Curriculum Assignment: Planning for Learning in your Subject Specialism.

Oscar Wilde famously said that ‘nothing that is worth knowing can be taught’ (in anon. 2006, p.15). I hope, for the sake of this PGCE and my future as a teacher, that he is mistaken; his assertion is notable nonetheless. For our purposes, his statement highlights the importance of reflection and experience in helping and therefore bettering ourselves as teachers. This is a crucial tenet of being a professional, and is reflected in the teaching standards, where ‘self-evaluation’ and ‘reflection’ are considered to be the foundation of professional development, throughout one’s career, not just whilst one is a trainee. (Department of Education, 2012, p.9)

Moreover, as teachers we need to be willing to evolve and adapt our practice to the needs of the students that we teach (T5). In this essay, a scheme of work for Year Seven pupils will be adapted to respond to their needs. This notion, in many respects, was reflected by Einstein who argued, rather eloquently, that ‘everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’ (in Gupta 2012 p.167) This series of lessons concerns Life in Medieval England and offers a contrast to earlier and indeed later schemes of work. However, contrary to what one might expect, this course does not offer a unique challenge; it merely reflects many of the common obstacles that a History teacher faces. Primarily, therefore, this task outlines the problems that a teacher faces in deciding what to study: what do we want the students to learn by studying medieval history? Essentially, what is the point? In many respects, these decisions are embodied in Ofsted’s grade descriptors where an outstanding teacher focuses ‘on well-structured enquiry, embracing independent thinking and learning’ (Madison, 2014). Then, as an antidote to this analysis, we will explore an aspect of medieval history that the students found challenging; namely, the relevance of the topic. Moreover, the second task mirrors these questions by exploring two barriers to learning: firstly examining how the students’ mind-set, and indeed my practice as a teacher, has an impact upon their engagement and willingness to learn, and secondly, how I would change my practice to improve the learning for a student for whom English is their second language.[1]
Task 1 – identify the unique challenges of a central topic

The topic the year seven’s studied covered life through the Middle Ages (1066-c1500) and had cunningly been designed to try to improve two elements of historical knowledge. Firstly, substantive knowledge was the focus, whereby names, of people and events, were introduced and recalled by students. Nevertheless substantive knowledge also refers to ideas, such as empire, Communism, and revolution, which can be strengthened through an increased understanding of a topic. Simultaneously, historical knowledge can also be improved through a more detailed grasp of second order concepts, such as cause and consequence, change and continuity, interpretation and significance (Fordham 2013 and DfE, 2014). Hence, the scheme of work had been devised to encourage progress in these two areas.  [2]

However, in stark contrast to English, Maths and Science, History is given between 60-90 minutes a week for Key Stage 3 pupils (Madison, 2014). Consequently, when devising what one should study in the course, a History teacher often feels particularly pressed for time. The Deputy Head teacher at my placement school, for example, would often scathingly remark how quickly students had to gloss over History to cover the schemes of work. Similarly, Dale Banham, Deputy Head at North Gate in Ipswich, commented that ‘content coverage was the worst enemy to understanding’ (2014). Thus, one of the biggest challenges for a History teacher is deciding what to teach and how to teach it so as to foster understanding.

As such, when I was introduced to the series of six lessons, I was at first struck by what they had decided to include (see series of lesson below):

A Villein’s Life

How important was religion for medieval peasants?

In Sickness and Health: Medieval Medicine

The Black Death (two lessons)

Assessment – Was the Black Death a Disaster? [3]


In spite of these clear positives about the course, whereby one can trace substantive concepts such as class, religion and religiosity; medicine; trade, and death, whilst augmenting an understanding of interpretation, causation, or even a study of change continuity, I was reluctant to teach about the Black Death and medical issues. I wondered, in private, what was the point? Surely there were other things that required more attention. These questions are clearly important and Ofsted’s lead examiner for History, Michael Madison, argued that these quandaries, and a teacher’s response to them, underpin their quality as a teacher. Within Oftsed’s ‘grade descriptors’, for example, an outstanding History teacher’s practice is ‘informed by excellent knowledge and application of continuing developments in teaching and learning in History’ (Madison, 2013 p.1).

In many respects these debates and questions were tackled by Jamie Byrom in Teaching History . Although Byrom was commenting upon the difficult challenge facing the development of a scheme of work concerning empire, the key quandaries remain (Byrom, Riley, 2004). Firstly, what do I prioritise? When I started to teach this course, I believed that the most important question was: what do we want the students to learn?  As a staunchly modernist historian, I must admit that this was a question I struggled to answer when I first started teaching a course on medieval history. However, on reflection, I could not have been more wrong. Janet Nelson, for instance, postulates a plethora of outcomes that an understanding of medieval history helps to foster in an article for History Today (2003). In it she argues that teenagers need to understand the extreme lengths that people went to ‘owing to their faith’, as people continue to do today (Nelson, 2003). Moreover, medieval history introduces students to medical treatments and their evolution and how Britain’s place within Europe affected the spread of disease.  Crucially, Nelson is not the only person championing the importance of medieval history. Andrew Robinson[4], in the History Review, had equally forthright opinions on the topic, yet he highlighted different aspects that one could glean from studying medieval history: focusing upon the growth of empires; the range of interpretations of monarchs and the development of statutory law (2001). Having taught this course, my opinions have changed. Of far more importance is a topic that can grab and hold the student’s attention; an idea that is still relevant and taps into the student’s psyche – something that relates directly to today.

Consequently, if we return to my earlier scathing remarks about medicine and the Black Death, I have repented. These lessons, contrary to what I thought, represent a crucial element of the course. They offer an opportunity to return to a topic that the students study at primary school; a chance to see how our approaches to medicine have changed; and they even provide a convenient link to modern medicine and the substantive concepts that underpin the subject, such as contagiousness, disease and even more complex phenomena about who dies from epidemics. As a result, I believe one can only understand what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ curriculum once they have taught in a school.

Thus, when I read the pleas for medieval history in circles outside of secondary educators I am sceptical. Quite rightly, the eminent Simon Schama, Richard Evans, and even the polemical David Starky, all believe that History should include a Medieval element, owing to the skills and knowledge that it helps to foster, but they are unaware of how limited a Year Seven’s understanding of the world is (2010, 2011, 2012). This, in my humble opinion, is owing to their focus. They are writing a curriculum from their perspective, instead of the students’.  Hence, in practice, what academics and advisors think about education doesn’t necessarily correlate with what children believe History is for, or what they believe History should be for . My Year Seven classes, for example, would often be thrilled at the thought of blood, gore, wars and rebellions, but simply glaze over at the thought of Kings and Queens. In many respects these reflections from experience mirror those of Dr Jean Conteh, a lecturer in Primary Education, who argued that:

The politicians have no idea what […] children think and understand about history. For young children, the “great temporal arc” of history is likely to begin with their grandparents; “the electric current of narrative” concerns more their own families, streets, towns and villages than prehistory.’ […] could the “experts” reduce the volume of their loud and self-confident voices and leave some space for the voices of children to be heard. (2013)


These reflections were made in the light of the draft curriculum in February 2013, but they are worthwhile nonetheless. There is a clear difference between what academics and teachers believe is useful and what children believe is beneficial. Thus, for my future practice, the children studying medieval life, should be getting a taster, a snippet of what life was like. After all, Ofsted suggested that more schools should be studying Medieval and Early Modern History at GCSE and A-Level (Madison, 2014). Hence, an early introduction to the themes is particularly worthwhile, especially if it gains their interest.

