The Art of the Paragraph

Over the years, I have come to see myself as almost as much a teacher of writing as I am of history. However, it has taken a long time for me to feel satisfied that I am doing this part of the job well.

In Key Stage 3 history at West London Free School, we alternate between ‘reading lessons’ and ‘writing lessons’ (see here). This means round half of our lessons are dedicated to planning and writing a single paragraph in answer to a question. I wrote about the structure of these ‘writing lessons’ in March, but – as you may be able to tell – I was not entirely satisfied: ‘My current approach is a big improvement, but it is far from the finished product.’

The problem with the lessons can be seen in the format of the slide below, which we were using last year. To be honest, it was a bit crap.


Problem A: Structure

The first problem was that ‘How to write an explanation paragraph’ box on the right hand side of the slide. I hoped that by having this appear every lesson, pupils would automatize the principles. Instead, each time I started recapping on these instructions, I could see pupils switch off and lose concentration. I was always explaining these instructions in the abstract, and – as Willingham writes – students struggle with abstraction. I needed to make the instructions concrete, by embedding them in real examples of pupil work.


Since September, in every writing lesson I have included an exemplar paragraph from the previous week’s writing lesson. We read it together as a class, and discuss what the pupil has done well. I consistently use the same annotations to ensure that pupils are being exposed to repeated examples of the same principles in different contexts, and internalising them.

See below two examples from a unit our Year 9s have been learning on the Birth of the British Empire.

Lesson 4_India

Lesson 6_Australia

It is a bit of a faff going to the scanner each time you mark a class set of books, but it is proving hugely beneficial in ensuring our pupils understand how to structure their paragraphs. Whenever a pupil asks, ‘what do you mean ‘explain more’?’, I can immediately show a real and meaningful example of another pupil doing this well.

Problem 2: Vocabulary

Two experiences last year made me re-evaluate how fundamental explicit vocabulary instruction is for teaching historical writing. The first was attending Jim Carroll’s fascinating talk ‘Grammar. Nazis.’ at the Historical Association annual conference, and reading his article in Teaching History 163. I was particularly taken by his teaching of ‘lexicogrammatical chunks’ to his A-level class for ascribing significance to different causes of the Salem Witch trials: ‘decisive role’; ‘crucial factor’; ‘ultimate responsibly’ and so on.

The second was reading Isobel Beck’s fantastic book Bringing Words to Life (for a summary, see David Didau here). Beck breaks language down into three tiers of vocabulary:

  • Tier 1: Everyday words that pupils enter school already knowing – ship, sea, country, war, danger.
  • Tier 2: Words often used in written text, but rare in conversation – systematic, unprecedented, authority, prosperity, domination.
  • Tier 3: Subject specific academic language – Aborigine, Mughal Empire, colonisation, mercantilism, treaty.

I had long seen the benefit of explicitly teaching Tier 3 vocabulary: most of my lessons have some historical ‘keywords’ and definitions. However, I always assumed that pupils would pick up important Tier 2 vocabulary incidentally. Of course, the great majority of pupils do not.

Tier 2 vocabulary is vitally important in history because it opens up new avenues of arguments that pupils are able to make. There are some arguments are simply impossible to make if pupils do not have the requisite Tier 2 vocabulary.

For example, last year I asked my pupils to write a paragraph answering the question: ‘Did the British intend to add India to its Empire?’ It is sometimes argued that the early stages of British colonisation in India were less by East India Company Directors or politicians sitting in London, and more by the ambitious officers in the East India Company – such as Robert Clive – who took advantage of the crumbling power of the Mughal Empire.

One’s ability to make such an argument is greatly enhanced by a working knowledge of the adjective ‘opportunistic’ (a classic Tier 2 word). The word ‘opportunistic’ was included in the textbook chapter on India, and I used it in my own explanations, but not a single Year 9 pupil picked up the word and made it their own in their writing last year. Passing reference was not enough – I needed to teach the word ‘opportunistic’ explicitly.

Solution 2: Vocabulary

Inspired by both Carroll and Beck, I resolved to place far more emphasis on vocabulary whilst planning writing lessons. Not just the ‘Tier 3’ historical keywords, but also the ‘Tier 2’ vocabulary which pupils are unlikely to pick up implicitly.

Therefore, I redesigned the slide we use in writing lessons. I promoted the ‘keywords’ box from a derisory portion of the bottom left-hand side, to bang in the middle of the slide, with a lot of surrounding space for me to annotate and add to words as we discuss them in class. And crucially, the box now includes a lot of Tier 2 vocabulary such as ‘trade’, ‘opportunistic’, ‘intentional’, ‘claimed [a territory]’, ‘systematic [killing]’ or ‘decrease’.

Lesson 4_India2

Lesson 6_Australia2

Prior to writing their paragraphs, I ask pupils to copy down these words into their books in three columns, as they appear on the board. This provides a clear opportunity to discuss the meaning and relevance of some of the most important words, and consider how pupils might use them in their arguments. I stress that pupils don’t need to use every word in the list, and certainly don’t need to use them in any particular order. But I do encourage pupils to tick off the words they do use as they write.


This emphasis on explicitly teaching paragraph structure and vocabulary to pupils has had a huge effect on the quality of their writing. And this simple change has made our writing lessons far more purposeful. I now enjoy teaching writing lessons as much as I enjoy content lessons – a bit change from last year.

