Only one thing united my last Year 13 class: when asked why they chose history, all mentioned inspiring visits to castles and museums. Providing all students such experiences is crucial, but once permission and logistics are arranged, a bigger challenge arises: how to ensure they benefit from the opportunity. This month, I grappled with whether I could design a day to change how Year 8 see London.
Trips matter and I’m lucky to have organised a number at my current school. I was grateful for ‘Rarely Cover,’ but it limited trips severely: my old school went from running a history trip for every year group to just one, for Year 10. At GFS, we designed the timetable to include fortnightly ‘Drop Down Days’ (trips or themed days at school), believing that the cultural capital and breadth of learning they offer is important. History trips are a chance to experience the past and see that the subject is found beyond classrooms and textbooks. So, I’ve been privileged to attend a number of trips and organise four from scratch. The London trip was the most recent – this post describes its planning and evaluates its effectiveness.
Designing a thought-provoking day
The trip builds on our current scheme of work: a chronological study of how London has changed since Roman times (so I scrapped a perfectly good trip from last year).* I wanted the day to concretise our work: providing a better sense of life in the past and London’s development by showing students buildings from each time period. Moreover, I wanted students to share the quiver of realisation that they are stepping in the footsteps of Romans or Normans. Aware that not everyone loves history quite as much as me, and that expecting students to feel awed at passing a house in which both Christopher Wren and Catherine of Aragon have lived is unrealistic: I knew any such experience needed careful design. I also planned around principles that the trip must be:
- Undemanding for teachers (busy, mostly non-specialists without time to pre-read)
- Accessible to every student
- Challenging to the interested and knowledgeable (not just rewarding prior knowledge)
- Engaging: demanding student take an interest in and engage with what’s around them
- Manageable for students with limited mobility
- Educational: ensuring students acquired more knowledge
- Inescapable: inducing every student to take part; preventing any from becoming ‘passengers’
- Awe-inspiring: helping students to sense London’s amazing history
Manageable, undemanding, educational: a walk in the City
Wanting students to see a building from every time period we were studying, I arranged brief visits to the Roman Amphitheatre, Guildhall (medieval) and St Lawrence Jewry (Stuart) and a walking tour passing somewhere from the other periods (barring, sadly Anglo-Saxon!) I prepared a question booklet for students, walk directions for teachers and checked level access.
Challenging, engaging, accessible, educational, awe-inspiring: Inspiring a reaction to the City
Student booklets included seventy questions, of four kinds, each with its own purpose:
a) Factual questions about the sites (How many people could the amphitheatre hold?)
b) Factual questions along the walking tour; students had to spot the building and then look for the answers (A picture of Tate Modern, with the question, ‘What was this before it was an art gallery?’)
c) Random (factual) questions, in no order and with no clue as to where they lay (site, buildings, passing information board) (What happened to Anne Askew?)
d) ‘Thoughtful questions’ (What is a modern equivalent of the Roman Amphitheatre?)
The questions were designed to achieve a number of my aims. Experience suggests getting students to look around museums carefully is best achieved by lots of small, accessible questions which push them to read everything. This gives those who may not be particularly curious about a topic (or keen on reading/close examination of artefacts) a reason to take an interest. The understanding this engenders can then be developed into deeper thinking (the thoughtful questions went some way towards this). Dotting walk questions about, illustrated but unmarked, was intended to ensure students looked carefully at the buildings around them. Adding ‘random’ questions, I sought to keep students looking even if they had found the answer to a question in a particular place. Overall, I hoped to reward curiosity, inquisitiveness and interest.
Inescapable: Making group work work
Effective cooperative learning requires the presence of two elements. First, there must be group goals, so that students are working as a group, not merely in a group. Second, there must be individual accountability, so that individual students cannot be carried along by the work of others.”
