Make History Stick Part 1: principles

This is a small adventure for me. My knowledge of cognitive psychology is weak, and I make no claims to having any expertise in the field: when it comes to disciplines, I am a historian who dabbles in a bit of philosophy. It was for this reason that I was pleased to read Brown, Roediger & McDaniel’s book Make It Stick. The book is an easy read and uses some interesting examples to illustrate the principles being put forward.

Although you could sense the authors’ reticence about including a final chapter offering ‘tips for teachers’, they did nevertheless conclude the book with a set of principles that might inform teaching and learning which are derived from the ideas in the book. Some of the main strategies with which the book concludes are:

  1. Use regular, low-stakes quizzing so that pupils can practise retrieving what they have learnt.
  2. Space retrieval over time and return to prior learning periodically.
  3. Interleave knowledge areas rather than attempt to master one thing at a time.
  4. Get pupils to elaborate on what they have learned by linking it to existing knowledge, by finding metaphors and analogies or explaining it to someone else.
  5. Get pupils to try and generate answers to (presumably appropriate) problems before showing them the answer.

There are other tips and bits of advice they offer, but these five are the ones that I want to focus on in this new series of blog posts. A number of these points felt quite intuitive to me in the sense that – although I may not had thought about them explicitly before – they felt like they fitted with what I understood the process of teaching to involve, and what other history teachers have written about. I am also here a little inspired by Joe Kirby’s blog posts in which he has considered some of the implications of these ideas for the teaching of English.

I intend to try and do the same for history. I have thus far on this blog tended to avoid writing about pedagogy (most of my posts are about curriculum and assessment) but reading this book has given me some ideas that I would like to share. As ever, comments and thoughts are most welcome.

The first post is on switching the scale between overview and depth.

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5 Comments on Make History Stick Part 1: principles

  1. I’ve never resolved to my own satisfaction, the tension between mastery-style learning, interleaving, and a spiral curriculum. Also, your No.5 might, at first encounter, seem to contradict the most blogged education paper of the decade (Kirschner, Sweller, Clark (2006). On the latter point I have a pretty clear idea of how this contradiction resolves itself in science teaching but on the former, although I have a hunch that the best thing is mastery-learning of important basic skills but interleaving of topics, I don’t feel much confidence in my position, so I look forward to your posts with considerable interest. Best wishes.

    • Yes, I wondered about that. I wonder if the contradiction dissolves in the detail. I don’t think my point 5 was the authors arguing for a ‘discovering learning’ kind of approach, but rather one where pupils already know enough to answer the question. In history we handle this at the level of medium-term planning, as I’ll write about in a post later in the week. How is it managed in science?

  2. Sorry, didn’t spot your response. In science, I think you get ‘proper’ discovery learning following the Nuffield model where pupils spend ages making a total hash of trying to work out something from observations which often reinforces the misconceptions they started with, whereas a bit of teacher explanation followed by similar observations is much more effective. However, I also think you get very didactic approaches where the teacher explains everything very clearly but the kids just have to sit and listen (I appreciate this is very simplistic; obviously if the teacher is any good there will be lots of activities applying the new knowledge). I think the best path is to appreciate when you can carefully and reliably guide children to a point where they ‘see’ what’s going on. As for history, this is the point at which they have enough knowledge to be able to answer the questions for themselves. It requires excellent subject knowledge to appreciate the misconceptions children are likely to hold or the mistaken conclusions they might reach. However, I think this is one of the ways in which children experience ‘being able to do science’ and therefore it’s very important to set up these opportunities. Kirschner, Sweller, Clark (2006) is all about why the first approach fails, not the last. By the way, I think I’m meeting Sean Harford and Angela Milner from Ofsted about ITE inspections – if you have any thoughts about what’s good/bad under the new, new framework I would welcome your thoughts. My blog has my thoughts.

    • Sorry for delay in reply – have been off blog for the last couple of weeks. Regarding Ofsted, my main drum to bang here is that ITE is effective if it is subject specific (I’ve just written on that here – http://wp.me/p3JKe3-80). One of the problems with the framework is that it has a tendency to treat ‘subject knowledge’ as a category separate from the ‘skills of teaching’, whereas I would argue that those skills are necessarily subject-specific. Hope that helps!

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