on teaching pupils with particular needs) can of course be part of a balanced CPD diet, but the staple needs to revolve around a teacher’s subject specialism. Strong teacher subject knowledge is, to my mind, a necessary condition of excellent classroom teaching. In history, there is always something to learn and, with a little imagination, your training day can be exciting and intellectually stimulating. What follows are a few ideas: some of these I have tried, and some I would like to try in future. Non-historians can easily translate what these activities might mean for their own subject.
Twenty ways to improve CPD
(1) Take your history department off to a lecture, ask some questions about the period and what would be good questions to use with pupils in school.
(2) Invite a historian to come and talk to your department about some of his or her research. Don’t fall into the trap of doing this just for A-Level periods: strong subject knowledge is as important for teaching Key Stage 3.
(3) As above, but invite history teachers from all the nearby schools. Many will have a training day at the same time, you’ll all benefit from each other’s knowledge and an eminent historian is more likely to bite if you’re a larger group.
(4) Set some reading over the Easter holiday (and sod the unions on this one – history is leisure and we’re lucky enough to teach what we love). Pick a chapter from a book, photocopy it and spend an hour discussing the reading on training day. Don’t fall into the trap of immediately trying to relate it to classroom practice!
(5) Pick an article from subject-specific professional literature. Teaching History would be your best bet (vested interest alert). Spend twenty minutes sat in deep reading as a department and then forty minutes discussing the argument, your views on it and how what you have read relates to what happens in your department.
(6) Take your history department on a trip. Even better, visit multiple places and make each teacher in the department be a guide for one part of the visit.
(7) Have a seminar programme where over the course of the year each member of the department presents at least one thirty minute seminar on a period of expertise. When we tried this at Hinchingbrooke School we quickly attracted the interest of the English department who started coming along too!
(8) Update your ‘What have your history teachers been reading’ wall (what do you mean you don’t have one??) Every time you read a book, print out the cover and stick it on the wall.
(9) Get a colleague from your foreign languages department to come and do some language work with you. Pick a country and period (e.g Bismarck’s Germany or the French Revolution) and ask them to talk you through some of the key terminology from the period. You’ll understand the period and source material better, and you can impress pupils by appearing to translate something on the spot.
(10) Give each member of the department one hour to write an essay on a question of their choice. Pair up and give each other a ‘supervision’ on their essay. Do not fall into the trap of doing A-Level exam questions!
(11) Bring in a piece of extended source material. If you’re stuck for ideas then I’d particularly recommend the law code of Ine of Wessex. Do some ‘close reading’ of the source together rather like you would have done in your special subject at university.
(12) Get a colleague from your art department to come and run a session for you on the history of art. I’d imagine that nearly all history teachers make extensive use of paintings and photographs, and learning a few things about art history will revolutionise how you explain images to pupils.
(13) Email a specialist at a university and ask them about any recent debates in their period. Get hold of two journal articles that adopt different interpretations. Read both and then discuss with your department.
(14) Get a colleague from the music department to come and run a session for you on musicology. Ask them to talk you through how Thomas Tallis’ music changed and discuss how you might draw upon this when teaching the English reformation.
(15) Sit down with the English department and pick a piece of literature from one period of history (Piers Plowman, anyone?). Have a discussion about how the text would be approached differently in the different disciplines.
(16) Bring together the primary school teachers from the catchment and plan together the last three months of Year 6 and the first three months of Year 7.
(17) Pick one of your enquiry questions (this is a history-specific term that has nothing to do with independent learning before some people get too red in the face). Change the question and discuss how that would affect the sequence of lessons – try changing it from a question about causes to one about consequences, or from one about change to one about continuity).
(18) Tell the headteacher that you’re going to do one assembly every term and do it on something the pupils might recently have encountered outside of school. Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, anyone? Go back to your office and plan your department assembly together.
(19) Sit down with every book and article you have on a particular period and spend a few hours producing a ‘reader’ for pupils. Try to think of interesting ways to structure it – will you do it chronologically, thematically, by interpretation? Your own grasp of the period will improve and you’ll have an excellent resource to use when Year 8 get back.
(20) Spend a day working with one or two Teaching Assistants. Discuss a particular period of history that certain pupils find difficult and then discuss how this might be alternatively planned without losing the rigour of the subject period.
Finally, tell everyone they have to spend a week playing ‘the checkout game’. When you buy something that costs less than £20 (e.g. that’ll be £10.66 or £19.45) see if you can name something that happened in that year. 10 points for an event that happened in that year (£16.18 – Defenestration of Prague), 5 points for something of which that year was part (£13.50 – the Black Death) and 1 point if you can name something that happened within the same decade (£17.42 – four years before Culloden). See who has the best score at the end of the week.
And confiscate all mobile phones.