Dylan Wiliam (Embedded Formative Assessment, p. 135)
Usually, I avoid group work; but students would be in teams and I wanted to ensure this (they) worked. I wanted an incentive to pursue and collaborate on the questions (and to nudge their peers to likewise). I worked back from an assessment: all students would return to school before the end of the day for a quiz on what they’d learned. Everyone would answer on their whiteboard (without conferring); I would select one person from each group (number three in each row, for example) to show their answer. So, while the day would prize individuals’ spotting and thinking, unless they ensured everyone in the group had recorded (so, hopefully, understood) the answer, their work would be unlikely to be worthwhile. (Obviously, to be effective, I explained this at the beginning of the day).**
Incentivising without bribing
It’s stationery, isn’t it. It’s always stationery from teachers.”
Year 8 student
I don’t give rewards or prizes. Call me grumpy (go ahead), but I’ve learned enough about motivation not to undermine students’ desire to learn with rewards. (Honestly,) if I consider rewards, I remember learning in school that Mussolini was such a poor teacher he used to bribe students with sweets to get them to behave – no one wants to end up like that. But I wanted some kind of incentive for the day’s work which would also reinforce learning: Natasha Porter’s excellent suggestion seemed apposite: history rulers – helping students rule straight, learn the kings and queens of England and a numeracy link. But the nature of the prize would remain a surprise until the end of the day.
So what did this achieve?
In the group I was with, students worked hard and collaborated well – there were many moments of spontaneous organisation to identify and share answers. Some individuals did more than others, but everyone took part. For example, in this clip of the group in the Roman Amphitheatre:
- Students have organised themselves independently
- Students are focused on listening to (and comprehending) a chunk of history
- At 1.00 student comes up with her own analogy
- We have a nice bit of numeracy
- In the background at 1.25, you can hear a student say “It’s time to share answers,”
But did it change their thoughts?
In our first lesson back, we evaluated and discussed the day. Did they see London differently? Of seventy students:
41 said it changed their view of London’s history
6 said it changed their view of specific buildings, places or themes
6 said it changed their view of history
13 said their views were unchanged
(Not everyone answered this question, so it doesn’t add up).
Did the day make them work hard?
I asked students how hard they had worked:
Yes – 37
No – 3
Quite hard – 15
I also asked ‘why?’ Seven students referred to the structure of the day (team, quiz, prize) having pushed them to work hard; surprisingly (and gratifyingly) many more (twelve) attributed their efforts to an interest in the history of London. (Many interpreted the question ‘why?’ as asking for proof of their hard work, not motivation, so wrote of how many answers they’d found or how much of the booklet they’d completed – this may also have affected the number answering yes). Some examples:
It’s interesting how diverse students’ experiences were (and teachers’ actions): one group climbed the Monument, another reached the Tower of London, saw a 62-gun salute and talked to soldiers, meanwhile, my group established that underneath algae, there is still water. A few other evaluative thoughts:
I began the next lesson by asking students to evaluate the trip and ask any unanswered questions. These were my favourites:
But there were others, like: we only found one clause of Magna Carta which still applies – what were the others?
And the rulers? One student noted (disappointedly) he’d worked hard because he’d hoped for a decent prize. But I’ve seen at least three rulers in history lesson and managed to use one to explain a point.
Overall, the trip was a success. The vast majority of students saw London differently (I even got a thank you from a couple of them at the end of the day…) I’d keep much of the day the same were I to run it again: I’d aim to do it earlier in the year and to brief students better on the ‘random questions,’ most of which my group missed entirely. The long-term impact of trips like this is impossible to predict: at the very least, students packed a fortnight’s learning into a day; at most, some may be inspired to pursue history further. Either way, students had fun, and saw things many might not have discovered otherwise. And the chance to meet a celebrity…
** This is effectively a massive version of Numbered Heads Together.
Powerpoint introduction to the day (some images under copyright have been removed – a red box summarises what was there).
Directions and teacher instructions (which also included a group list).
The trip cost only what I paid for the rulers: every venue and our travel was free. The sole cost was about a day and a half of my time (time I enjoyed spending) – this represents good value for money I reckon.
Staff at the Guildhall, Guildhall Art Gallery and the administrator at St Lawrence Jewry were helpful, welcoming and easy-going, as were TfL staff, as they usually are – I’m very grateful.