Below are some examples of paragraphs from our Year 9 unit on the Birth of the British Empire. Purposefully, I have not uploaded paragraphs written by star students, who tend to write well-structured paragraphs with relative ease. Instead, they are taken from students whose written work has shown real improvements. Of course, some misconceptions and errors remain, but these paragraphs are far richer in detail and clarity of argument than their equivalents this time last year.

‘If you haven’t taught it, don’t expect pupils to know it.’ This is one of my guiding principles for teaching. For effective historical writing, explicit teaching of historical knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. We also need to teach paragraph structure and Tier 2 vocabulary. The approach outline above is – I think – the best I have found so far for doing so.

QUESTION: What motivated the British to settle colonies in North America during the 17th Century?


QUESTION: Did the British intend to add India to its Empire? 


QUESTION: Did the British colonise Australia on purpose? 


QUESTION: How important was the role of the Royal Navy in the birth of the British Empire?



Planning a knowledge-based scheme of work. Part 3: Summative Assessment

Like many teachers, I have spent the last week marking end of year exams for Key Stage 3. Having put some thought into the design of these exams, I have – perhaps for the first time – found this to be an instructive and, dare I say it, enjoyable process.

For the sake of this blog post, I am going to focus on our Year 8 exam, covering Early Modern Britain and the Age of Encounters. All our KS3 assessments share a similar format, and you can view them here, with examples from Year 7, Year 8 and Year 9.

In the past, I have struggled to find a satisfactory format for end of year exams, falling back on the unimaginative (and unhelpful) practice of mirroring GCSE examinations. Reading Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress, and talking to colleagues at the Historical Association Conference in May, helped me narrow my focus. At WLFS, the construct we want to assess in KS3 history boils down to three outcomes (four in the case of Year 9). Do pupils have:

  1. an accurate chronological framework of the period studied?
  2. a broad knowledge of the period studied?
  3. the ability to construct well-evidenced historical arguments?
  4. the ability to comment on the purpose and usefulness of historical sources? (Year 9)

Our end of year exams now mirror those outcomes. At Year 7 and 8, the exam consists of three sections:

  • Section 1: Chronology test /5 marks.
  • Section 2: Multiple choice quiz /20 marks
  • Section 3: Essay /25 marks

Section 1: Chronology test

The chronology test for Year 8 involved linking 10 events with 10 dates. The events were chosen from a list of 25 dates included in the pupils’ revision guide, spanning from 1453 to 1721. We didn’t expect pupils to memorise all of the dates listed. But if they had a good understanding of the historical narrative, and knew some of the most important dates (such as 1588 and 1688), then they would – we hoped – be able to piece together the correct answer.

Pupils gained half a mark per correct answer. As a test item, the chronology test tended towards bifurcation: in all, 46% scored 5 out of 5, but with another a large percentage clumped towards the bottom end. Next year, we need to do more to ensure a strong chronological understanding amongst all our pupils. Perhaps our pupils should memorise all 25 dates?

Section 2: Multiple choice quiz

This quizzing portion of the exam has been designed to assess the whole domain of the Year 8 curriculum, in a way that the essay question could not.

In Making Good Progress, Daisy recommends using multiple choice questions for formative assessment. Though a good idea in principle, I have found MCQs too time-consuming to create, and too cumbersome to mark, on an ongoing basis. However, for our summative end of year exam, the investment in creating and MCQs was time well spent.

Once pupils completed their exams, our department entered all of the pupil answers into a question-level analysis spreadsheet (see here), so that we could see which questions pupils struggled with, and which questions pupils breezed through. Daisy suggests this is useful for highlighting pupil misconceptions, which it was. But I did wonder whether the varying success rates for different questions was more dependent on the design of the question, rather than the quality of pupil understanding.

MCQ question level analysis

For example, this was the most challenging question for our pupils.

4. Which Catholic martyr did Henry VIII execute for refusing to give up his religion?
a. Thomas More
b. Thomas Wolsey
c. Thomas Cromwell
d. Thomas Cranmer
Success rate: 39%

The low success rate clearly has a lot to do with the proximity of the distractors: parents at the end of the fifteenth-century really liked the name ‘Thomas’.

Question 4 tested an item of declarative knowledge, but the next most challenging question for our Year 8 pupils probed their understanding on a more conceptual level, in the way that Christodoulou argues MCQs are well equipped to do.

20. How was the power of Georgian Kings further limited by ‘Parliamentary government’?
a. The king was not allowed to be a Catholic
b. The king could only choose ministers who had the support of Parliament
c. The king could not start wars without Parliament’s permission
d. Parliament had the power to appoint and dismiss the king
Success rate: 44%

The question hinged on the word ‘further’, and required pupils to discriminate between the outcomes of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and the outcomes of the development of Parliamentary Government under George I. At the other end of the scale, the question pupils found easiest did surprise me.

17. What title was Oliver Cromwell given to rule England in 1653?
a. Lord Protector
b. King
c. Prime Minister
d. Lord Chancellor
Success rate: 98%

I thought I was on to something, as many pupils had written about Cromwell as ‘King’ during the year. But by the time of the exam, not a single pupil chose that distractor. Three did choose ‘Lord Chancellor’. Again, the question with the second highest success rate was not one I thought particularly easy when writing it:

18. What did the Bill of Rights do?
a. secured the legal rights of Parliament and limited the monarch’s power
b. banned the monarchy, and establishing England as a Commonwealth
c. gave equal political rights to all people in England
d. united England and Scotland into a single Kingdom
Success rate: 94%

But, our analysis shows this question was simply too easy, and the distractors too dissimilar. Perhaps the most helpful outcome of this question level analysis has been to hone in on which questions worked well, and which did not – allowing us to refine the writing of the MCQs in years to come.

