Help! – we’re under scrutiny for our poor results…

Last week the Historical Association was contacted by a history teacher member wanting help. The department they work in is under scrutiny for ‘poor’ results. The advice the department had been given was to differentiate all GCSE lessons into 3 or maybe 4 pathways. The department has mixed ability teaching groups with targets ranging from 2-8.

They just knew this didn’t seem like a good idea and so contacted the HA for advice and reassurance. The request was passed on to Secondary Committee members. Over the course of a few hours e-mail suggestions rolled in and here they are summarised, in case anyone else finds themself in a similar position. They are from the ‘hive mind’ at work in term time and in a hurry, they are not definitive suggestions. However, they are research based and/or from teachers with many years’ of experience who get strong results with students. We all agree, differentiated pathways are not the answer!

Ideas in no particular order:

  • Take time and teach the whole course properly the first time around. Resist suggestions that finishing by Christmas so there is more time for revision is a good idea. It is not! Thorough teaching of the concepts, the events and people, the chronology, the sense of period and place is needed.
  • Get to know exactly what the exam board requires and then do NOT do constant exam question practice. DO do lots of retrieval practice as you carefully build the knowledge lesson by lesson.
  • Get a visualiser and do lots of modelling. Plan answers together, write sections of answers together, get students to revise at home, do writing in class. As part of this, do lots of confidence coaching and build in peer checking.
  • If a student has a low target grade, show them what a 2-mark answer looks like. It can be encouraging to see how they can pick up marks without writing too much. It can help build some confidence and show students that answers do not have to be perfect. That helps students to not just leave out answers, but to feel that they can ‘have a go’.
  • Don’t write over-complicated writing frames, instead get students used to planning using a blank sheet of paper – yes, even lower attaining students.  It’s what they have to do in the exam! (There is a Teaching History article being written on this by Sally Burnham and Hugh Richards – look out for it later this year.)
  • Take time as a team to identify the roots of the problem and don’t just fall back on ‘they don’t revise’ or ‘it’s the teaching and learning’. Students struggle or underperform for many reasons but most often because they don’t know enough yet, or understand the key vocab/ ideas sufficiently fluently to select and deploy them. Look at the order in which you are teaching things, reviewing content and the pace at which you are going.
  • Think about each child as you know them and make specific adjustments for specific children.
  • Have the courage to hold back and let students grapple and find a foothold with work before you dive in to save them – use the hover/ monitor strategy to step in as needed. Don’t plan assuming that all students will have problems.
  • Think about teaching a brief overview that plants the key names and ideas, gives pupils the knowledge scaffold to refer back to and provides a chance to make connections/ memorable links. This will also build motivation and fuel curiosity – yes even about germ theory of disease!
  • Have one simple ‘read it , plan as we go, check at the end’ approach to every task rather than multiple tricks and prompts for different question types. This builds resilience.
  • Teach to the top and scaffold for the others.
  • Get hold of a couple of scripts from last year to see where students are ‘going wrong’ – is it knowledge/writing style/timing? This could help with diagnosis of weaker areas and then these could be focused on in planning.
  • Plan Key Stage 3 so it does not repeat GCSE content, but does build up period and wider knowledge they will need and make sure students feel confident with substantive and disciplinary concepts before GCSE starts.

Some of the research behind all this (and against differentiation pathways):

  • UCL have banks of research on grouping practices and an excellent video for schools to prompt discussion 
  • Work by Florian and Black (2010) vis inclusive pedagogies. They argue that effective inclusion requires a shift in teaching and learning from an approach that works for most learners existing alongside something ‘additional’ or ‘different’ for those (some) who experience difficulties, towards one that involves the development of a rich learning community characterised by learning opportunities that are sufficiently made available for everyone, so that all learners are able to participate in classroom life. Such an inclusive approach should be based on looking at the learning needs of all students, identifying strengths and barriers to learning, and personalising learning to meet needs and ensure that students achieve their potential.
  • This is further borne out by the work of Hart et al (2010) learning without limits who highlight the pernicious impact that impact labelling has on teachers’ curriculum and pupils. There is a chapter in the book that outlines how a history teacher acts on this research.
  • Richard Kerridge took some of these ideas and applied them to his history students and you can find this in his article in Teaching History 168.
  • Richard Harris’ article in Teaching History 118 argues that differentiation does not have to mean different.

We hope that this is reassuring and helpful to colleagues. Supporting history teachers to be effective is a key role of @histassoc and there is a great pool of knowledge about how to teach history well that we can all draw upon.



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