This leads us into discussing an element of the course that the students found particularly challenging: engaging with medieval history. Year Seven pupils, who one might hope would still have some enthusiasm for learning, would grumble in the corridor: ‘Ergh, what’s the point in this history?!’ Luckily, these feelings don’t seem to have been isolated to conversations outside of my classroom! Departmental staff claimed that the lower ability groups tended to find medieval history ‘dull’. These feelings were equally prevalent in a study of the perceptions of pupils, where 1500 were collated (Hadyn, Harris, 2008). For instance, when asked why they were studying History, disaffected Year nines commented: ‘to punish people’; ‘I don’t know, or care’; ‘I think they make us do it to bore us out of our brains.’ (Hadyn, Harris, 2008 p.9).  Crucially one student commented that I really ‘don’t have a clue’ why we study History, whilst another added a fundamentally important point: ‘they don’t tell us why’ we study History (Hadyn, Harris, 2008 p.9).  This is such an erudite and insightful comment as it sheds light upon why children are disengaged. Surely, it is no wonder that children are disengaged if we don’t explain, or help them work out, why what we are studying is important. Having taught this module once, I would therefore wish to continuously stress what one gains on a historical basis, but also stress what other life skills one is gaining. Contrary to what one might expect, I did actually find this was something that I did naturally when I was teaching medieval history, but not modern history. Perhaps this was owing to my own assumptions about medieval history and, as a consequence, I was keen to persuade the students, and myself, of its use. In contrast, modern history is so abundantly useful that I often didn’t mention how it was useful to the students as, well, I just thought it was obvious!

Furthermore, having taught this module once, I am aware of the importance of linking topics to today. If one studies medieval religion without ‘opening it up’, without allowing students to use history to analyse the past then we are failing our pupils. This is not a new idea. In 1952, for example, the then Ministry for Education wrote:

‘The divorce between current affairs and history, so that they are regarded as two different subjects, gravely weakens both. It accentuates the natural tendency of children to regard history as something remote and irrelevant instead of something which has formed the world around them and which is continuously being formed by that world.’ (1952 P.32)

Furthermore, by drawing comparisons to today, stressing the importance of history and making history fun, we help to tackle another difficulty for students: retention. As Fontana explains rather eloquently, a challenge with any topic is retention. As such, a course that incorporates fun and meaningful activities is likely to make something stick in a child’s mind:

We each of us receive a constant and varied system of experiences throughout our waking moments, each one of which can potentially give rise to learning , yet most of which apparently vanish without trace from our mental lives (1993 p. 125).

Hence, to summarise our findings, we have seen that my initial reservations about teaching medieval history were unfounded. My experience, Oftsed and academic writing all suggest a plethora of skills and relevant knowledge that one can gain. Crucially for this study, however, there are many challenges to a teacher of this topic. Firstly, a teacher is pressed for time, having to condense complex history into a small number of lessons. As such, History teachers are faced with difficult questions about what they choose to include. Again my experiences challenged my preconceptions. When I started placement A, I firmly believed that there were certain things that a student should know. As is often the case, however, it is more complicated and nuanced than what we want them to learn. Surely, we should encourage lessons with information that is easily transferable and relatable to the students? This leads us to a challenge for our students: engagement. I found that the students really struggled to motivate themselves for the lessons, believing that history was frankly irrelevant. Moreover, the students’ retention seemed to be worsened by this negative view of the subject.


Task 2: How will you cater more effectively for a specific group of pupils, overcoming barriers to learning.

‘Barriers to learning’ is one of the newest phrases to emerge in nearly all Ofsted’s publications (2011, 2010). The Department of Education do, however, only outline three possible ‘barriers’ or hurdles that prevent progression (DfE 2011). In reality, there are a huge number of barriers that a school has to contend with: literacy, SEN, behaviour, attendance, motivation, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic deprivation to name but a few (Hallam, 1996). We will, owing to the constraints of a word limit, only discuss, firstly, the mind-set of the pupils and secondly, students who study History with English as their second language.


The first barrier that I would like to discuss is the mind-set of the pupils. This theme ties into our discussion of engagement in history and is a crucial tenet of history teaching. Dale Banham, for instance, the Deputy Head of North Gate School in Ipswich, argues that the greatest challenge when delivering any scheme of work is the mind-set of the pupils (2014). This was something that I encountered first-hand and their disengagement manifested itself in different ways. For the boys, in particular, their work would be disorganised or incomplete, whilst the girls would often sigh and complain about medieval history. This was a concern as children are often biddable to learning, but lose their enthusiasm. If a child loses the motivation to learn completely then that is an almost impossible student to teach (Hallam, 1996). Banham therefore postulates an alternative to allowing your class to drift to disengagement. He proposes the view that the initial stimulus in every lesson must hook the pupils into the topic and make them think – why should I care? (2014) In practice this does really seem to work. When I delivered the lessons on the medieval doctor, for instance, I dressed as a medieval doctor in order to inspire and motivate the pupils. It could have been construed as an impact moment, whereby the learning of the students was disturbed by a memorable moment of learning. However, this was the third lesson in the topic and thus only provided a stimulus in one lesson. In contrast, the lesson on the life of a Villein (the first lesson at the start of the topic) started with the following picture:

Although this is an interesting source to an historian, many of my students seemed to lose interest from the outset.  For more experienced teachers this might have been less of an issue owing to the relationships they had formed with the children; however, this was the first lesson that I had taught with this group. As such, an activity designed to gain the students’ interest would have been beneficial. This debate over activities is not isolated to my practice and is also visible amongst academics. For instance, Heafford (1990) makes a distinction between low and high level activities in the classroom, contrasting word searches, quizzes and games with more high value learning activities such as written assessments (Hadyn, 2007). Crucially Heafford also stresses that the grouping of activities affects how learning takes place. For instance, a low value activity might help to engage a student for longer; therefore this type of activity might help to build up momentum to be able to sustain a high value activity.

In addition to the teacher’s choice of activities, the teacher’s manner and actions affect the engagement and mind-set of the pupils. Having been concerned about the behaviour of the pupils, I had been very strict with them, particularly in the first lesson, and at times this hard-line discipline may have meant students did not feel relaxed or comfortable in the classroom.  Sue Hallam, for instance, carried out some research, which had some interesting findings. Contrary to what one might expect, being enthusiastic, warm, polite, tolerant and trusting were considered crucial traits for a good teacher (Hallam, 1996). Equally, the Head of History at North Gate School argued that the students being relaxed within the classroom is a crucial tenet for a positive learning environment.  (Watson-Davis 2014) Moreover, his colleague Dale Banham reiterated these feelings, believing that the fourth element of a successful environment was the notion that everybody could do well in the room (2014). In future, I would like my manner to embody those values, otherwise I appear unapproachable to the students.

