Medium-Term Planning 1: thinking through the process

This is going to be the first in a series of blog posts that looks at medium-term planning for history teachers. I write this with a number of aims in mind. With a new school year now upon us, I am minded first that trainee teachers and newly qualified teachers might find these posts useful in terms of their thinking about planning, if only to engage with what other history teachers have been writing in recent years. In this sense this series of posts might be seen as a contribution to the normal ‘things to (not) do in your NQT year’ collection. Secondly, I am very interested in hearing about approaches to medium-term planning in subjects other than history. I am new to the world of education blogs and, in those I have read so far, I have seen little on medium-term planning, and if anyone can point me towards people who have written on this then I should be most grateful. Similarly, if teachers of other subjects think that they follow the same process, or indeed a very different one, then it would be great to hear about it. Finally, if any history teachers think I have missed some important questions, then please add these to the comments at the end.

In designing medium term plans, history teachers have to address a number of questions, and I am thus going to structure my sequence of posts around those questions that I think are the most important. It is my intention to write on each of them at some point in the coming weeks. In this post I am setting out the questions I want to address: brevity here requires me to handle each question in a relatively simplistic way, though I promise to return to each in greater detail in a future post, including references for those who want to explore each question further.

So, for me, what are the crucial questions that history teachers need to ask when it comes to medium term planning?

What is the main enquiry question that pupils are going to answer?

This goes at the top as it is, to my mind, the most important consideration that goes into forming a strong medium term plan. I have seen plenty of teachers, including me, jump into a new topic or period without giving due consideration to the question that is guiding them. Getting the question right is vital for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important is that it helps determine what is and is not worth covering in lessons. History teachers have to make selections, and a strong question is needed if those selections are going to be guided.

What are my chronological, geographical and social boundaries going to be?

Just as historians have to make decisions about what the boundaries on a book or article are going to be, so too do teachers have to make such choices. Should my study of the causes of the English Civil Wars begin in 1640, 1629, 1625, 1603 or earlier? Will the pupils study the consequences of the French Revolution up to 1793, 1801, 1815, 1848 or some other date? Will they study the Industrial Revolution in Birmingham, England, Britain or Europe? Are they going to study its impact on the aristocracy, the middle classes and/or the working classes?

Will the approach be chronological or thematic (or something else)?

Although people tend to have strong views on this question in terms of long-term planning (e.g. better to plan a curriculum chronologically) the waters muddy somewhat when it comes to planning a sequence of lessons. Is it better to cover a narrative of events from one angle (e.g. the political) first, and then move to looking at the narrative from a different angle (e.g. the social), or should the knowledge be structured in an alternative way?

What is the relationship between overview and depth?

Thinking about overview and depth happens at a number of levels. In the first instance, teachers have to make decisions about the scope of a medium term plan. Will pupils be studying a year, a decade or a century? Will this be a study of Henry II’s reign, or a study of kingship across the Middle Ages? At a more sophisticated level, teachers have to make choices about managing overview and depth within a sequence of lessons. Do I start small and then go big, or do I begin with the bigger picture and then zoom in to see what the effect of this was at the micro level?

What knowledge do pupils need to answer the main enquiry question?

This question is of course not unique to history teachers, though I would say that history teachers perhaps have more difficult choices to make here in comparison to some other subjects. I have yet to meet a history teacher who does not love intricate details and little anecdotes and we all have our favourites. The question that teachers have to address in medium-term planning, however, is what details pupils need to know in order to answer the big enquiry question. Some of this will be obvious: it would be impossible to teach changes in British politics in the nineteenth century without looking at the terms of the 1832 Reform Act. But would it be useful to study Feargus O’Connor’s land plan? Answers to such questions depend on a range of factors, including the age and ability of pupils and the precise nature of the requirements of the question.

What outcome task are pupils going to produce?

The staple outcome task in history is of course the essay and history teachers have examined repeatedly in recent years both why essays are so important and how pupils can be taught to write them. Yet although the essay is (perhaps) the prima inter pares of outcome tasks, there are others that can be done. Some involve writing (book reviews, for example); other involve discussion (a debate between teams, for example); others require pupils to think in different ways about how historical knowledge might be structured (such as through designing a museum exhibit complete with audio guide). Arguments about outcome tasks abound and are a major component in debates about ‘dumbing down’ history; further questions are required, too, of the ways in which the outcome task can be assessed.

So there is my initial list of questions, and if others would like to expand on that list then now is your chance! I am going to aim to address one of these questions (not necessarily in this order) every two or three days, and am very willing to adapt what I say based on your input now. The next post will be on what I see as the most important planning stage: getting the enquiry question right.

5 Comments on Medium-Term Planning 1: thinking through the process

  1. Louisa Dunn // 28 August 2013 at 11:06 // Reply

    Really useful aid! One thing I would add is a consideration of time. Do you need to be finished a particular unit in time for a reporting deadline, for example? Working backwards from my end date is crucial for me!

    • Thanks Louisa. Definitely an essential consideration, though I’m trying to focus here on things that are more specific to history teachers. I shall, nevertheless, look at incorporating thinking about timing into one of the forthcoming posts – I’ll probably deal with it when looking at overview and depth where the former (rightly or wrongly) tends to be seen as one answer to the time problem.

  2. Really useful set of ideas. I also consider a skill to focus on when planning assessments (outcome tasks) so that I cover all the skills over the course of a year.

    • Thanks for your comment – I always find discussions of ‘skills’ need caution, but clearly we do think towards what we expect pupils to do with their knowledge for an outcome task. I’ll be dealing with this in the last question.

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