My round up of the week

A week is a long time on edu-twitter. In between going out and about entertaining an 8-year old and assembling the flat pack from hell (@oldandrewuk has nothing on me when it comes to flat pack furniture), I’ve been dipping in and out of my Twitter feed, which, despite it being August, has been as buoyant as ever. Here’s a round up of my highlights. In no particular order…

I was bemused to hear an experienced history teacher tell NQTs not to worry about subject knowledge because children are rarely bothered about their teacher’s lack thereof. Now I know that this was meant to be a reassuring message, but I find myself disquieted by it. I am not yet an NQT but I am concerned about my subject knowledge and I am actively taking steps to fill in the gaps. This was not just me doing it off my own back, but a requirement of my Schools Direct teacher training course. I had to fill in a questionnaire about the level of my knowledge of different history topics and identify at least three areas that I would brush up on before September. Having taken a look at the scheme of work for year 7s and year 8s at my school, I’ve also taken the decision to invest in some books on the topics I feel less confident about. I’m sure that this is going to be an ongoing process, as I encounter new course topics that I have to become familiar with. Subject knowledge is the bread and butter of my new profession. I am not a generalist, I am a history teacher. The idea that I should brave the classroom without knowing the subject I’m teaching inside out is ludicrous. If I don’t have knowledge to teach, then what am I doing there?

The next item that caught my eye was an article by another experienced history teacher giving us 20 successful GCSE history teaching strategies. I read these with interest but must admit to a feeling of disappointment. Some of the strategies seemed eminently sensible, such as scouring past exam papers to spot question types and content that appears regularly. I also don’t disagree with having consistently high expectations of behaviour and having regular summative knowledge tests. But then, I found some strategies which I was uncomfortable with and others which I downright disagreed with. Number 7 in the list advises us to encourage fun activities, such as picture relays and post it challenges and making these fun activities fit into a rigorous learning experience. I spent the whole of last year working with year 10 classes, helping to prepare them for their history GCSEs. Giving them fun activities, welcome as these might be, was the last thing those students needed. Let’s not forget that GCSE students are on the cusp of being adults, and that they have left the playfulness of primary school long behind (no disrespect meant here, I’m sure primary is full of academic rigour too). Can we please treat them as such?

My takeaways from working with my year 10s last year were that we needed much more focus on the following:

  • Giving them a narrative overview of the topic they are studying, together with background context so that they can make better sense of it. My observation of the students was that for many, the course content was too disjointed and too abstract to make meaningful sense. Before delving into the different enquiries and issues to be analysed, tell the story.
  • Instead of setting enquiry or project type homework, get them to learn – and yes memorise – critical information for the topic, be it terminology, definitions or descriptions of events, and then regularly test their knowledge. I know that knowledge organisers have been denigrated in some quarters, but I can think of no better way to organise critical information and learn it.
  • Before setting any writing task, get the students to refine their arguments, perhaps by having to present them to the class (or in groups) and debate them. Once the issues are clear in their mind, they can tackle writing about them.
  • Model good writing, perhaps by regularly writing up a paragraph together as a class or improving someone’s written work collaboratively, and always, always take them up on sloppy grammar and spelling.

I shared some of my reservations about ‘fun activities’ on my Twitter feed and was, in response, rebuked extremely politely for my critique on the basis that I should practice teaching first before deciding what works for me. Now I’ll be honest, this did annoy me somewhat. Over the past few months, I have had occasion to be told, by established teachers whose views I disagreed with, that I am in no position to state an opinion since I am not a fully qualified teacher with long years of experience in the classroom. It’s true that I don’t yet have PGCE to my name (though I do have an MBA, oh and I was teaching cognitive skills in a special needs school way back in 1988, before many current heads of department were even born) but I am not your bog standard, green about the gills trainee. I am fresh out of the classroom, having actively engaged in observing what works and doesn’t work, and I have years of life experience and reading that gives me insights that perhaps other people don’t have. This is the sentiment behind my subsequent tweet.

I have formed opinions on education. These are not set in stone and I am open to engage with people whose views may differ. But please engage with me on the issues, not on my supposed lack of expertise.

Lastly, my week on Twitter was enhanced by some non-teaching specific discussions. I was much enlightened by the trials and tribulations of @oldandrewuk and @gwenelope’s toaster adventures and buying expeditions to Tiger. I never knew that shark staplers or toasters with a bean warming pot existed. I am grateful for this new knowledge. Elsewhere, I have discovered that I am rather late to the party when it comes to slow cookers. Thanks to all who advised me on this hot topic.

P.S. I was also sad to hear that Grumpy Teacher has left the country. I hope to hear more of his travails in Germany, but I shall miss his wonderfully entertaining stories and insights from teaching history in the UK private sector.

Thanks, Argos, for the flat pack from hell. My son is happy with it though, please note his beloved airfix planes displayed on top and how he has put his cherished baby portrait on the desk. Sweet!
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