Overcoming the challenges of teaching the Historic Environment

A great benefit of AQA’s British Depth Study unit is the Historic Environment which is embedded into the depth study being taught. It is also a confidence booster for students as they know that the 16 mark question is guaranteed to be about that Historic Environment. Therefore, as teachers, we want to ensure students feel prepared to answer a question that accounts for 10% of their final grade.

For 2020, all four Historic Environments are battle related, which makes a change from 2019 where all were structures. My students are learning about when the Spanish threat to Elizabethan England culminated in the Spanish Armada of 1588. For the Normans, students will consider one of the most well-known dates in British history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Medievalists will look at the Battle of Stirling Bridge whilst for Restoration England they examine the Dutch raid on the Medway in 1667.

As the environment changes each year, this has given me the opportunity to reflect on how I have taught it and what I can do to ensure further success next time. I have found this at times to be challenging but also very rewarding when finding solutions that have improved the delivery of the topic and increased students’ understanding. Here are three major challenges I have sought to overcome when teaching the Historic Environment.

Challenge One: Each year AQA provide a resource booklet containing key information, picture sources and extracts from historians to aid in the teaching of that location. These are great to utilise in planning lessons and to give to students (we print a copy for each student). However, the extracts can be long and hard to access for some students.

Possible solution: The works of historians are a crucial part in giving students a representative taste of the discipline, and to help get them used to historical writing if they move onto A Level or university. The History teacher community has recently placed great emphasis on ensuring students experience this and it is something we are embedding into our curriculum from Year 7. The extracts provided in the resource booklet are a great option to use, and save some time in finding relevant extracts yourself. To make them accessible for our current GCSE students, I have used various activities to help students deconstruct and make meaning of the text. One of the best methods is ‘guided reading’, where students work through the extract by giving each paragraph a subheading and then summarise each paragraph’s key information into 2 to 3 bullet points. Elements of dual coding can also be applied, where teachers and/or students draw symbols that help demonstrate the information. Another useful activity to do as a class is to give a group of students a paragraph which they deconstruct together and then share with their peers to build up their combined understanding.

Challenge Two: Location is one of the key aspects of the site that AQA state should be considered. Indeed, with this year’s sites being battle-based, a geographical understanding of the lead up to, the event itself and its consequences are important for students to understand.

Possible solution: Never underestimate the power of a map to help students understand the history! In the AQA resource packs they often include a map of the site to use, and this year I’m really pleased that OUP has created free Historic Environment posters for all four sites. The Spanish Armada poster locates the Armada’s route to England and their return back to Spain after being defeated. I really like the clarity of the information which gives students some specific facts they can utilise in their answer and I cannot wait to use it with my students this year. The map you use can be as simple or detailed as suited to your students, and it is important to get them to do something with the map to help explain it. You can test what they have learnt by providing a blank map that they can then annotate. You could even project or (badly!) masking-tape a map outline onto the floor and walk and talk through the event. This method helps in the same way that using architectural plans of buildings works for the Historic Environment. It is an easy way to incorporate the second order concepts that the 16 mark question draws upon.

Challenge Three: To reach the top marks in the Historic Environment question, students need to link together the context of the site and wider events and developments of the whole depth study.

Possible solution: Along with making links clear when teaching the depth study, it is a good idea to pool together students’ knowledge and understanding in a motivating way. I have found that often it is the linking that students find the most daunting for this question. Last year for the Globe Theatre, once we had studied the whole topic and examined the Historic Environment in detail, I simply wrote out six key themes onto flipchart paper. Students were in groups and started on one sheet where they wrote down any links they could think of. After a few minutes they then moved to the next one in a carousel. What surprised the students was how many meaningful links they could actually make to the whole topic. I then displayed these in my classroom so we could use them in future lessons and they also served as an easy reminder to students. We used the sheets to help prepare answers for practice questions too, which again is a fundamental activity to build their confidence in successfully answering the question and showed their grasp on the wider events and developments as well.

Make clear links between Historic Environments

I hope these suggestions are useful in teaching the Historic Environment and that they help students to excel in such an important exam question.  

Sarah Hartsmith is Head of History in a secondary school in Wiltshire, with outstanding results at KS4 and KS5. She is a regular presenter at local teach meets and shares teaching and learning ideas and History resources online regularly. Follow her on Twitter @sehartsmith

2 thoughts on “Overcoming the challenges of teaching the Historic Environment

  1. R Salt says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us all. Where can I find the OUP posters please? Rebecca

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