Section 3: Essay

Lastly, we set a mini-essay, with clear instructions that pupils were to write three paragraphs: two sides of an argument and a conclusion. With around half an hour to complete the essay, this seemed like a reasonable demand.

Throughout the year, our Year 8 pupils wrote five essays. They were on Henry VIII and the Reformation; The Age of Encounters; the Later Tudors; the English Civil War; and the late Stuarts/early Georgians. We chose two essays questions from these five units, based on the same enquiry as the earlier essay question. We were not interested in tripping up pupils with fiendishly difficult questions. Rather, we wanted straightforward essay questions that gave pupils the best chance of marshalling their knowledge to support a reasoned historical argument. The two questions pupils had the choice of answering were:

  1. ‘The invention of the Printing Press was the most important event that took place in Early Modern Europe.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  2. ‘Charles I only had himself to blame for his execution in 1649’. To what extent do you agree with this statement?

To mark the essays, individual teachers grouped them according to whether they were A* to E in quality. We then met as a department, saw how consistent the judgements were, made some adjustments, and assigned a numerical mark out of 25 to each script. It was a low tech version of comparative judgement, which seemed to work pretty well.

The correlation between pupil outcomes in the multiple choice questions, with pupil outcomes in the essay, was 0.7. Most helpfully, this highlights for our department those pupils who understanding what we study, but still struggle with written work.


Next year, we will use a selection of this year’s essays as exemplification material for each grade band, replacing the need for a mark scheme.

So that you can see how WLFS pupils are getting on with a knowledge-based curriculum, here are the Year 8 exemplification essays we will use. Each grade band contains three exemplar essays. Having been written under timed conditions, during exam week, on an unknown question, the quality of did take a dip compared with the essays pupils have written throughout the year. However, I was still pleased with the way in which pupils were able to organise their knowledge into convincing historical arguments.

There is still much to work on (particularly on the explicit teaching of different lines of argument – more to follow), but I am happy that our KS3 curriculum is now equipping pupils with a deep well of powerful knowledge to inform their historical thinking.

A star-grade exemplars

A-grade exemplars

B-grade exemplars

C-grade exemplars

Child-centred teaching: when did it all begin?

Almost three years ago, I wrote a book entitled Progressively Worse. The first half of the book is a history of teaching methods from the 1960s to today. My thesis was that the spread of progressive education was one reason why the increases in expenditure on education over the past half-century has been met with (as far as we can tell) no improvement in pupil outcomes.

I defined progressive education as the application of individual freedom and an aversion towards adult authority to the realm of children’s education.

Many people took issue with the book’s argument, normally for one of two reasons. Either they argued progressive education is not as damaging as I claimed, or that progressive education has not come to dominate British schools since the 1960s in the way I described.

That second accusation was always far harder to counteract. Progressive education is a culture, and culture is notoriously difficult for a historian to evidence or measure. That is until the arrival of Google Ngrams Viewer.

Google Ngram Viewer is an online search engine that charts the frequency of words or phrases in an enormous corpus of printed material from 1500 to 2000. In a couple of clicks, you can chart the popularity or genealogy of a word or idea through five centuries – an astonishing historical tool. I have lost many an hour to playing around on it.

I wish that I had known about this tool when writing Progressively Worse. A simple Ngram search demonstrates the rise and rise of references to child-centred teaching methods in Britain since the mid-1960s .

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-18-34-13By way of comparison, look at the steady decline since the mid-1960s in references to the rather more traditional practice of ‘learning by heart’.


Of course, an increase in written references to child-centred teaching methods does not necessarily mean an increase in their use in the classroom. But it takes quite some leap of imagination to believe that the increased popularity evident in the Ngram Viewer had no impact on how children were taught over the past few decades.

In years to come, perhaps the mid 2010s will be seen as another turning point, when references to ‘active learning’, ‘independent learning’ and ‘learning styles’ began their gradual decline.

Planning a knowledge-based scheme of work. Part 2: Writing

“The amount and quality of writing students do in your classroom are two of the most important determinants of their academic success.… By having students write more, we cause them to push their ideas from vague notion (developing idea) to complete thought.”

Doug Lemov

Over the summer holidays, I read Chapter 8 of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion – ‘Building ratio through writing’. It was a revelation. Coming back to the classroom after a year away, I knew that the aspect of my practice I most wanted to improve was pupils’ extended writing.

I teach history, so pupils had always written a lot during my lessons. But the writing tasks tended to be a bit of an afterthought, and were too varied and ill thought through. A historical explanation here, a bit of source analysis there, maybe a ‘historical empathy’ task to mix things up: ‘Imagine you were an Anglo-Saxon monk in Lindisfarne in 793 AD…’

This was not good enough. The ability to communicate in written prose about the past in a way that is clear, coherent and informed is one of the most important pupil outcomes that I want to achieve from Key Stage 3 history. To make this happen, I was going to need to think much harder about writing lessons.

Over the summer, I talked to Jonny Porter from Michaela Community School about what ‘deliberate practice’ means for secondary humanities subjects. This was my second revelation. Jonny made me realise that if an essay is the final outcome of a unit of work, then each shorter writing task should be a building block towards that.

