Detailed planning, powerful learning: what do I want students to remember about the British Empire?

Detailed planning, powerful learning: what do I want students to remember about the British Empire?

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
                 Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Good planning offers a sense of direction, helping us ensure students learn what we hope they will.  I’ve taught successful lessons pulled together in moments, because that lesson’s role in a sequence, and my long-term aims, were clear.  Equally, I’ve spent hours designing lessons which achieved little due to insufficient clarity about their ultimate purpose.  Curriculum design matters.

I’ve been trying to refine how I plan schemes of work.  Take the first page of this example:

A&B scheme

This isn’t a bad plan.  It is designed around fertile (intriguing and worthwhile) questions.  Each lesson is linked to second-order concepts as specified in the 2008 National Curriculum, (although jamming three into one lesson is unhelpful).  It describes, loosely, what students should be able to know and do by the end of the lesson and suggests activities to achieve this.  It even has room for cross-curricular learning and school specialism links (this can be tailored to the initiative of the moment).  This is one I wrote, but most schemes of work I’ve seen from other schools are pretty similar.

Over the last couple of years however, my understanding of learning, particularly history teaching, has changed, guided most by Christine Counsell, Michael Fordham, David Didau, Alex Quigley and Daniel Willingham.  Most importantly, I realise the need to, in Christine Counsell’s words: prioritise the ‘disciplinary “what?”‘ above the ‘pedagogic “how?”‘ (see her comment on this post).  More simply, as David Didau has written, I’m focusing ‘on learning not activities.’  What I think is needed to plan a scheme of work has changed with this; the plan above may not be bad; it can certainly be better.

British empire 1897

What do I want students to learn about the British Empire?

These ideas have been on my mind while teaching a unit on the British Empire to my Year 8s over the last two months.  I’ve been trying to think through what a good plan needs: the ideas, events and arguments that matter; the role of academic literacy in ensuring students can understand and explain them; the way students understanding will change as they pass through ‘threshold concepts.’  I want a document which is more useful to teachers (and to students).  It fits onto the page below; I have elaborated on what I’ve included and excluded, and why, below.

Unit coversheet

Also available as a word document

What makes this plan different?

It specifies what students should know and remember.
Describing the ‘key features’ of medieval Spain is pretty vague.  Clearly specifying what every student must leave the room knowing makes planning far more powerful.  Teachers know (or should know) the key points they wish students to take in; most schemes of work leave this implicit.  I have been particularly struck by Graham Nutthall’s research and his confident finding:

A student needed to encounter, on at least three different occasions, the complete set of the information she or he needed to understand a concept.  If the information was incomplete, or not experienced on three different occasions, the student did not learn the concept.
The Hidden Lives of Learners, p.63, emphasis original

Being more explicit about what we want students to encounter in this way makes possible to design learning which will ensure this happens.  (My plan could be made more explicit with this in mind – naming the range of colonies I want students to be aware of would be a good start).

One colleague said this effectively replicates a core knowledge curriculum.  This is partly true – some things are ‘core’ historical events I want all students to know.  However, in line with the suggestions on curriculum design I’ve made previously, other aspects, like the selection of Zephaniah, Ferguson and other interpreters, are entirely my own choices.

This may look narrow – it isn’t.  Student questions, among many drivers, will introduce myriad other ideas into these lessons.  This helps ensure I don’t lose sight of the priorities when this happens.  Space remained while I taught this for variety, such as stimulating arguments for and against accepting decorations, and a student telling us of his grandfather’s experience as a Mau Mau detainee.

It specifies vocabulary required to master the scheme of work.
Here I’m certainly reinventing the wheel* – the classroom I walked into at the start of my teaching career had a tired display of unit-specific vocabulary, which I promptly removed…  Influenced by Willingham, I’m recognising the need to reduce working memory load and allow students to grasp the key ideas without getting lost decoding words.  I might choose to provide definitions on this sheet, or ask students to write in their own glossary.  Providing this list, of the words my students struggled with this time around, helps ensure I remain conscious of them in my lesson planning.

Some of the words are ‘substantive concepts:’ I expect students understanding of ’empire’ to gain depth and nuance over the unit; their understanding of a trident should be more straightforward.

It includes threshold concepts.
I’ve been thinking more closely about how students’ conceptual understanding of history and the world changes through this unit.  This has been heavily influenced by being introduced to threshold concepts: transformative, irreversible reframings of our understanding.  I made have misused the concept: I’ve looked at small, important transitions which add nuance and complexity to students’ understanding of the past (and themselves): not all colonisers are oppressors; every interpretation encodes the lives and experiences of the interpreter.  It is these transitions which represent a growing ‘disciplinary maturity,’ and understanding of what history is and how we ‘do’ it.  They can be planned for, but not guaranteed – hence the use of the word ‘may;’ experimenting with this sheet with one class, I found most agreed they had passed through most of these thresholds.

What does this plan avoid?

It avoids second order concepts (skills).
It could; the whole unit is based on the ‘skill’ of evaluating interpretations.  In the short term, however, I’m focused on teaching students to understand and explain individual interpretations; repeating this with different, challenging interpretations will allow this ‘skill,’ or habit of mind, to develop in due course.

It is not based around fertile questions.
The unit answers a fertile question (Why can’t we agree about the British Empire?).  Each lesson is shaped around such a question, such as these:
– Why did Benjamin Zephaniah refuse an OBE?
– Why would anyone disagree with Zephaniah?
The questions came later however, tools to make what I wanted students to learn and do intriguing and provide a narrative.  The questions can and will change; what I want students to remember and do, less so.

No activities are specified (the what is preferred to the how).
The activities are only of importance in as much as they meet these aims.  That doesn’t mean lessons need be bland: we read, wrote and rewrote in response to feedback; we also discussed, debated, questioned and drew.  Again, the activities may change from year to year, teacher to teacher; what students should learn will not.

It is susceptible to mixed ability teaching (of course).
Every one of my Year 8s has managed the bronze, almost all have mastered the silver (although some struggle to express this clearly), some are going on to gold and a handful have reached original and insightful conclusions of their own.  Even the colour-coded ‘tiers’ were added at the last minute – all students are being pushed towards and exposed to ‘gold’ and ‘platinum’ ideas.  Differentiation comes through marking every book, every lesson and students actions upon that feedback.

It’s a work in progress.

I’ve worked on it alone (heavily supported by all those who’ve written about this themselves).  It’s not finished.  I need to be more specific about what students should know; and to think through threshold concepts and student progression more closely.  But I’ve been thinking and refining this model for a couple of months, and it’s as good as I can make it right now – hence my publishing it and soliciting help in improving it.

This process has taken a very, very long time; thinking, reading, noting students’ successes and struggles, writing and refining.  Once done however, I believe this provides a critical tool to ensure I know where I’m going – and can take my students with me.

* I’ve defended reinventing the wheel previously previously.

Further reading
Michael Fordham on what assessment should look like (and anything from his blog)
Lee and Shemilt on progression in interpretations (and progression models based on how students’ understanding changes, not accountability structures)
Alex Quigley on threshold concepts
Graham Nutthall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners, which I cannot recommend highly enough (and intend to review one day)