Getting back to the History classroom

Teacher listening in classrooom

On Friday 20th March, it was announced that all UK schools would close to staff and most pupils in a bid to tackle the spread of Covid-19. Immediately teachers started to do what teachers do best – they began the tricky job of ensuring that both the students who would be at home for the foreseeable future, and those who still came into school, were provided with educational opportunities and positive activities. Secondary schools are now in a ‘life after lockdown’ phase and adapting for a return to the classroom.

We asked Lindsay Bruce and Aaron Wilkes (who both teach and write) to pick this apart a little, and think what getting back to the history classroom might be like and how they are looking to deal with the inevitable ‘catch up’ that they will need to do.

Aaron: It’s clear that the classroom itself will perhaps look a little different in the first instance. Schools are free to interpret guidance as they see fit for their setting, but it’s clearly important to reduce contact between people as much as possible. So it looks like many schools will look to limit class sizes and refresh the timetable to deliver limited lessons, reduce movement around the school and stagger assemblies and break times. Classrooms and workshops will probably be redesigned in the short term too, with sitting positions 2 metres apart.

Lindsay: It’s a real headache isn’t it? The way schools now work in modern times means it will be difficult. It’s no longer always about a pupil sitting at a desk looking at their teacher. Pupils often work in groups, collaboratively, and can move around the class. They touch classroom materials – blocks, scissors, compasses, tools, cooking utensils. Would these items need to be washed all the time? And what about the children who are stuck? It’s in a teacher’s nature to get close to the pupil to explain how they might find a solution to their problem. In short, it will be very hard for a teacher to socially distance from a pupil – but it’s clear we will need to minimise contact and mixing.

Aaron: There can be little doubt though, that children will have not necessarily made the same sort of progress as they would have done if they were in school. Teachers have worked really hard in lockdown to provide paper-based learning packs or material online – but it will have been incredibly difficult for many pupils to access all the work that’s been set. I think schools simply tried to provide educational opportunities and positive activities – but did not expect children to make lots of progress. Teachers will get a sense of what stage the pupils are at when they return to school and then plan work appropriately.

Lindsay: This is exactly the thing teachers need to focus on – we will only know where the students are once they are back in front of us. It is clear from a search on Twitter or conversations with other teachers that a lot of the students (and their parents) have struggled to engage in all of the virtual learning they are being set. We need the students in front of us before we can respond in a meaningful way.

Aaron: Absolutely. Although there are a lot of unknowns, a good place for teachers to start, I think, is with retrieval practice. It’ll be hard to fight the temptation to just start something new, almost as a way to move forward and forget Covid-19! However, revisiting concepts and those key people and events that act as a linchpin for your sequence of learning will (hopefully) kick-start the students’ memory and increase their confidence. This will be vital for Year 10 especially.

Lindsay: Do you think that having a bank of activities that feel ‘low stakes’ but will test memory is the best way forward? Or would it be good to revisit content using other methods, such as art and music, for example?

Aaron: We will all have our own ideas – but personally, I think your first strategy is possibly the best course of action. Use quizzes, matching activities, sources and interpretations to test content retrieval, then plan ‘meatier’ activities to revisit the content, concepts, and themes that the students feel the least confident with. The Kerboodle resources for both the KS3 4th Edition History series and Oxford AQA GCSE History could come into their own here (find out more about Kerboodle and sign up for a free trial). There’s loads of resources that launch directly from the page with animations, films, and interactive activities. They focus on contextual understanding, literacy, and skills; this could be a great resource for a department planning and then tracking where the students are across classes and year groups.

Lindsay: This is going to be such a shift in mind-set for some teachers but I think ultimately, in the long term, a good one. Perhaps we will all be a bit braver sticking with content or planning revisiting sessions to make sure the key information has been remembered. I know this is good practice but it can sometimes feel like we are up against it with time – maybe this proves we do have the time.

I like the idea of the ‘meat on the bones’ activities. These activities should be ‘layered’ so that the students take the content and build the layers of vocabulary, concepts, and themes to get the bigger picture. I know most teachers (including us) are really looking forward to sharing our passion with students so perhaps taking the time to look at art, music, and literature from the period would help to enrich those sessions of retrieval.

Aaron: Spot on here, every teacher I know is keen to have their students in front of them again. There’s been this rather annoying myth that teachers have been on holiday since the lockdown started. Have we heck!! Schools have remained open for the children of key workers – and when teachers haven’t been on the in-school rota, they’ve been busy at home preparing, recording and delivering lessons, marking work, writing home-learning paper-based activities, calling student homes etc. – the list goes on. Yet, despite the obvious difficulties of the last few months, this time away for the classroom has perhaps made me appreciate the contact I have in school with students and colleagues – and might actually invigorate my teaching when I get back.

I know I miss the day-today ‘banter’ of school – and that ‘classroom buzz’ you get when you know a lesson is going well or the child that suddenly ‘gets it’ after your third different way of explaining the same idea or event.

Lindsay: I agree with you, there has been lots to miss but there are also lots of positives to take from this period of school closures. Virtual teaching has forced me to reflect on my lesson planning. There have been a few resources I have made for classes in the virtual classroom – especially those with lots of prior low attainers – that would be a really valuable resource when we are back in the physical classroom.

It also made me realise that I have been working way too hard trying to support and challenge some students during the lesson when a small amount of time creating a resource would have freed up my time to circulate and provide feedback to everyone. Some good examples of these kind of resources are available with Kerboodle. Remember too that the KS3 History, Kerboodle includes access to the Curriculum and Assessment Planning Guides. These provide further reading links as well as ideas for beyond the classroom.

Knowledge Organiser, Differentiated worksheets and animation from KS3 History 4th Edition Lessons, Resources and Assessment Kerboodle

Aaron: This is exactly what teachers’ do best though isn’t it? Reflect and pro-actively respond. I’m excited to see what learning looks like in some classrooms when we get back!

The government has made it clear that when secondary schools reopen it will not be with all students. For those Year 10 students returning in June/July and with others returning in September our advice would be to revisit the content they have already covered, and only move on when you know that the students are ready to learn something new. Hopefully, the work they have done at home will have kept them engaged – and those learning habits that you will have spent so long refining will not have disappeared.

OUP: For additional support for those who are continuing with distance learning as well as those who are returning to the classroom, Kerboodle has some fantastic resources to encourage engagement. There will also be some exciting content coming from Aaron and Lindsay to the KS3 4th edition History Kerboodle this September. This update will include brand new baseline assessments designed to assess each student’s existing knowledge on core key topics. A great starting point to get classroom learning back on track.

Lindsay Bruce is a History teacher and assistant head teacher in a secondary school in the Midlands. She most recently wrote the History Word Gap resource pack; she is part of Oxford’s KS3 History 4th Edition and the Oxford AQA GCSE History author team. Follow her on Twitter @HistoryTeach0.

Aaron Wilkes is one of the leading history authors in school publishing. He is a History teacher at St James Academy, Dudley. Aaron is the author of the new KS3 History 4th Edition series as well as part of our Oxford AQA GCSE History team.