Each KS3 history unit that we plan at WLFS now has the same structure: alternating reading lessons and writing lessons for around five weeks, followed by planning and writing an essay during the last week of term (see here). Having decided the final essay question, we plan backwards to ensure the writing lessons provide the necessary building blocks for pupils to complete the final essay.

In addition, I try to ensure that each writing task is reasonably similar. This means that when I deliver whole class feedback on the previous week’s works, pupils can act upon suggested improvements immediately in that week’s work.

For example, the final essay for the Year 8 ‘Age of Encounters’ unit (see here) was: ‘To what extent did Italy lead the European Age of Encounters?’. Pupils had four writing lessons leading up to it, during which they planned and wrote answers to the following questions:

  • Lesson 2: ‘Why did the Renaissance begin in Italy during the fifteenth century?’
  • Lesson 4: ‘What posed a greater threat to the authority of the Catholic Church: Galileo or the printing press?’
  • Lesson 6: ‘Why was Vasco de Gama’s first voyage to India in 1499 a turning point in European history?’
  • Lesson 8: ‘Was Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America the most significant achievement of Renaissance Europe?’

When it comes to teaching writing lessons, I am still feeling my way. My current approach is a big improvement, but it is far from the finished product. As they currently stand, the general structure for these lessons is:

  • 10 minutes: recap on content from the preceeding reading lesson.
  • 15 minutes: explain the question, and discuss ideas as a whole class (perhaps doing some planning with a spider diagram, or a ‘for/against’ chart). Lemov calls this ‘Prime the Pump’.
  • 5 minutes: whole-class feedback on previous week’s written work.
  • 25 minutes: write.

Leaving 25 clear minutes at the end of the lesson for writing is always a struggle. Often it becomes more like 15, so I have to be vigilant with myself not to let the recap, discussion, planning and feedback go on too long.

I find the biggest challenge in getting writing lessons right is striking the correct balance between guidance and autonomy: too much autonomy and pupils flounder and write low-quality prose; too much guidance, and pupils do not think for themselves, writing stilted, mechanistic prose (‘My evidence for this point is…’).

Having experimented with a lot of different approaches, I put together the following slide at the end of last term. We are now using variations of it for every writing lesson.


A bad opening sentence can throw a whole paragraph off course, so I am happy to offer guidance here. Pupils pitch ideas about how to finish the sentence on the slide. In this case, something like ‘…its city states had wealthy patrons who could sponsor artists and thinkers’ would do nicely. For the rest of the paragraph pupils write freely, but have to include as many of the keywords on the slide as possible.

The instructions on the right had side of the slide will stay broadly the same from lesson to lesson. This means that every writing lesson reinforces for pupils what the WLFS history department deem to be the components of a good paragraph (though your thoughts may be very different – suggestions for improvements are very welcome!).

I now use the phrase ‘detailed explanation’ to describe the meat of the paragraph, instead of the Evidence-Explain of the classic P.E.E structure. So often in history, the only way to explain evidence is by providing further evidence. Therefore, telling pupils that evidence and explanation are separate parts of the paragraph does not – I believe – encourage good historical writing.

Below, I have posted some examples of pupil work from the ‘Age of Encounters’ unit. Reading pupils’ written work after a lesson always gives me both bursts of joy and pangs of despair. But I hope that as our guidance on good historical writing becomes clearer and more consistent, pupils’ written work will keep on improving.

In my next post on marking, assessment and feedback, I will explain how we: weave quizzing throughout the unit; give revision and reading homeworks; plan for the final essay; and use whole-class feedback to ensure that the quality of written work in lessons remains high.




Reflections on the conference in Hammersmith


‘History is philosophy teaching by examples.’


Thucydides’ observation kept coming back to me during the inaugural West London Free School History Conference on Saturday, first whilst listening to Christine Counsell’s opening keynote speech. As part of her stirring cri de cœur for knowledge-based history teaching, Christine argued knowledge empowers young people to engage in the conversations of the privileged.

By way of demonstration, Christine invited delegates to read a couple of paragraphs from Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. The extract ends with Schama describing the impact of the Norman invasion as follows: ‘And it’s a truism that every spring, the grass came up green again. This year, however, there were bones under the buttercups.’

Though taken from a ‘coffee table’ book by a popular historian, Christine catalogued the considerable number of abstract historical concepts a reader would need to understand to make sense of this text: the structure of medieval society, the rules of conquest, the working life of a peasants and slaves, vassalage, lordship, and so on.

For us history teachers, this knowledge is so automatic that it is easy to take for granted, and not remember that at some point in our lives it has to be learnt. As Christine said (I paraphrase) ‘like water to a fish, the knowledge that we swim in is so easy not to notice as we are so surrounded by it.’

This got me thinking about Professor Daniel Willingham on abstractions in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? In Chapter 4, Willingham writes:

‘Abstraction is the goal of schooling. The teacher wants students to be able to apply classroom learning in new contexts, including those outside of school. The challenge is that the mind does not care for abstractions. The mind prefers the concrete. That’s why, when we encounter an abstract principle… we ask for a concrete example to help us understand.’

Our history curriculum at Key Stage 3 – which I was talking about in relation to my Knowing History textbooks – is full of concrete examples which illustrate abstract principles. Pupils encounter conquest through the Normans; social hierarchy through the feudal system; dictatorship through Cromwell; limited government through the Glorious Revolution; and imperialism through eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. Not to mention dozens of other events illustrating concepts as wide ranging as industrialisation, religious tolerance, rebellion, civil war, propaganda, revolution, crusading, and tyranny.

