Effective remote history teaching

In this blogpost HA Secondary Committee members Richard Kennett & Hugh Richards offer their thoughts about effective remote history teaching. 

Although updates from the DfE are coming to schools quicker than William’s cavalry on Senlac Hill we can probably say with some certainty that KS3 students will not be returning to our schools this academic year. Year 10 and Year 12 might but in what form (at current time of writing on 24th May) seems quite uncertain. 

Remote teaching, whether we like it not, is here to stay. At least for Term 6 and possibly into the next academic year. There are so many resources to choose from online (from the HA’s own resource hub, to Oak Academy, to BBC Bitesize, to the plethora shared on social media) it is normal to feel quite overwhelmed. So after having set lessons for the last 7 weeks (it really does feel longer) we thought we would pause, reflect and share what has gone well for us. We are far from saying we are experts but the following tips have worked for us. At the end of this blog we have set up a form for you to share what has worked for you. We will then write a follow up blog with your ideas. But before we do that here are ours:

Tip 1: More than ever, we need to pick and choose

In many cases, students are unable to work for five hours a day, let alone the additional one or two they might normally have as homework. We have to be very realistic here and remember that History is only one part of their curriculum. Let’s say a student is able to average as much as 3 hours a day, given the constraints of technology, family context and home working environment. In this case, the share of that time that History can claim might be around thirty minutes to an hour each week. Therefore we need to select the core concepts and topics that will be of most value to the students going forward and focus our compulsory learning on that. As much as it pains us to say it History will not be the most important subject for most of our students.

Tip 2: Less is more

Building on what we have just said you also need to remember that you cannot emulate what you do in the classroom. In a single lesson you could look at a beautiful source, analyse a piece scholarship, do a classic card sort and then begin an essay. At home this will not work. We need to do much less. Far less. We have both recently just been focusing on knowledge acquisition and getting our students to build a clear narrative of the topics we study. This will then provide a strong foundation when they return.

But there is also a case here for a ‘low floor, high ceiling’ approach – we have been designing tasks with a tight core of knowledge that needs to be the focus for those with very little time, resources or commitment, but which have structured and signposted avenues for taking the study and research much further, for students who are able to. For example, looking at the core social and economic impacts of the Industrial Revolution is crucial for Year 8s who will return to a 20th Century Year 9 course, but this could be extended with research into local stories and case studies, or with Meanwhile, Elsewhere tasks to broaden their understanding of the time period.  

Tip 3: Clear explanation is fundamental

Looking at social media it is clear that everyone is having the same problem with home learning – getting your instructions or delivery crystal clear. We’ve both seen the vast numbers of teachers who have had emails from students who complain “they just don’t get it”. We’ve had these messages too but after some experimentation we’ve found that video hugely helps. Teachers like to talk and getting down in words the instructions we would deliver orally in class is super difficult. This is where video can help. Either videoing yourself explaining that weeks learning or adding narration to a PowerPoint is dead easy and technology these days means we have this power in our pockets. Plus it importantly adds a human touch in a time when we are so distant from one another.

Tip 4: The enquiry question is still queen

In our normal lessons we both use enquiry questions to frame the learning. This is the foundation of our curriculum. With home learning this is no different. Rather than setting one task after another each week we have used an enquiry question to frame three or four weeks work. Each task is linked to the question so student understanding builds towards it. Then at the end of the three or four week period the students are given an opportunity to answer the enquiry question. This helps tie everything together, is familiar to our students as this is what we do in class and provides the structure that might otherwise be lacking.

Corinne Goullée (@CorinneGoullée) has blogged about this and is far more eloquent than we are.

Tip 5: Prepare for blended

Although it looks very likely that Yr10 and Yr12 will be returning to school in Term 6 in most cases this will not look like normal. Especially when only 25% of the cohort is allowed on site at a time. Your lessons cannot be just a repeat of what you normally do. We need to be prepared for a blended approach to learning where the majority of learning takes place remotely but is supplemented by some short periods of face to face learning in small groups.

This will likely involve a model of ‘flipped learning.’ In a nutshell, we need to set straightforward content-acquisition tasks at home, for example guided reading or comprehension tasks, and use any face-to-face time to undertake more complex tasks – efficiently identifying and clearing up misunderstandings, modelling writing and undertaking the elements students struggle most with. What questions we ask and how we ask them in these sessions will be fundamental.

This is going to be out of our comfort zone for most teachers. We haven’t had to teach like this before and we are going to need to think about what we do and how we do it carefully. Especially so when lots of our students are going to feel very anxious about their return.

Tip 6: Plan for the initial return

Although we franky don’t know when, and in what format, contact will resume, we can prepare somewhat for this. It is tempting to think that we should start with a significant assessment package to see ‘where the gaps are’ in what they have been set while away. However, in our contexts, we already know there are big gaps and they are different student-to-student. Therefore a whole raft of assessments, quizzes and the like won’t tell us anything significantly different to what we already know. Therefore the very precious face-to-face time should perhaps be devoted to efficiently re-teaching what they have been working on in the last 7 weeks.  

Once you take this decision, there is some planning that can be done now. For example, as you set your Year 10 groups work, plan some resources to help you recap briskly and work on misconceptions when they return. This is very context-dependent, as you will likely have some students who have done none of the set work. This contact time will take careful planning, which will need to take account of how your school is intending to deliver contact with Year 10, but it’s probably possible to design some small, high-impact resources even at this stage. Again, knowing what content is absolutely core will help you focus this time. 

What about you?

That’s enough from us. What has worked for you? Please do share how you have met the challenge of remote teaching. Share what has worked and maybe what hasn’t. We’ll then collate the responses in a follow up blog.

Survey to collect your responses about effective history teaching during lockdown

Thanks for joining the conversation about what we have learnt that we need to take forward. The Historical Association is the subject association for history teachers – please find more news, support and information on the website and follow us on Facebook and @histassoc.   

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