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30 Years of the SHP conference: 1st plenary

The conference kicks off, after a welcome from director Michael Riley, with a plenary session from Richard McFahn, co-planned with Neil Bates, on helping your students to achieve at GCSE.

Rich says that when they started planning the session they looked to Twitter to find out what students had thought about it. Their tweets revealed some good knowledge of the GCSE but perhaps not much confidence! We spend a bit of time talking to the people around us about potential barriers. Rich has identified these to include:

  • Lots of content – much of which is relatively unfamiliar. How do we fit it all in? How do we make sense of it? How do we deal with disengagement?
  • There’s a LOT to remember: When and how to revise?
  • Confusing exam questions
  • How do we do justice to our subject and go beyond hot-housing for exam success?

We have a strong subject community and we can look to each other to share the best ways of tackling these challenges.

Sticking point: Lots of unfamiliar content, how do we make sense of it?

Step 1: Start with the big picture. Students need to be both parachutists AND truffle hunters: look at the whole spread as well as the detail. We create a big picture timeline along with captions, to consider key events of the Cold War – Richard suggests then getting pupils to map the events.

Step 2: Revisit regularly. Get a timeline on the wall and refer to it regularly. Gets students to fill in blank timelines; use sequencing or gap fill activities as starters. Lots of other ideas here that I wasn’t quick enough to log!

Sticking point: Not enough teaching time?

Are knowledge organisers the only answer? Febvre: ‘A mere collector of supposed facts is as useful as a collector of matchboxes’. History cannot just be substantive knowledge: we need disciplinary knowledge too – second order concepts. Willingham makes the point that students can’t learn everything, but they do need to learn the things that come up over and over again.

Identifying the enquiry questions that tie together content and historical thinking will help us to work through the GCSE content more quickly and in a way that will help students to grasp the concepts as well as the facts. Richard shares his enquiry questions for an Elizabeth I unit and we look at the activity designed to dig into the power of the Gestapo, which leads into considering the value and limitations of evidence. The best way to get students to understand what to do in the exam is to make them really good at history: investigate the sources, discuss what they show, compare with interpretations. Asking them to do something more difficult than what they need to do for the exam is a great way of ensuring they’re properly prepared.

Sticking point: How can we help them remember it all?

‘Memory is the residue of thought.’ Reduce time spent note-taking and make them apply the knowledge, not just recall it. Sorting games, charts and diagrams help students to record information in a relevant manner. Richard suggests asking students to map the Elizabethan plots against key criteria and then allocate each one time within a documentary episode: how much should each one get and why?

Pick and choose from the best of cognitive science: interleaving as ‘settling tasks’ or for homework, for example.

Sticking point: confusing exam questions

It is helpful to give students some decoding advice, even with all of this brilliant, detailed history work going on underneath it. Once again, we have excellent form on this as a community, e.g. iceberg questions.

Richard finishes with a clear list of principles to follow when working through your GCSE studies.

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