Another hurdle to surmount within my Year Seven groups was the literacy of all students. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I would like to concentrate on one child, Krisztian who was from Romania. As a consequence, he struggled to grasp some of the historical language owing to a lack of language skills. One teacher purported, for example, that he spelt ‘wire netting’ as ‘yr ntnyn’.  I was therefore faced with a conundrum: how could I help Krisztian progress without highlighting the extra help that he was receiving? This quandary, of differentiation by task, was discussed in TES:

‘One of the problems is that it has been interpreted to mean that you treat students differently in the classroom, that you have low expectations of the weakest students and set them very simple tasks. The idea that every student should be taught in an individual way is a disaster; it doesn’t work.’ (Evans, 2012, p.4).

Before I went out on placement, I wholeheartedly agreed with this statement. However, experience has disturbed my assumptions about education. Although it would be helpful if we could create resources suitable for every student, sometimes that is not possible. As such, to a large extent I would try to adapt my teaching and its delivery to focus on activities that all students can work on. As this was a low ability group, I could focus upon oracy as a crucial skill – modelling speaking and listening skills, whilst encouraging students with targeted questioning (Gershon 2002). Furthermore, this tactic is encouraged by Rosemary Sage who argues that ‘80% of life’s activities involve spoken skills, against 20% needing reading and writing’, yet ‘teachers spend 86% of class time talking to, not with, their pupils’ (2001 p.64). As such, allowing Krisztian to talk and discuss his ideas may help to improve one aspect of his literacy. In spite of this, oracy is a relatively simple skill to foster: ‘We all know that ‘learners can acquire spoken fluency in everyday, social English relatively quickly. However, gaining control of the more formal aspects of English required for learning can be much more difficult’ (Bousfield Wells, 2010 p.4) Furthermore, for History the exams revolve around an ability to write fluently.

Consequently, I would use a variety of other strategies when teaching this topic again, where I could differentiate the resources to suit Krisztian’s needs. Firstly, I would move Krisztian to sit next to a friend who has a better grasp of English. I would hope that this strategy – often called buddying up –would help Krisztian’s confidence and encourage a strong work ethic (Gershon 2002). Similarly, I would create more sentence starters and scaffolded resources for him. I did do this for his assessment where I made a template for a good answer, which explained what each paragraph should do (see below for example):

Was the Black Death a Disaster?

  • Introduction – A few facts about the Black Death. How it started, how did it spread?

The Black Death was…

It spread all across Europe because of …

At the time though, they thought that it was a … from …

This was a successful resource and Krisztian’s work improved dramatically because of it. However, I should have done more to help him in other lessons. Sometimes, I felt as if it would be more helpful if I were to talk to him and discuss his difficulties with him than it would be if I were to create an extra sheet or handout for him to digest. Moreover, at my placement school there was discussion about bringing in a specialist teaching assistant to help with his English. This would have been brilliant, as I would have been able to send a list of key words (those which I would normally have printed out) and given them to the TA in advance so we could try to build up Krisztian’s confidence, whilst freeing up my time to help other students who were struggling (DfE 2002).

Thus, there are many barriers to learning that one is faced with as a teacher. Overcoming these barriers is, however, almost completely dependent on the student(s). As the mind-set of the students seemed to have drifted towards apathy, in future I would like to change the lessons so that they, firstly, link to today. This gives the sense of change over time, but more importantly, it instils the students with the conception that history matters. Moreover, I would also restructure the lessons I was teaching. Often I started the learning with a picture that failed to grab the students’ attention. Hence, in future, structuring a lesson to include the hook earlier might help to change the mind-set. Secondly, on a personal level, I would like to embody more of the characteristics of a ‘good’ teacher. My tiredness and concerns over behaviour management often meant that I became a less approachable and effective teacher. It would be a tragedy if my practice was in itself a barrier to learning! Finally, we explored the problems faced by Krisztain, for whom English is a second language. If I were to teach him again, I would focus upon different tactics that might ensure progress, such as giving him a partner; focusing on improving oracy; modelling good practice and scaffolding resources. Consequently, these two barriers could become small hurdles but one must not forget that these are just two of the huge array of challenges that a teacher faces.


Task 3: Distinctive assessment strategies to gauge and support pupil progress

If anything concerns me, it’s the oversimplification of something as complex as assessment. My fear is that learning is becoming standardized. Learning is idiosyncratic. Learning and teaching is messy stuff. It doesn’t split into bubbles. (Forman, M. 2012)

Assessment is a thorn in the side of every History teacher. Unlike other subjects, it is troublesome to discern exactly what progression is.  Some prominent historians and educationalists naively suggest that progress is intrinsically linked to key dates and the ‘canon’, implying that knowing more fosters better history (Christodoulou, 2011, Hirsch, 1999). Nevertheless, this view of progress is narrow-minded and should instead be viewed as knowledge aggregation, whereby the amount of information that a student recalls has grown, but has not necessarily been understood (Lee and Shemit 2003). Consequently, unlike other subjects, progression in History should include more than just an extension of knowledge. Progression refers to the way in which a pupils’ conception of the past develops (Lee and Shemit 2003). For our purposes this distinction is manifest. If we are to identify how a pupil is progressing, we must first be clear about what progression is.

This debate has remained congruous, whilst the controversial levels system is forecast to be removed. As such, Teaching History has devoted some time to considering the world of assessment without levels. In my practice, I found, to my surprise, that the levels were a useful tool for me in my role as a member of staff. Although they did not reflect the complexities of a historical consciousness, whereby students place ‘their growing knowledge into different contexts, understanding the connections between local, regional, national and international history […] ; and between short- and long-term timescales’ (National Curriculum in Byrom, 2013), levels did provide a structure. Thus for a purely superficial framework the levels were helpful. However, they failed to take into account one tenet; namely, knowledge application, whereby a student uses ‘X to think about Y’ (Wineburg, 1997). After all, what use is scepticism, whilst reading a source, if one does not use that same skill whilst reading a newspaper? This element of progression is something that underpins the work of a teacher. The reason History is important is that it provides a tool kit whereby children can critically analyse the word around them. However, when I taught the series of lessons on medieval life, I was so concerned with planning, behaviour management, and just getting through the lesson that I did begin to forget – what is it that I would really like the children to learn and why it is important for them to learn it?

Consequently, if I were to teach this scheme of work again, the main difference would stem from the clarity of the lesson objectives – the topics themselves would remain the same. In theory, visible and attainable learning outcomes promote better levels of progression (Weinstein, 1998). I must, however, admit that I am sceptical as to whether having learning objectives clearly displayed is enough. Moreover, having observed lessons, the students are bombarded with a myriad of aims throughout the day. As such, more needs to be done to actually gain the students’ attention, and make them realise why what they are studying matters. Then, perhaps, more credence will be given to the aims.