As Willingham explains, it is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to use and understand abstractions without learning them first through concrete examples. The more concrete examples on which you can draw, the richer and better nuanced your understanding of the abstraction becomes.

School history has the ability to furnish pupils with a treasure trove of concrete examples of abstract ideas, upon which they can draw for the rest of their lives. To extend Thucydides’ claim, history is not just philosophy by examples. It is sociology, politics, economics, geography, anthropology, theology – in essence, the whole of human experience – by examples.

Want to think about religious sectarianism? Look to the Counter Reformation, the Gunpowder Plot, or Irish Independence. Want to think about different ways in which society cares for the poor? Look to medieval monasteries, the Tudor poor laws, or the Victorian workhouse. Want to think about the particularly brutal nature of civil wars? Look to the Anarchy, the Wars of the Roses or the English Civil War.

If this use of prior knowledge to understand new content is real, shouldn’t we study it in more detail? That is precisely what Heather Fearn has been doing for her Masters thesis. With only one chance to attend someone else’s session at the WLFS History Conference, I chose Heather’s, and did not regret it.

The Oxford University History Aptitude test is designed to assess sixth formers ‘historical aptitude’ by giving them an extract from a historical text on a reasonably unusual subject – such as medieval magic – to read and understand. As the preamble states, ‘you do not need to know anything about the subject to answer the questions below’.

Heather’s contention is that it is those pupils who have a wide and varied knowledge of different historical periods who are best equipped to read and understand an unseen historical text. What Oxford University describe as ‘historical aptitude’ is really historical knowledge in disguise. To demonstrate this, Heather has devised her own historical aptitude tests. After reading an extract and answering some questions, Heather asked pupils to ‘Explain how any historical or general knowledge you remember has helped you make sense of this passage.’

Heather’s results are fascinating. Her pupils readily narrate the phenomenon that Willingham describes, to explain how they use concrete examples from their long-term memories to understand abstract terms in new contexts. Pupils, faced with a text describing Mao Zedong from the Penguin History of Modern China, made extensive links with Hitler and Stalin to understand features of his rule, such as revolution, dictatorship, the nuclear arms race, charismatic leadership, and the use of propaganda. One of Heather’s pupils finished her excellent response by writing:

‘With my own knowledge of Nazi Germany, the Cold War and this passage on Mao Zedong, I can see the similarities between both leaders and how they control their countries. Much like many different parents raise their children in different ways, many different leaders raise their countries in different ways. Whether it is communism, democracy, or totalitarianism, both Mao and other dictators alike we have studied on our lessons want what is best for their countries, no matter what the sacrifice.’

What a lovely thing to read. A pupil explaining what so many history teachers have always instinctively known: knowledge begets knowledge.

During his closing comments, the brilliant Professor Robert Tombs warned of seeing too much of the present in the past. Of course, this is true when it comes to warping history to suit contemporary political narratives. But when it comes to giving pupils an armoury of examples with which to understand those abstract concepts we use to describe the human experience, history can and should empower pupils to understand the present.

And for those who believe such an endeavour sounds dull, I give the last word to Professor Tombs: ‘History is interesting. It takes determined and concentrated interest to make it boring.’

p.s. Thank you to all of you who took the time and effort to come to our school and share in a love of teaching history, and in particular to Louis Everett for all his hard work getting the thing organised. If anything, the day left me thinking what a wonderful subject it is that we all have the privilege to teach.

Planning a knowledge-based scheme of work. Part 1: Reading

Over the course of this half term, I am uploading all of the Key Stage 3 resources we have used at the West London Free School so far this academic year (see here). This is the first in a series of three blogposts explaining their design. The next two posts will be on ‘writing’ and ‘marking, assessment and feedback’.

To illustrate these posts, I will draw one scheme of work on Early Modern Europe, entitled ‘Age of Encounters’ that we teach to Year 8. The features that are essential to this scheme of work underpin every other scheme of work at Key Stage 3. As I wrote last month, the structure of our lessons at Key Stage 3 is uncompromisingly repetitive, and – I believe – all the better for it.

In every scheme of work, the first ten lessons alternate between reading lessons, and writing lessons, dedicated to either acquiring or applying knowledge. It took some time before I had the confidence to spend a whole lesson at Key Stage 3 reading and note taking. However, working as I do in a school with excellent classroom behaviour, I enjoy the luxury of planning-to-maximise-learning, as opposed to planning-to-minimise-disruption.


So how much do our pupils read? Around 800 words per reading lesson – taken from a double page spread of the Knowing History textbooks I have written for Collins. I sometimes think this figure should be higher, but worry that more than 800 words of (often quite complex) information on a new topic would favour the brightest pupils, but max out the cognitive load of the rest of the class.

Before we start reading, I pre-teach a few key words or concepts (say, ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Cape of Good Hope’), and all pupils write down the keywords and definitions in their books. This does take a couple of minutes out of the start of the lesson, but I think is worth it. Pupils seem to have much more ownership of a word once it is in their exercise book, and – invariably for some – circled in coloured highlighter pens.

As Katie Ashford writes here, the aim of whole class reading is comprehension, and for this reason most reading should be done aloud. I tend to read the most complicated parts of the text, selecting them in advance as part of my lesson planning. For example, in Lesson 1 on Renaissance Europe, it is probably best for me to read the paragraph containing the words ‘Medici’, ‘Ludovico Sforza’, and ‘Santa Maria delle Grazie’, instead of choosing a pupil to stumble through it.

