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Letters to a New History Teacher: No. 6

Planning for omission, misconception and assumption

Have you had this happen to you?

Today I was teaching year 8. We are studying the English Reformation, looking at change and continuity over time. In particular today we were asking what changes came about when Henry made himself the Supreme Head of the church, and the size of those changes. At the end of the lesson we reflected on what had changed and at least five students told me that the church had seen quite a big change because different people were going to church now Henry was the Supreme Head. ‘Errrmm, what?’ I inwardly puzzled whilst kindly asking “Where did you learn this?” The answers I got back each time were essentially ‘when the Pope was the head, one type of person went to church and with Henry another type’.

Now as an NQT I wouldn’t have been able to make head nor tail of this. But in NQT2 I’ve got a teeny bit of insight. What’s happening is what goes on BETWEEN the rhythm of the lesson, when the tune’s not playing. When you stop talking or the worksheet gets handed in, those year 8 heads don’t just stop thinking. They make links. Or they make sense. Either linking the things that don’t yet make sense. Or linking the things that didn’t get joined up for them by you.

And there it is. A glaring omission: it’s what I didn’t teach; they didn’t understand enough about the importance of King and church (as sources of power). The mistake the children have made is that they think that people have a religion and stick to it as people tend to do today (or perhaps as they are free to do in Britain today). The idea of changing your religion because the King says so hasn’t got a place in their minds.  By not understanding this they downgraded the nature and extent of the change: they simply thought with each new leader you get different followers.

So my notes to self…

A) Think about what’s happening in the children’s heads: what do they bring to the lesson (and not just from last year’s History!)? For example what assumptions from their world today might they bring? Try to work from their assumptions as their assumptions and my teaching material have to intersect.

B) When deciding what history topics to teach, be absolutely clear about the prerequisite knowledge and understanding the children will need to do the thinking we are hoping for. Then plan where they’ll get that prerequisite knowledge. It doesn’t have to be another unit – but instead could be a relatively straight forward homework task. (I should have done something on the power of kings and the all-encompassing nature of the church.)

C) When deciding what to teach, think about what we will NOT teach just as carefully. What omissions might that ‘not teach’ list lead to – and will this be a problem later down the line in term 3, or a year later for example? What I guess I’m getting at here is try to anticipate what sense children will make of the ideas and topics we teach, and the likely misconceptions. We can’t identify misconceptions all the time but it’s an important question to have in mind as it helps to intervene faster when we spot it. For example with regards the English Reformation, we don’t have any work on the power of Medieval or Early Modern Kings; nor do we have anything on the role of the church in everyday life (we used to but took it out…). If I had thought about the possible misconceptions that such omissions would lead to (as I outlined above) I would have been able to build an activity or two into the lesson series to make sure the children didn’t give me one of those “oh no” moments!