Moreover, as previously mentioned, throughout the scheme of work, tasks would change to include elements to link the topics to the present and also to encourage impact moments, which help to engage and engender interest. In terms of assessment, however, there are some particular challenges for Year Seven. As this was one of their first units with an assessed piece of writing at the end, the teacher  is wary of the threat of assessment. Terry Hadyn, for example, often says that one must ‘first do no harm’ when using assessments (in Capel et al., 2008). This is particularly pertinent for Year 7 who are at a sensitive time in their education. Having never studied History with a dedicated teacher at primary school, there is a huge risk of causing damage with their summative assessment. If a child is faced with negative feedback and a low grade there is a tendency to crush one’s hopes of achievement. These feelings are echoed in academic research, where it has been suggested that children find out by the age of six whether they are ‘clever’ or not (Guardian 2013). Interestingly, Michael Gove believes that this disappointment helps children to improve as they strive to better themselves and catch up with their peers (in Hope, C. 2013). In practice this does not seem to be the case. Having spoken to children who have been disappointed with their assessments, few appeared enthused and keen to try even harder next time. In fact, many students who try hard seem to be overcome with apathy, arguing: ‘What’s the point in trying, if I fail when I try?’ As such, I think I would change how the assessment was marked. Contrary to what one might expect I would not give the essay a grade. Instead, I would write a comment as follows:

(This was a great piece of work X, well done! You are using the PEE (point, evidence, explain) structure, which backs up your points well. J

In future, try to write a bit more. More detail = more marks J

Next steps – rewrite one of your paragraphs so that it has a PEE structure, do it here: )

Consequently, the student is getting a positive comment – something that they have done well in relation to the criteria; something to work on; and then they are asked to repeat one element of the essay, without the concern that they have got a lower grade than they were expecting. Crucially, however, the teacher would write a grade down in their mark book so that they can ascertain how much progress has been made.

Nonetheless, this style of assessment is only half of the armoury for a teacher. Formative assessment is equally important, both in finding out what students know and in helping to reinforce their progress. This has been ‘proven’, according to Black and William, who argue that strengthening the practice of formative assessment produces substantial and significant learning gains’ (1998 p.3). Nevertheless, as is often the case with educational issues, the success of formative assessment seems to be dependent upon how successfully it is delivered by the teacher. I found that simple changes in language made a difference. A ‘quick fire quiz’, for example, would be met with excitement, whilst a re-cap test was met with disdain! Thus, the way in which the assessment for learning is delivered is crucial.

But again, we have a problem with History. Unlike other subjects such as Science, where assessment for learning can easily be integrated, History is less concrete (Ofsted, 2008). This is owing to what progression in History is. We can, and should, use quick tests to check understanding of key dates, key names, phrases and even spellings but this is not really a test of understanding. Thus, to avoid Black’s nightmare – the superficial use of assessment – History must use assessment for learning as a tool to encourage progression (2007). For instance, peer assessment appears to be very helpful for students. For medieval history, it gives the students a chance to explore other students’ work against strict criteria, so one knows what to expect. Moreover, if one is able to introduce the same grade descriptors for small writing tasks, as is given to the final assessment, this would hopefully increase a student’s awareness of what a ‘good piece of work’ is. Consequently this would help to lessen the impact of the strange phenomenon whereby a teacher finds out how much a child has understood at the end of the topic.

However, just like other subjects, assessment for learning (AFL), is perhaps most useful in checking for prior understanding, in line with what Austel et al. wrote in 1968: ‘The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach (him) accordingly’ (preface). Furthermore, once we have established what the students know, one can build a lesson, or series of lessons from that point. For my practice, however, I think I need to use quick AFL strategies to check for pupil’s understanding of tasks. Throughout the first few weeks of my placement, I would often explain something, in what I deemed to be complete terms, yet it would be lost on the children, who would then talk awkwardly to their neighbours in hushed tones. Thus, contrary to what one might expect, if I were to teach this series of lessons again, I would make the children show their green, red and orange cards, to show how strong an understanding they had of instructions, but not of historical epochs.

In many respects this contradicts what I thought previously. For instance, I had seen some of Peter Sadler’s research on the BBC programme Simple Minds (2002). His findings were quite shocking and contrary to what one would expect. For instance, students’ understanding of gravity was actually worsened by the classes that they had attended (Lightman and Sadler 1993). Understandably, this is a concern for teachers, and trainees alike, who, in the past, have often assumed that ‘progress’ was taking place. As such, I was concerned that my lessons were actually disturbing and damaging the student’s understanding of the world. However, when I was teaching, it was clear by their responses and how their subject knowledge had grown that their understanding, although primitive, was clearly progressing.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that my definition of progress has been augmented over my first placement. At first, I shamelessly agreed with the ideas of linear ‘Hegelianesque’ advancement through the levels, something which was encouraged by the school. For instance, at parents’ evening the teacher would explain how many sub-levels their child had mastered and the parents would exhale in relief or exasperation. This concept of a smooth path to bettering oneself academically is the basis of much of Ofsted’s statistical data. For instance, a student who gains a Level 4 at Key Stage 3 should therefore achieve a B at GCSE (Bullard, 2014). But having seen the children arrive at secondary school, the road is not that simple. As is often the case with statistics, they give a guide, a rough picture of where a student is at. Primary schools often place a huge emphasis on their SATS tests, particularly English and Maths, so it is hardly surprising that many students struggle when they arrive in Secondary schools.  As such, I am sceptical of Ofsted’s use of assessment. Rarely does a student’s conception of the world progressively improve. Sometimes understanding is not about confidence, or levels, it is more nuanced and complex. Personally, I believe that Mark Twain’s definition of education is refreshingly depressing:

‘Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty’ (in Goldman 2001: 147)

This quote embodies the complexities of education and the subjective nature of knowledge, which is far less easy to define and pigeonhole than statistics can realise.


Hence, to draw these discussions to a point, my revisions to the scheme of work, in terms of content, are few. This is owing to the quality of the decision-making process that my former colleagues have gone through, which, in spite of my earlier reservations, was excellent. The topics were well-designed, offering a crucial insight into medieval life from a social and technological perspective. They had, for instance, balanced second order and substantive concepts. Nonetheless, this ‘professional wrestling in the History department’ was the focus of our first challenge (Byrom and Riley, 2004). However, this trial should not be construed as unique, but merely a consequence of the restricted time and resources that History is given. As such, a History teacher must prioritise what it is that they really want the children to learn – what is the point of that topic? This appeared to be a troublesome question, but having read about the benefits of medieval history and seen its relevance when teaching, I have repented. In many respects these threads tie into our first challenge for the learners: their engagement in the topic. Unlike other themes, medieval life, as a subject, was met with apathy and disdain.

As a result, the second section explored, centred upon the mind-set of the pupils and how to overcome this barrier to progression. Firstly, the initial stimulus material needs to hook the students’ attention, and stress why the topic is interesting and relevant to the students. Moreover, if possible, it must vary from lesson to lesson to avoid the students’ inquisitive nature drying up. Furthermore, I must attempt to embody the values of a ‘perfect teacher’ (Hallam 1996), where I appear approachable, enthusiastic, trustworthy and helpful, yet ultimately genuine. Often, at times, it is difficult to fulfil these roles as a trainee teacher, whilst one is concerned about behaviour management, and simply delivering lessons, without adequate amounts of sleep. This would, hopefully, benefit all students, not just those who struggle to engage with history. Thus, as a remedy to this broad analysis, we then explored how this scheme of work could be amended to encourage those with English as their second language. In many respects these ideas can be summarised by the quote: ‘there is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people’ (Thomas Jefferson in Hughes and Vass 2005 p.115). Consequently, scaffolded resources; ‘buddying up’; using visual sources instead of written ones; making the most of teaching assistants; modelling good speaking and listening, and finally allowing students to speak instead of write their work, would all be employed in order to foster progress.