Balancing the need for high quality reading aloud, whilst also ensuring the whole class (including poor readers) feel involved, can be challenging. I try to seek out short and simple passages (such as fact boxes) for the less able readers. But I doubt there is much merit in dogmatically ensuring every pupil reads, to the detriment of the pace and quality of the lesson.

Needless to say, a teacher’s role is to bring the textbook to life, so I punctuate the whole class reading with questioning, explanations, titbits of extra information, choral response of difficult words (Me: ‘I say heliocentric, you say heliocentric. Heleocentric.’ Pupils: ‘HELELOCENTRIC’), and images.

Images are an invaluable means of giving pupils concrete illustrations of abstract ideas in history, particularly when it comes to a subject as visual as Early Modern Europe. So each of our history schemes of work has a row per lesson dedicated to a few carefully selected, high impact images. This pair of contrasting images of world maps from 1480 and 1566, for example, was a vital additions to the lesson on ‘Global Exploration’.world-maps

Lastly, what written record do pupils keep whilst reading? I used to vary this with each lesson (mindmaps, worksheets, fact boxes and so on), but have since learnt to stop worrying and love the comprehension. If memory is the residue of thought, then the most reliable means of directing pupil thought is through answering a well-designed question. In essence, I view comprehension questions as guided note-taking, for pupils who are not yet able to take notes autonomously. Most of our reading lessons will consist of around five comprehension questions, answered in clusters of two or three at different intervals during the lesson.

That being said, I do design the occasional worksheet when the subject matter benefits from being organised spatially. In this scheme, the first two reading lessons on the ‘Italian Renaissance’ and ‘Print, gunpowder, and astronomy’ involve completing an A3 worksheet based around a map of Europe and Asia Minor. This encouraged pupils to think about where the different centres of activity were located: various Italian city states, Germany (for Guttenberg), and Constantinople.


The whole idea of a knowledge-based scheme of work is that pupils are expected to retain content learnt from one lesson to the next. It is of paramount importance, therefore, to know where and when pupils will read this content.

What do pupils do with that information once it has been gained? That will be the subject of my next two blogs.

PowerPointless Pedagogy?

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the virtues of teaching simple lessons with a repetitive structure. One of the comments left beneath the piece was in agreement, but implored me to go further:

…abandon powerpoints all together. I have been freer since I embraced the idea that very little can be taught well using an image that cannot be better taught using words.

This is something I hear a lot, often from traditionalist teachers with whom I share common ground on many other issues. I listen to their arguments, I agree with much of what they say, but I simply cannot give up my attachment to PowerPoint. I use PowerPoint presentations in nearly all of my history lessons. Sometimes, I consider giving it up for a fortnight, just to see how it feels, but cannot even bring myself to do that.

I am well aware of the multiple crimes which can be laid at PowerPoint’s door, and fully accept that it often makes teaching much worse. Three of PowerPoint’s most serious crimes against teaching, from my experience, are:

  1. PowerPoint = the lesson: Have you ever noticed how ‘the PowerPoint presentation’ is often used as a synonym for ‘the lesson’? As in, ‘I have just put the lesson is on the shared drive’. Such a mindset has dire consequences. It tempts teachers to use PowerPoint as a crutch, and assume that they no longer need to give prior thought to their lesson sequencing, explanations, and questioning, because ‘it is all there on the PowerPoint’. One of the worst teaching habits that PowerPoint presentations encourage is allowing slides to become the replacement for a textbook. It is only a small step from that, to the cardinal sin of teaching-as-reading-off-the-PowerPoint (common amongst much CPD, incidentally).
  2. Engaging PowerPoints: Giffs, cartoon characters, pop culture references, clip art, comic sans, lurid colours, cluttered slides. Can’t bear it, hate it all. If you are engaging pupils with material unrelated to lesson content, their engagement is worthless.
  3. Time thievery: My biggest disappointment following my first ever day of teaching was that no pupil stayed behind to thank me for designing such a lovely PowerPoint presentation. I had spent hours on the bloody thing. It had animations, transitions, a colour scheme, little jokes, and not one pupil batted an eyelid. Of course, creating those types of PowerPoint presentation is a colossal waste of time.

All that being said, I do think that PowerPoint’s advantages can compensate for its deficiencies. The three most significant for my practice are as follows:

  1. Imagery: There is clear evidence from the field of cognitive psychology that combining images and words aids memory – a process known as ‘dual coding’. I sense this phenomenon at work all the time in my history lessons. Pupils at Key Stage 3 find it much easier to remember characters from the Tudor period, for whom we have wonderful portraits (Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary I, Thomas Wolsey and so on) than those from the medieval period, for whom we don’t (Thomas Becket, Henry II, Edward I, Edward III). Well-chosen historical images can illustrate a period in ways that words simply cannot. And they minimise the misconceptions that may occur if you tried to explain the appearance of, for example, an ornate Catholic alter or a Victorian back-to-back house, verbally. Just this week, I have used scenes from Lutrell’s Psalter and Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry to illustrate life in a medieval village to Year 7; Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to illustrate the reign of Mary I to Year 8; and a fantastic animated diagram of James Watt’s steam engine from the Museum of Scotland to illustrate the Industrial Revolution to Year 9. I would hate for my lessons not to have this visual aspect.

