Virtual Learning in History: tips and advice from Lindsay Bruce

Virtual Learning in History

The past few weeks have been hard. It’s hardly a new insight, but for teachers – a group that likes to be in control – this has been particularly tough! Working from home and trying to get the children we teach to learn virtually is a unique situation that creates the following areas of concern:

Every blog I’ve read, tweet I’ve seen and conversation I have had since schools closed have featured the concern we all have for the vulnerable children we teach. There are so many reasons to worry about some of the children and their families – not being able to see their faces every day has been hard.

Then there is the carefully planned curriculum that had you starting your brand new topic after Easter. Everything was geared up for this moment and now you are left with the decision to carry on or revisit previous content (more on that later).

And the books! The books you knew were so important but even more so for that Ofsted visit that’s due. The beautiful books that are either at home being written in without you reminding the owner to present their work neatly, or at school sitting there not bearing witness to the sequence of learning you are really proud of.

However, in the face of all these, and many other problems surrounding the new arrangements, perhaps you subscribe to the Caitlin Moran school of thought. In her column in The Times on 4th April she proposed – based on her experience of being homeschooled – that children should just be left to it; they’ll soon get bored enough and want to learn.

But, for all its merits, I don’t see a big stampede from head teacher Twitterati advocating such a laissez-faire approach.

It’s hard enough trying to be the best teacher I want to be when I’m actually in the building; try being sat on your sofa, in your pyjamas, and with a three-year-old trying wrestling moves on you: all while trying to Zoom conference call on a flaky internet connection.  To combat the increasing sense of isolation I’m feeling, I’ve tried gossiping with the houseplants but it’s not the same.  

So I’ve been encouraged by the History teaching community on Twitter and have enjoyed the tips on how to adapt to the virtual classroom by practitioners such as Doug Lemov.

After 3 weeks of virtual learning, here are my tips for setting work for your History classes:

  • Keep it simple – you are not there to explain the activity that you have set or help when students have a crisis of confidence. We are perhaps expecting teenagers to be a lot more resilient than they are ready to be when we set complex activities that require a lot of thought when applying knowledge. This goes for the knowledge we are providing too – keep it simple. You can add the meat onto the bones when the children are back in front of you.
  • Use videos – as history teachers we are so lucky to have clips, documentaries, dramas, and films that can consolidate and keep knowledge fresh. I have been recording my voice delivering content, linking to key terms and prior learning but I know that the clips I provide for consolidation and revisiting are working wonders.
  • Dual coding – there are so many excellent examples of this from on edu-Twitter. When setting work, leaving knowledge to read, or explaining application, use dual coding. This helps keep everything simple without diluting the content. It will aid retention for when you revisit the concepts when we are back in school.

I have seen lots of great conversations about curriculum and department future planning. Those conversations should be centred on how to make this easier for staff and students; not about how to make this normal.

  • Don’t start the new topic – I’m sure this point will really divide opinion, but save the new topic – especially for KS4. Wait until you have your students back in front of you. Who knows what the transition back into school will be like but how incredible will it be for the first History lesson back to be fresh and have you, at the front, in real-life, really excited about the new unit? Until then set revision and consolidation work – you’ve got the time.
  • Use Kerboodle for both KS3 and KS4 – set quizzes and activities that have step-by-step instructions and are differentiated. There are animations and end of chapter assessments that will keep students engaged. You can get free access to Kerboodle now by simply contacting your local educational consultant, here. OUP has also created home learning packs for KS3, GCSE and A Level that are clear and engaging, you can download these here.
  • Give articles and recommend books – the History teacher community is so supportive with requests like this. The Teacher Guides from the Aaron Wilkes KS3 series have features for Further Reading and Beyond the Classroom. They range from BBC Bitesize clips to novels, documentaries, films and research projects on people and events that will enrich content already taught.

Finally, I know it is hard when you have prepared a lesson that students have not engaged with as well as they would have in class, but temper your feedback. Remember behind every piece of feedback is a child who feels a bit lost and a parent who is trying their hardest.

History teachers are passionate about their subject and curriculum. We continue to research, watch films, read books, and even go on holidays that are linked to the topics we teach. That passion is the secret to our virtual teaching success. Ask students to find out more, deepen their understanding, and learn to read History for pleasure. When we return you can use your skill and know-how to turn that back into progress and help to ensure what Geoff Barton describes as “a fresh start…to re-establish patterns of learning, habits of schooling, the re-socialisation of the UK’s young people.”

Lindsay Bruce on Virtual Learning

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.

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