The final section of this essay referred to assessment strategies that would help to encourage the pupils’ development and understanding. Having outlined the complex definition of progression in History, which is far more contentious than many other subjects and refers to far more than just an increase in historical knowledge, it was manifest to consider innovative ways of assessment. In spite of this, there were clear caveats about measuring progression, which can often cause a student to lose confidence and, in turn, interest. Hence, in future, summative assessments would be marked and assessed with a comment, but the level would not be visible to the student. Moreover, contrary to popular opinion, I am reticent to use formative assessment to ascertain how much a student has understood – does a green, orange or red card actually suggest how much a student has gleaned from a lesson? Nonetheless, AFL can be used to better effect, and would help improve my practice, particularly in relation to task explanation. Finally, we explored the pitfalls of statistics, where Ofsted have oversimplified a hugely complex system for political gains.

Nevertheless these discussions should not be isolated to the scheme of work on medieval life and represent the fundamentals of the teaching standards. Firstly, my values of a teacher should ‘set high expectations, which inspire and motivate students’ (T1), ‘promoting good progress and outcomes’ (T2). In contrast, my experience on first placement was not always as simplistic as the teacher’s standards suggest. In future, enthusiasm, verve, and energy must emanate from me to help to improve my practice. Moreover, my lessons, although often well-planned and well-structured (T4), are wasted if they fail to inspire the students by linking the topics to today and stressing the relevance of historical understanding. Surely, by demonstrating good curriculum and subject knowledge (T3), I should be able to inspire and make even the most apathetic students care about history. Thus, for my practice, finding and then exploiting ‘impact resources’ is manifest. Moreover, this would in turn help to prevent many of the common barriers to learning: poor behaviour, apathy, engagement and mind-set. However, other barriers to learning require more direct intervention with pupils and, as an aspiring teacher, I should endeavour to be sensitive and accommodating to the specific needs of the students (T5). Thus, my practice can develop massively from this primitive stage at which it currently resides. Another strand to this is my use of assessment (T6), which must encourage and foster pupil development. Hence, one must endeavour to be positive and build up a student’s confidence through assessment. Finally, this work has highlighted the simplicity with which statistics can be manipulated. After all, they say there are ‘three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.’ As such, I must remain vigilant to the transmutable qualities of statistics, when applying for jobs, when reading Ofsted statistics and even when I am teaching History!




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[1] Student’s named have been changed in this piece of work.

[2] See appendix for the course that preceded the course.

[3] See appendix for the full scheme of work.

[4] Andrew Robinson teaches History at Eton.

Learning Assignment (LA): Recognising Progress

‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled,

but a fire to be kindled’ (Plutarch, in Kleiser 2005: 181)

‘Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.’ Winston Churchill (in Blacketor, 2009:254).

‘Progress’ is the newest buzz word in education. The teaching standards, for instance, stress the importance of ‘good progress and outcomes by pupils’ (DfE, 2013: 7), whilst Ofsted assess schools against strict criteria that focus upon progression (DfE, 2013). For the trainee teacher, therefore, progression could not be more manifest. Understanding how pupils learn and how this impacts on teaching is a crucial tenet, and one which this essay aims to explore. Hence, this work examines what progression is, with a particular focus on history as often progression in history is confused with aggregation. For this section, observations were taken from two separate lessons, the former with year 7 and the latter with year 12. For the latter, their lesson illustrates the importance of using good resources, which act as a scaffold for the student. As such, this strand is centred around the work of two theorists: Bruner and Vygotsky. The second element of this work refers to how teachers ascertain that a pupil is learning, which again reflects two teaching standards (T5, T6). Moreover, within this topic, crucial questions relating to the use of assessment for learning are addressed, suggesting that there are ways that a teacher can integrate assessment into every lesson. In order to complete this, the observations were made in a Year 8 science lesson. This helps to form an interesting contrast to the observations within the humanities and also allowed different learning theories to come under scrutiny; namely, the work of the behaviourists, such as Skinner and Piaget. The third section of this essay focuses on how a teacher can remove barriers to learning, or, as T5 in the teacher standards puts it: ‘adapt and respond to pupil needs’ (DfE, 2013: 8). For this particular task, there was a huge array of different hurdles that one could have explored. Nevertheless, this essay focuses upon literacy and in particular a girl who has dyslexia and how the school policy, in combination with inspirational teaching, can help students overcome these barriers. Hence, the work of Gagne and Bandura provided the theoretical backbone to this section. The final stand of this essay concerns my progression, which has occurred throughout this period of observations.

  • Recognising Progress in learning in History:

Peter Sadler’s research for the BBC programme Simple Minds (2002) highlights how difficult it is to ascertain whether pupils are progressing in science. In his experiment, students’ understanding of gravity was actually worsened by the classes that they had attended (Lightman and Sadler 1993). Understandably, this is a concern for teachers, and trainees alike, who, in the past, have often assumed that ‘progress’ was taking place. Moreover, within the discipline of history it is even more troublesome to discern exactly what progression is.  Some prominent historians and educationalists suggest that progress is intrinsically linked to key dates and the ‘canon’, implying that knowing more fosters better history (Christodoulou, 2011, Hirsch, 1999). This perception is worryingly widespread. For instance, in my placement school, a student moaned that history was ‘just about memory – all I have to do is learn names and dates – what use is that to me?’ Consequently, one assumes that this student has inferred this view from newspapers, friends and perhaps even their family. However, this view of history is more prominent than one might think. Michael Gove’s proposed curriculum released in February 2013, for instance, was heavily criticised by leading historians (Evans, 2011, Schama, 2010) as it seemed to imply that more history was indeed better history. Nevertheless, this view of progress is narrow-minded and should instead be viewed as knowledge aggregation, whereby the amount of information that a student recalls has grown, but has not necessarily been understood (Lee and Shemit 2003).

The growth of knowledge is, nonetheless, relatively simple to measure. In one lesson that I observed, students learnt what a Motte and Bailey Castle was, exemplified by their neatly labelled diagrams. Furthermore, the teacher asked each student to write down what type of castle they had learnt about today by writing it down on a post-it note. The students seemed to learn, and remember this word, through continuous repetition, in a variety of activities in order to engage all different learning styles. Thus, the students had augmented their knowledge in the lessons, but historical progression, in terms of understanding, is slightly more complex, as it should include both knowledge and skills aggregation.

Consequently, unlike other subjects, progression in history should include more than just an extension of knowledge. Progression refers to the way in which a pupils’ conception of the past develops (Lee and Shemit 2003); perhaps they can even apply their knowledge, or as Wineburg puts it: ‘using X to think about Y’ (Wineburg, 1997). In spite of the majority of historians agreeing that the development of historical understanding goes beyond aggregation, the purpose of school history is debatable. John Arnold, on one hand argues, that ‘”history” originally meant “to enquire”, and more specifically, it indicated a person who was able to choose wisely between conflicting accounts’ (2000: 18), whereas Chris Husbands suggests that history provides a framework for pupils to discuss polemical issues within the academic canons of reliability, explanation and justification (1996), but why is this relevant to progression? The answer here lies in the myriad of ways that a student can progress in history. If leading academics disagree as to the plethora of different skills that can be strengthened in history, this indicates an array of skills that one develops. Students seem to simultaneously increase their knowledge in a variety of areas.