    The museum of Scotland’s excellent animated diagram of Watt’s steam engine. Could I explain that better verbally?
  2. Instructions and information: Though I try to keep text to a minimum, my PowerPoint presentations do contain some instructions and information. This may be keyword definitions, for pupils to copy into their books, or a mnemonic to remember how to analyse a historical source. Every other lesson I teach starts with a recap quiz, for which the questions are projected on the board. Of course, I could print all of this information, but I would weep for the trees. Or I could place it all in pre-prepared booklets, but I don’t think I would ever be sufficiently happy with a unit not to want to adapt it midway through teaching according to unforeseen issues and misconceptions.
  3. More teaching time: Whilst I do teach with my board pen in hand, I don’t like to spend time writing large chunks of text on the board. This is perhaps rooted in having begun my career in a school where turning your back on the class for one moment normally meant turning back to a scene resembling a medieval doom painting. But even in a school where behaviour is not a concern, I still like to maximise the time I spend facing the class, monitoring how well they are working. PowerPoint allows for this.

In sum, I think that PowerPoint can be tolerated, so long as it is seen as an aid for the lesson, and not the lesson itself. If a PowerPoint presentation never takes more than 15 minutes to prepare, consists mostly of well-chosen images that complement and do not distract from lesson content, and includes instructions and information but no large chunks of writing, then I think it is no bad thing.

Organising Historical Knowledge

I had planned to spend this weekend writing about teaching the Renaissance, but a wellspring of excellent blogs about Knowledge Organisers has tempted me to change tack.

Last week, I blogged about how teachers who support knowledge-based teaching are spending less time criticising methods they disapprove of, and more time promoting alternatives. Knowledge Organisers are a great example of this constructive turn. Joe Kirby first blogged about Knowledge Organisers in March 2015, and education-bloggers have gone wild for them. Just this past week, Summer Turner has written a great blog about teaching ‘facts not fads‘, and Jon Brunskill has started a series of posts about using Knowledge Organiser at Primary level.

When I began writing a knowledge-based Key Stage 3 history textbook for Collins last year, the publisher and I agreed that each unit should end with a Knowledge Organiser, outlining ~25 keywords, ~10 key dates, and ~8 key people. Here is an example from the unit on Norman England.



However, as I read more about Knowledge Organisers, I realised these double page spreads slightly miss the point. They remain an invaluable classroom resource, allowing pupils to remind themselves of key information independently when planning and writing their own work. But the knowledge is insufficiently organised. Many of the definitions are in the style of a glossary, and not specific to the unit in question. And a lot of important information has been left out, as it did not fall neatly into the categories of words, dates or people.

So, in September I set about designing new Knowledge Organisers. My understanding has always been that Knowledge Organisers are the base from which quizzes can be designed. However, in the spirit of not duplicating work, I decided that my quizzing questions and Knowledge Organiser should become one and the same.

For each unit of work, I have drafted 50 quizzing questions –10 per chapter. I have then organised these quizzing questions into an A4 Knowledge Organiser, along with key dates from the course. This has amounted to 18 Knowledge organisers across Key Stage 3, consisting of 900 separate quizzing questions – I will be posting them all on this page soon.

As has been written about at length, the exercise of creating a Knowledge Organiser was an extremely helpful mental exercise, which has paid great dividends in refining the clarity of my teaching. Facts have been included according to the following criteria:

  1. Important for the end of unit assessment.
  2. Important for building long-term historical knowledge (as Michael Fordham has blogged about here)
  3. Taken from the set reading we have completed.


Using the Knowledge Organiser

Knowledge Organisers now provide a backbone to our teaching across Key Stage 3 history at West London Free School. Joe Kirby has written before about ‘renewable resources’ – a concept I love – and these quizzing questions are a perfect example. They simplify our lesson planning, cut down on workload, and provide consistent retrieval practice for pupils. How do we use and reuse them?

  1. fullsizerenderPupils are given Knowledge Organisers at the start of the unit. One benefit of formatting the Knowledge Organiser onto a page of A4 is that it can be tucked into the plastic cover on the back of pupils’ exercise books for immediate access when self-quizzing (and ensuring no lost worksheets – the bane of homework setting!).
  2. According to our Key Stage 3 lesson cycle, every other history lesson starts with a quiz taken from the Knowledge Organiser. This may either be a low stakes recap quiz, or a high stakes test for which the pupils revise, and we take in the marks. Almost always, pupils’ marks increase thanks to self-quizzing homework – gratifying for the pupil and teacher alike.quiz-1quiz-2
  3. We return to the same quizzing questions at relevant points throughout the year. For example, the 10 questions here on the feudal system will reappear towards the end of Year 7 when we come to teach the Peasants’ Revolt, re-activating pupils’ prior knowledge about the structure of medieval society.

Aside from simplifying my planning, the enormous benefit of this is that pupils constantly revisit the same questions and answers, through verbal recapping, quizzes, self-quizzing homework, and tests. Facts such as ‘The Harrying of the North’ took place in 1069, following an Anglo-Saxon rebellion in Durham, become automatic.

The benefit for this was abundantly clear when I marked my Year 7’s essays at the end of the unit. We set pupils the essay ‘How did William the Conqueror establish Norman control over England?’, and spent a lesson planning an essay with three chapters looking at the role played by violence, leadership and luck, followed by a conclusion deciding which factor was most important.

