Back to the start of the lesson…

Thanks to Anne Hooper, member of HA Secondary Committee for this blogpost. Anne continues our series reflecting on past Teaching History articles that can be dusted off, revisited and built upon in our practice today.

As a young teacher back in 2001, reading Rob Phillips’ article in TH105 had an influence on my classroom practice which is still being felt nearly twenty years later. Using ISM, Initial Stimulus Material, has now been a feature of my classroom practice for nearly two decades. Coined by Rob Phillips at the end of the 1990s, the idea of ISM was to throw a constructively critical light on the fashion for starter activities which was part of the KS3 strategy at the time. Phillips’ article highlighted how an absorbing and engaging lesson start is just as often calm, thoughtful, slow and reflective as it is fast-paced.

Phillips stressed how when used correctly, ISM could have enormous advantages in the classroom not only for arousing curiosity at the start of the lesson but also for establishing the right learning environment for subsequent lessons, particularly in terms of connecting key questions or lines of enquiry with follow-up activities including extended writing. The ISM could also cultivate conceptual understanding and enable the acquisition of tier 3 vocabulary.

An example given in the article, and one that I have used every year, is the use of the famous Dutch engraving of Charles I being executed outside Banqueting House.


Students are shown this image for an enquiry into the civil wars of the 17th century and it generates much discussion. Pupils start with simple observations, “somebody having his head chopped off”, “a large crowd”, “somebody fainting”. Through carefully considered questioning pupils are encouraged to make sense of what they are seeing and this leads them towards a particular line of enquiry. From observing the numbers in the crowd, students can make inferences from the fact that someone appears to have fainted and another has turned away in disgust. From the moment that they realise that this is the king who is being executed, the surprise and shock ensures students are demanding to know what the events were that led up to this, why the King was executed and the consequences. Thus, leading them into the enquiry.

Obviously it is not just visual sources that are great for ISM and, as this is a generic learning concept, a wide variety of forms and contexts can be used. David Ingledew reminded us about the value of using music in the classroom in his July 2020 OBHD blogpost. Indeed combining music and the visual can also be so effective when planning ISM. From an INSET attended many years ago with Ben Walsh, I was introduced to Microsoft’s Photostory package (I’m sure there are many more now that do the same thing so please let me know if you find a better one!). This allowed you to choose areas of the picture to start and finish and then then it created a moving video clip which ensured that you could really get students focused on particular areas of the image. The addition of an audio track enabled the creation of ISM which meant that students were focusing on the image but were also working out a link to the music. Although made many years ago, I find they are still really powerful when introducing a new enquiry. This term Year 8 have been looking at popular protest in the 19th century. Students have been introduced to the Rebecca Riots with a visual depiction from “Illustrated London News” accompanied by “Everyday when I wake up” from Catatonia and, when investigating the events at St Peter’s Field, they have been examining the famous Cruikshank image accompanied by “I predict a riot” by Kaiser Chiefs. This deliberately challenges students to consider who would use the term ‘riot’ to describe the events. At a time when teaching has been challenging due not only to the COVID situation, but also having all my teaching resources stuck in a teaching block that has been legally condemned, having these strategies has been so important – they may be old but they’re still effective! I recommend you read Rob Phillip’s article and get yourself a great ISM bank to draw upon – possibly for many years.

Have you recently returned to an older Teaching History article for inspiration? If so, why not share a blogpost here? Meanwhile, do follow on Twitter @histassoc and via Facebook. 

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