This is specifically noticeable within Key Stage 5 where the first question in the AS Level source paper asks students to examine two written sources as ‘evidence for’ something (see appendix). To the non-historian, this task appears simple, but it actually requires a variety of skills. Consequently, the teacher gave each student a worksheet, which acts as a scaffold for the student (see appendix). The worksheet separated key factors relating to the source into sections: utility, for answering the question set; origin; nature/purpose; context; reliability of the content and the provenance; how typical is this source for the period; and, finally, what could be added to this source to improve its utility. The teacher therefore constructed a scaffold along Bruner’s definition, whereby ‘appropriate social interactional frameworks’ were provided (Bruner 1978 in Foley 1993). Moreover, in line with Appleby and Langer’s extension of Bruner’s theory, the control in the task was transferred to the students to ascertain whether they understood source analysis (1986 in Foley 1993). Unwittingly, the students were actually being led into, what Vygotsky coined, the zone of proximal development where:

The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential problem solving as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more able peers (Vygotsky, 1978: 86).

This seems to be the case in practice, where the students discussed what should be written in the box relating to reliability, content and provenance:

Sally: Does the date of the source matter?

Betty: I’m not sure – it should do shouldn’t it?

Sally: I guess so, but what happened in 1936?

Teacher: Check your notes – there are two important dates in 1936 that might have been an incentive for David Lloyd George to write in the Daily Express. [Teacher walks away]

Betty: Oh yeah –the Olympics, I guess he might have felt the need to write that.

Sally: And Hitler put troops back into the Rhineland –maybe that has an impact.

Betty: Yeah, it’s got a huge impact – I would change what I was going to write if I knew the world would read it and that had just happened.

Sally: Ha, alright, calm down!

Consequently, with the help of the teacher the students seem to have been able to place a greater value on the provenance of the source. Crucially, this is an area that Ofsted have highlighted as needing improvement: ‘knowledge and understanding of historical interpretations are the weakest elements of learning in history’ (Ofsted, 2001). Moreover, the students’ conceptions intrinsically relate to progression. For instance, Hunt outlines five stages for the development of understanding within historical interpretation:

  1. knowing that different interpretations exist;
  2. Describing and beginning to suggest possible reasons why interpretations may differ;
  3. More sophisticated explanation of how and why;
  4. Sophisticated explanation and beginning to evaluate;
  5. Balanced evaluation of differing interpretations. (Hunt, n/d: unknown)

Furthermore, the students are beginning to comprehend that the ‘differences in interpretations can be explained by reference to their purpose and their intended audience’. (Hunt, n/d: unknown)

Crucially however, the students continued to progress without the intervention of the teacher:

Betty: But that doesn’t really make sense, he [David Lloyd George] is really complimentary.

Sally: Yeah, but I say one thing sometimes when I mean another thing –it is just what people do.

Betty: I guess so. Maybe he didn’t know.

Sally: Yeah, he wasn’t even Prime Minister so he probably wouldn’t have known – shows how widespread the Hitler Myth was though.

Betty: You’re such a nerd.

This correlates with newer theories on the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1962).  Since Vygotsky’s death, for example, theorists have added to the conceptions concerning the zone of proximal development, postulating that learning can also occur with collaboration between pupils of equal, or even lesser, ability (Littleton and Light, 1991, Cowie and Van Aalsvort, 2000 in Fernandez et. al. 2001). Moreover, one should be reticent to accept the notion of a critical learning moment. Few students suddenly gain the ability to critically analyse a source, or be sceptical. Although it would be useful if a teacher could engender a ‘eureka moment’, whereby the validity of a source could be critically analysed, it is unrealistic. In reality, we see a slow and steady growth in knowledge supported through practise and teacher discussion. What we see, therefore, is a string of thread, which represents the student’s conceptual understanding, slowly being added to: another tine twisting around the piece of string.

In addition to this, if we reassess what the students are saying they are beginning to reach the highest levels of understanding where the students ‘transfer this principle to other units of work; namely, daily life’ (Ofsted, 2001). In addition to this, the students are wrestling with the validity of the source, questioning the various components that make up a source’s reliability and thus their ideas are being disturbed and questioned. Consequently, a higher level of understanding, and therefore progression, has led to reluctant, reasoned and reflective evaluation based on the evidence at hand. At first, this appears to be the antithesis of progression, as the students are more sceptical and less likely to jump to conclusions; however, for the historian, these qualities are valuable and show a deep understanding of source evaluation (Ofsted 2001). Consequently, this suggests that, for Key Stage 5, students can be given the freedom to work independently, and their discussion and written responses to the source analysis suggest progression in understanding. In spite of this, one must not forget that these students have been studying since September and have learnt, perhaps through repetition, and re-cap, a huge swathe of content, which can act as a foundation for Bruner’s scaffold. Thus, for my practise I must not forget the groundwork that the teacher has laid that allows the teacher to give the students more autonomy.

  • Recognising how teachers ascertain pupils’ progress in learning:

Recognising exactly what your students have absorbed from your lesson is a must for the teacher. As such, various theorists have suggested that certain techniques for teaching are more successful than others. The United States National Learning Lab, for instance, postulated that the average retention rate of pupils when they are teaching each other is 90%, whereas it is just 5% for ‘teacher talking’ (2003). Although this research purports a ridiculously simplified and inaccurate view of education, which fails to take into account the quality of teacher talking, or indeed the quality of a student’s exposition, it does highlight the complexities for a teacher of knowing what works. Simply put, why is it that some things are learnt and stay learnt, whilst others are forgotten, as Fontana explains:

We each of us receive a constant and varied system of experiences throughout our waking moments, each one of which can potentially give rise to learning , yet most of which apparently vanish without trace from our mental lives (1993: 125).

In a year 8 Science lesson that I observed the teacher was abundantly aware of how fleeting a student’s understanding can be. Hence, Miss Smith started her lesson by giving each student a whiteboard and a pen, and proceeded to pose questions about the previous lesson, which had concerned radiation, conduction and convection. As the students were responding on the whiteboards their eyes darted around the room, desperate to scribble down not only the correct answer but also the same response as their peers. Thus, on the one hand the students’ knowledge is being reinforced through what behaviourists would call operant conditioning, whereby actions are taken that meet the demands of the environment (Skinner 1953). For example, students are holding their whiteboards up quickly and quietly, yet they are also concerned about incurring a negative reflection from a peer. In spite of this, the students were encouraged by Miss Smith who used merits as a tool to reinforce learning through positive associations (Schunk 2009). Moreover, the effectiveness of this task also lies within how the environment had been constructed. The lesson objectives were visible, hence the outcomes and how to reach them was made clear – helping students know how they can attain them (Weinstein, 1998). The teacher had therefore integrated assessment for learning into her lesson to ascertain where the pupils were at, in line with what Austel et Al. wrote in 1968:

The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach (him) accordingly (preface).