The essay was written during a 55-minute lesson. Almost all pupils were able to thread their paragraphs with specific, detailed information from the Knowledge Organisers. Below is a paragraph from a top-ranking piece of work, with detail from the Knowledge Organiser highlighted in yellow:


And also two paragraphs from a middle-ranking piece of work:


I have often wondered why critics of knowledge-based teaching insist that facts committed to memory are axiomatically ‘disconnected’ or ‘meaningless’. Facts obviously can be these things. But when facts are extracted from key reading completed throughout the term, and applied to a piece of analytical history writing at the end of the term, they are steeped in meaning.

Historical meaning comes from webs of understanding, and these webs are created by linking together a knowledge of people, places, dates, events and concepts. I have encountered no better means of codifying that knowledge than in a Knowledge Organiser.

Keep it simple, stupid

Until recently, I thought I was a pretty traditional teacher. But nevertheless, I carried with me some watered down assumptions of child-centred teaching that had wheedled their way into my practice. It took a visit to Michaela Community School for me to appreciate how much I still had to shed.

Since that date, I have been become a devout worshipper at Jo Facer’s shrine of uncomplicated teaching. At ResearchEd 2016, Jo delivered her talk ‘We Have Overcomplicated Teaching’. Listening to Jo’s talk, I realised how much of my teaching was geared towards fallacious notions of pupil engagement. And I began to realise how little was geared towards teaching for memory.

I am not talking about group work, carousel activities, or discovery learning – things had not gotten that bad. But I am talking about multiple activities per lesson, intricate PowerPoint presentations*, lots of resources (particularly historical sources to annotate), video clips, and a notion that no two lessons should ever be the same.

So, in September 2016, I decided that I would no longer strive to avoid repetitive lessons, but instead embrace them. Today, across years 7, 8, and 9, my lessons are uncompromisingly repetitive. And it is going great.

At West London Free School, our Key Stage 3 history lessons focus on a small number of high-leverage practices, many taken from the cognitive psychologist Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’. The main practices are quizzing, whole-class instruction, whole-class reading, extended writing, and verbal feedback. To ensure that these practices are consistently applied, I have devised a ‘lesson cycle’, on which all of our Key Stage 3 schemes of work are based.

All of our schemes of work are divided into twelve lesson units ending with an assessment, each intended to last half a term. Most lessons alternate between ‘reading lessons’ (for acquiring knowledge) and ‘writing lessons’ (for applying knowledge from the previous lesson). Though variations on the theme inevitably occur, the essential structure remains the same:


Our lessons now feature reoccurring activities, which become automatic routines for pupils. For example, administering a 20 question quiz, which is then peer assessed, before the marks fed back to the teacher, is a challenging format for a class to master. But when that format is repeated every two lessons, pupils master the routine. Repetitive lessons save time, and provide reassurance for pupils.

The alternative to repetitive lessons is exemplified by a PowerPoint file I was given at the start of my teaching career, entitled ‘100 starter and plenary activities’. As I rapidly learnt, introducing a new activity every week requires giving a new explanation every week. This uses up precious lesson time for no appreciable gain.

For years I worried that repetitive lessons bored pupils, but I was wrong. For Key Stage 3 pupils at our school, history makes up 2 lessons per week out of a total of 30. Pupils’ school week is varied enough without history lessons having to be.

And when it comes to planning, teaching repetitive lessons removes an enormous cognitive strain. Instead of spending my free periods agonising over what the next lesson should include, that decision has already been made. I simply look to the cycle, see that it is ‘Lesson 5’, and know what the lesson will involve.

Lastly, though my lesson activities are repetitive, my lessons are varied in the most important regard: historical content. When planning, I now spend much more time thinking about how to teach the specific historical content. Instead of asking myself, ‘Should I set a reading or a revision homework?’, I can ask questions such as: ‘what content should I recap before introducing the Peasants’ Revolt?’, or ‘what concepts do pupils need to master to understand the Industrial Revolution?’

So, the shrine of uncomplicated lessons offers reassurance for pupils, more teaching time, and easier planning. I can’t believe it took me so long to realise that when it comes to planning, you just need to keep it simple, stupid.

* Unlike Jo, I have not entirely abandoned my PowerPoint presentations. But I now strive to conceptualise PowerPoint presentations as providing an image pack, not a lesson plan.

New Year, New Blog

I have been on an education blogging hiatus since July 2014. My new year’s resolution is to re-enter the fray.

When I first started blogging, it took only a few seconds to mentally add up the number of teacher bloggers writing in support of knowledge-based curriculum and teacher-led instruction. I would spend whole evenings reading through the archives of Old Andrew’s blog ‘Scenes from the Battleground’, desperately thinking that he cannot be the only voice out there speaking sense.

What a difference a  few years can make. Today, I have given up trying to keep track of all of the like-minded teacher bloggers out there. As Joe Kirby’s stirring round up of the education blogosphere in 2016 testifies, the landscape is looking pretty vibrant.

But increased volume is not the only heartening change taking place with regards to traditionalist teacher bloggers. Three years ago, blogs written by traditionalist teachers tended to be of the ‘everything is rubbish’ variety. Today, they are increasingly of the ‘this is how we can improve teaching’ variety.

My first blog – written under the pseudonym Matthew Hunter – was firmly situated in the ‘everything is rubbish’ camp. There remains significant value in teacher bloggers lifting the lid on the madness that goes on in many schools. But whilst exposing problems is a vital step, my intention for this blog is to focus on solutions.

It is not enough to say child-centred teaching doesn’t work: we need to explain how knowledge-based teaching does. For that reason, I will use this blog to share resources and teaching practices from my history classroom, as well as ideas about teaching and education policy more broadly. I hope you enjoy reading it.