In this sequence of blog posts I am taking some of the principles with which Brown, Roediger and McDaniel concluded their book Make It Stick and asking how these might apply in the history classroom. In my previous post I looked at the idea of ‘spaced retrieval’ and how this might operate within a history curriculum. I want in this post to look at how common approaches amongst history teachers to medium-term planning and pedagogy within a sequence of lessons might be in keeping with some of the principles that Brown et al advance.
It is fairly common practice these days for history teachers to structure a sequence of lessons around answering one overarching question, often called a ‘key question’ or an ‘enquiry question’. The term ‘enquiry question’ is a little misleading as the word ‘enquiry’ carries connotations of discovery learning and limited teacher instruction. For my purposes here, however, I am using the term ‘enquiry question’ just to mean a single, over-arching question that teachers use to structure a sequence of, say, six or seven lessons, which is the way in which the term is most commonly used in work written by history teachers.
Let’s begin with an example scheme of work.
Enquiry Question: Why did Civil War break out in 1642?
- Lesson 1 – The Divine Right of Kings
- Lesson 2 – Charles I and the ‘11 Years Tyranny’
- Lesson 3 – The Long Parliament
- Lesson 4 – The Outbreak of War
- Lessons 5-6 – Why did the English Civil War break out in 1642?
This scheme of work is taught chronologically. In Lesson 1 pupils do some work on (1) the idea of the Divine Right of Kings and how the idea developed under James I and Charles I, (2) revising work from Year 7 on the development of Parliament in the late middle ages as the organisation to manage taxation and (3) revising work on 16th-century religious tensions, and why it was thus controversial for Charles to marry Henrietta-Maria. In Lesson 2 we take the narrative forwards from 1629 to 1640, looking at Charles’ personal rule, including how he introduced taxes such as ‘Ship Money’ and why this was such a big deal. Lesson 3 begins with the Bishops’ Wars (causes, course and consequences) and Charles’ calling of what became the ‘Long Parliament’ in order to pay for these; pupils also study the demands that the Long Parliament started to make of Charles and how the relationship between king and parliament broke down. In Lesson 4 pupils study the events of 1642 leading up to the outbreak of the conflict. Lessons 5 and 6 are when pupils pull all the threads together and write their essay answering the question ‘Why did Civil War break out in 1642?’
So, if this structure is used, then what pedagogical tools can a history teacher use that would seem to keep with the principles stated by Brown et al?
- At the beginning of each lesson, remind pupils of the question being addressed and ask them to recall what they had previously learned and how they might use that knowledge to answer the question.
- At the end of every lesson, ask pupils to take the new knowledge they have learned and ask them how this changes the way they would answer the question.
- Get pupils to play around with and restructure their knowledge to answer the question in different ways. For example, a good task to use in Lesson 5 is to ask pupils to take their knowledge of the narrative from 1625 to 1642 and to structure this knowledge in different ways (e.g. long-term and short-term causes; political, financial and religious causes).
- Use new knowledge gained to sow a little cognitive dissonance – e.g. at the end of Lesson 2 pupils might well have the idea that Charles’ beliefs about his rights as king were what brought about the Civil War, but at the end of Lesson 3 this position might be challenged by considering what pupils now know about Parliament’s demands in 1640-1 and the extent to which these were reasonable at the time.
- Give pupils a selection of metaphors (a long slippery slope, a powder keg, etc.) and ask them to decide which is the most appropriate metaphor for the events that caused the first Civil War.
Tasks such as these have been written about at length by history teachers over the last few years. I’ve added a selection of articles on teaching causal questions below. What I found striking, however, was that a number of these approaches are generally in keeping with the principles stated by Brown et al.
Using one over-arching question over a sequence of lessons is, for example, a good tool for practising retrieval over different periods of time. By returning to the same enquiry question every lesson, we can explicitly ask pupils to recall prior knowledge that might be used to answer that question. If we get pupils to take prior knowledge and to restructure it (such as by converting a narrative into different causal models) then we are beginning to interleave knowledge by breaking it up, retrieving it and using it in different contexts. There are several examples here of elaboration, such as asking pupils to link new knowledge to prior knowledge or asking pupils to use metaphors to describe what they have learned. The approaches listed above involve generation where pupils are asked to use what they know to answer a question they have not yet seen the answer to; indeed, there are also opportunities for getting pupils to pose a few questions along the way, though I suspect this has to be very carefully managed to ensure that pupil questions are based on their historical knowledge and not plucked out of thin air.
I am very much aware here that I may be attempting to shoe-horn the insights from cognitive psychology into a range of practices that history teachers have written about. If you think I am missing the point here, then please do comment below. With this in mind, however, I am minded to think that there are some strong links between the principles from cognitive psychology and the things that history teachers have been writing about, and there are lots of ideas here I want to pursue further.
Further Reading on teaching causal questions
- Buxton, E. (2010) Fog over channel; continent accessible? Year 8 use counterfactual reasoning to explore place and social upheaval in eighteenth-century France and Britain, Teaching History, 140
- Chapman, A. (2003) ‘Camels, diamonds and counterfactuals: a model for teaching causal reasoning’, Teaching History, 112
- Counsell, C. (1997) Analytical and Discursive Writing at Key Stage 3 , London: Historical Association
- Evans, J. and Pate, G. (2007) ‘Does scaffolding make them fall? Reflecting on strategies for developing causal argument in years 8 and 11’, Teaching History, 128
- Howells, G. (1998), ‘Being ambitious with the causes of the First World War: interrogating inevitability’ Teaching History, 92
- Lee, P., and Shemilt, D. (2009) ‘Is any explanation better than none? Over-determined narratives, senseless agencies and one-way streets in students’ learning about cause and consequence in history’, Teaching History, 137
- Nuttall, D. (2013) ‘Possible futures:using frameworks of knowledge to help Year 9 connect past, present and future’, Teaching History, 151
- Woodcock, J. (2005) ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning’, Teaching History,119