Furthermore, the teacher, aware of the pitfalls of a superficial use of assessment for learning (Black 2007), had devised two different lesson plans depending on the strength of the response from the students. Having been a shy and nervous student myself, I was aware that the students would often just jump through hoops to avoid being singled out or even noticed. In response to this, the teacher informed me that the main activity in the lesson was structured so that it could simultaneously recap on the previous week’s work, but also introduce a higher level of thinking to test their understanding. The experiment involved filling two cans, of the same size, made of the same material, with equal amounts of water. Each can, however, was coated in a different material: the former with tin foil and the latter with dull back paper. This was the variable in the experiment.

The students then had a two minute opportunity to write down what they thought ‘would happen’. In many respects this mirrors how Piaget believed that a child learns. For instance, Piaget argues that a child builds up schemas thereby actively explaining the world in which they habit (and Inhelder, 1958). In this case, the two students that I was observing had differing opinions as to what would happen, suggesting that they had varying schemas and, as such, conflicting views as to how to reach ‘equilibrium’(Marshall 2005). One student thought that the can coated in tin foil would stay hotter as the heat within the liquid would be reflected back into the container; the other thought that the foil would conduct heat well and therefore radiate heat away from the tin. Within their books, these thoughts were expressed and justified using relevant vocabulary. The students then carried out the experiment and, over time, the tin with the dull black paper surrounding it cooled down faster. Thus, Daniel, the student whose hypothesis turned out not to be supported by the evidence, was forced to confront how his schema was formed through three stages, which we can view as progression in science. Firstly, Daniel had to adapt his thinking to be able to make sense of his environment. Secondly, he had to incorporate these new ideas relating to the experiment into his schema, which may require the third element for progression; namely, the creation of a new schema (Nevid 2012). Although this adaptation of Piaget’s theory is useful it does, however, not take into account the obdurate nature of some people. Daniel, on reading the results, exclaimed: ‘well it’s science isn’t it, sometimes we don’t get the results we expect’, assuring himself that he was right in his original idea.

This is a common problem for teachers, and one of the reasons why Black and Wiliam argue that feedback is crucial for recognising pupils’ progression (1998, 1998, and 2009). Over the last twenty years teachers have had to accept that the assumption of progress is simply not acceptable. Consequently, after the students had written up the results of their experiment and summarised their conclusions, the students peer assessed each other’s work, against a strict marking criteria. According to Berry and Black, this represents the most effective way of structuring peer assessment as it limits the opportunity for distraction, whilst simultaneously making the student aware of the legibility and quality of each other’s work (2008, 2005). Moreover, the students were told to write a comment about what was good, what could be better and then something for them to do again. As such, Daniel was informed that he had used vocabulary well, including the key words convection, conduction and radiation, but that he needed to rewrite his conclusions to suggest why the ‘foil tin should have remained hotter for longer.’

Thus, the teacher has integrated assessment for learning into her lessons effectively to attempt to recognise where the pupils have progressed to. As an historian, however, one must be sceptical as to the extent to which a teacher can recognise pupil progress through peer assessment. Although it is a useful task, which countless theorists have awarded plaudits, it does not give the teacher a tangible level from which the teacher can assess progress. Thus, whilst certain assessment for learning strategies simultaneously provide recognition of progress on the one hand, with a chance for the students to augment their knowledge on the other, peer assessment is more suitable for the latter.

Miss Smith did, however, appear to be aware of this. She therefore collected the students’ books in at the end of the lesson, as a method of trying to recognise where the pupils had progressed to. Hence, in spite of Ofsted reporting in 2008 that science was one of the few subjects where assessment for learning was integrated on a regular basis, the teacher, who had integrated assessment for learning wanted to see if her teaching strategies were working, suggesting of course that the recognition of progress favours a teacher as well as the pupils.

Thus recognising progress in science is not as simple as one might think. It appears to involve the adaptation of schemas, but the way in which one assesses whether this learning has taken place is troublesome. Seemingly, the best way to ascertain what the pupils have understood is through the assessment of written work undertaken, but even this could belie misunderstanding. Daniel appeared to change his mind once Miss Smith had set out the criterion for the ‘good answer’, but did he? And did he remember it in the next lesson? The answer to these questions does not appear simple and relies upon continuous and varied forms of assessment, focusing on re-cap and extension of knowledge. For the teacher, and trainee alike, therefore, continuous and focused assessment will help teachers recognise progress, but, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet.

 3) Recognising successful teaching that responds to barriers to learning:

‘Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish

on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life

believing it is stupid.’ (Einstein in Gupta 2012: 167)

‘Barriers to learning’ is a vast subject and one which includes a myriad of different hurdles; the Department of Education, however, over simplify the topic and outline just three on their website (2011). Nonetheless, around my placement school far more barriers are being addressed: behaviour, motivation and engagement are being explored for the benefit of all pupils, whilst specific zones have been created where EAL learners, pupil premium students and SEN students can get extra support. The barrier to learning that I am exploring, however, links into the daily lives of every student and is a particular thorn in the side of history teachers: literacy.

The National Literacy Trust argue that 5.2 million people are illiterate and, in spite of improvements in GCSE attainment levels, nearly 30% of pupils never reach a C in their GCSE English (2012). In my placement school, the rooms have therefore been designed to engender progress in literacy. For instance, writing frames, connectives and typical essay structures have been made for the students to gawp at as they wander around the school (see appendix). Moreover, within the history department, these are taped to the table to ensure that when they are writing they use and experiment with new words. Thus, my school embodies many of Ofsted’s recent thoughts on literacy, whereby there is no ‘quick fix’ to literacy; instead a school must set high standards throughout every subject, whilst correcting poor grammar, spelling and punctuation (2013:38). Furthermore, this study reinforced ideas from an earlier document: ‘Removing Barriers to Learning’, which argued that those who were particularly at risk of being illiterate tended to come from three groups:  ‘pupils eligible for free school meals; looked after children (children in public care); and White British boys from low-income households’ (Ofsted, 2011: 4). In response to this, my placement school developed an area with the school where those groups could meet – the gateway. This meant that one-to-one tuition could be given to those students to help with their progression in literacy.

Within history, moreover, I watched one particular student progress with the help of a teaching assistant. This child, Chelsea, is dyslexic but is not statemented, yet the teaching assistant, Mr Bernard, was wandering around the room and happened to help Chelsea with her writing in a year 9 class about the Civil War. Firstly, Chelsea’s spelling of the word ‘parliamentarian’ was incorrect. In her book, she had spelt it in three different ways on the same page. In spite of this, Mr Bernard was friendly, slow and supportive, and joked, whilst reinforcing the notion that spelling really did matter. Therefore, Mr Bernard diligently wrote down ‘parliamentarian’ and asked Chelsea to write it out three times below. In many respects this mirrors the behaviourist theories developed by Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson and Skinner, but these ideas were actually around since Ancient Greece. For example, Aristotle claimed that ‘it is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency’ and ‘the more frequently two things are experienced together, the more likely it will be that the experience or recall of one will stimulate the recall of the other’ (in Weibell 2011). This did indeed seem to help Chelsea, as the fourth time that Chelsea wrote the word ‘parliamentarian’ she could do so without having to look at the examples she had written.

Moreover, the teacher, Miss Tick, had created resources written in a different font and provided a coloured piece of acetate for Chelsea to place over her reading to help her progression. This was also carried out in a sensitive manner as all the students were given the opportunity to read through the acetate and everything was written in Comic Sans. Thus, the stigma was removed by diligent lesson planning on behalf of the teacher.  In addition to this, Miss Tick informed me that the lesson plans had been adapted from the previous year, in order to encourage and motivate students in their literacy. Furthermore within the teacher’s lesson plan, literacy was addressed in a number of ways, including oracy.

To my surprise, oracy is also a crucial part of literacy yet is understandably overlooked by some teachers. The Bercow Report, for instance, outlined that communication was crucial in all respects, whether written or spoken, and these tenets were built upon in a report by Rosemary Sage (2008). Sage, postulated that ‘80% of life’s activities involve spoken skills, against 20% needing reading and writing’, yet ‘teachers spend 86% of class time talking to, not with, their pupils’ (2001). Seemingly in response to this research, the teacher spoke slowly, clearly and expected the same from the students, who were asked to prepare a presentation on the Civil War, assessing whether Cromwell was a hero or a villain, using the evidence presented to them. Crucially for our investigation, objectives for the presentation skills were espoused as well as indicative content, helping to place a high level of expectancy. For Gagne, this was a crucial tenet of good practice (and Medsker 1997). Moreover, this theory was built upon by Bandura who purported the notion of social cognitive theory, whereby social actions are linked to their environment and the social interaction within that space (Bandura 1997). For teaching practice, this dictates that teachers should embody the values that they would like to be reflected in their pupils as modelling behaviours reinforces positive activities. In many respects this mirrors the idiom: ‘if you put people in a pig sty they’ll act like pigs.’ Again, the teacher, perhaps unwittingly, reflected and embodied good practice, by writing and speaking in a manner that was engaging, calm, clear and concise.

Crucially for Chelsea, this task allowed her to build upon her oracy skills, a skill which she was far more capable and confident with. At first, one assumes that this is counter intuitive; surely Chelsea should be focussing on her weakest skill? In reality, however, the engagement and fun that Chelsea had, meant that she progressed in oracy. Moreover, the momentum generated by the presentation gave Chelsea the impetus to engage in the writing task, which formed the plenary of the lesson. In some respects, this engagement in learning mirrors Stanley Kubrick’s ideas:

I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker (in Blackburn 2005: 73).

Consequently, school for many students is stressful, as they are scared and worried. Engagement and interest may give the student the impetus to progress, just as Chelsea did. These ideas are, however, not new. Plato, for instance, said: ‘do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each’ (in Cleaveland, 2004:91).

As such, the challenge of literacy is not a small barrier; it is more of a hill, a constant struggle, where the school must embody high standards, both in themselves and the environment. Hence, for some students the teachers must provide extra help, through scaffolded resources, practise, praise, and an engineered environment. In many respects this mirrors Thomas Jefferson’s inspiring quote, which summarises how schools should act in response to all barriers to learning: ‘there is nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal people.’ (in Hughes and Vass 2005: 115).


Dishearteningly, the conclusions one can draw from these observations are few. Far from grounding and substantiating my preconceptions about how students learn, this essay has disturbed my assumptions, suggesting that there is no silver bullet in education. In this respect my progression mirrors Mark Twain’s definition of education whereby one travels on ‘the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty’ (Twain, in Goldman 2001: 147). As such, in some respects my journey of progression echoes the progression of Sally and Betty in the AS level history class, as I have become more sceptical, yet also more open and reflective about new ideas. Understandably, this will have a large effect on my teaching practice. First and foremost, it will make me open to try and experiment with a plethora of activities as they could provide the basis for progression in my subject, they may help to engage and excite students, or make a student stop and think. After all, surely we should take heed and reflect upon Charles Shulz’s sarcastic mantra: ‘Try not to have a good time…this is supposed to be educational.’ (ReF)

Moreover, my preconceptions about learning theories have been complicated to the nth degree. Furthermore, the myriad of different learning theories that have been studied for this essay have, in isolation, not provided sufficient explanation for the complexities of teaching, yet in combination they have helped to form a bank of ideas and challenges for any teacher. Thus, in spite of earlier reservations, Cullingford’s observations that ‘nothing in teaching is more practical that knowing how people learn’ appears to be fitting (1996). As such, for my teaching a plethora of activities will be used to encourage and reflect these learning theories.

Thirdly, my conceptions about how a teacher assesses progress have also been disturbed. Previously, in an almost nihilistic fashion, I had assumed that there was no way that a teacher could really ascertain what a student has learnt. In spite of this, my ideas have shifted. Although it is difficult to pinpoint what a student has learnt, or understood, assessment for learning provides a framework, which teachers can use to adapt lessons and provide student specific support. Moreover, I have also reconsidered the importance of the interaction between students and teachers. Question and answers, I assumed, were just part and parcel of a lesson and were not a crucially important part of the lesson. Nevertheless, on reflection, I have realised the manner and confidence of the response, gives the teacher a huge amount of information, which they can then use, in planning future lessons. For future practice therefore, I will try and integrate lesson objectives that can be measured, and use assessment as a tool to help progression, bearing in mind Hadyn’s cautious mantra: first do no harm (Hattie 2012, 2013).

Fourthly, this assessment has helped me progress in how I will educate children with barriers to learning. In many respects I aim to embody Gandhi’s inspirational quote, ‘be the change that you wish to see in the world’ (in McGary, 2006: Preface). If a teacher can reflect high standards, then over time a child can progress. Furthermore, the importance of praise, a school wide policy, high standards and encouragement can help all to progress. Nevertheless, at the moment, I am daunted by the prospect of trying to integrate all of these factors into every lesson. I will, however, do my best, as it is a teacher’s responsibility to integrate all, giving every child the opportunity to learn.

Moreover, the findings from my observations of a sixth form history lesson contradicted the findings from Key Stage 3 Science. The former suggested that sixth form students could be given a level of freedom and autonomy on well-structured and scaffolded teaching, whist the latter required continuous attention. In contrast, the students in the latter class are more reliant upon the teacher, who needs to continuously check and ascertain where the students have progressed to in their lesson, partially owing to the content which builds upon levels of understanding, unlike history.  Thus, for my practice I must create lessons that suit the pupils that I am teaching, otherwise, I am doing a disservice to myself and to them.

Before finishing, it is however worth mentioning what observation is like as a method of collecting data. Unlike other scientific observations the number of variables is huge. Moreover, one does wonder whether observing has an impact upon the way the children behave. This, within physics, is known as the ‘observer effect’, whereby watching social interaction has an effect upon the outcome. The most frequently cited notion of this comes from the story of Schrödinger’s cat, where the cat appears to be both dead and alive until we look inside the box. Thus, whilst I am confident that what I have seen is representative of school life and learning, every school and every child is different. So, just as I have to be open and reflective within my current school, I must continue to do so throughout my career, continuously observing and learning. Moreover, as I observe I will become an increasingly familial presence in the room, therefore reducing the impact of the ‘observer effect.’

As such, the progression that a student makes is complex, but crucially for teachers, progress is possible, and it is measurable. To finish, therefore we must follow Peter Abelard’s advice, which asks students, teachers, academics and parents to never stop questioning, to never stop learning. After all, progression for a teacher does not stop once you have qualified:

The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning […] for by doubting we are            led to questioning and by questioning we arrive at truth. (Abelard in Russel, 1947: 458-9).



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