West London Free School History Conference – my takeaways

I have just got back home from attending this conference, which I was so sorry to miss last year, and thought I would quickly write about what I took away from it. I had to choose three workshops to attend, out of a tantalisingly large selection, and since I’m not a practising history teacher any longer, my interests were not the same as those teachers feeling the heat of GCSEs and A levels upon them. Thus I passed on Jim Carroll’s session, much as I would have loved to hear him talk, and Michael Fordham’s promise of group work sent me scuttering the other way. In the end I opted for Louis Everett, Robert Peal and Mike Taylor, as I’m interested in finding out more about how they teach history at their schools.

I won’t go into any great detail about each of the workshops, but will just quickly share what I took away from them.


I was struck that all three speakers, when describing their history classrooms, made mention of the fact that the teaching they did would not be possible in other schools with poor behaviour. Mike Taylor, in a discussion of Michaela School’s ethos of discipline and knowledge, explained that one was not possible without the other. You just cannot teach a knowledge curriculum in poorly behaved classrooms. I do wonder whether this is a chicken and egg scenario, where increasingly poor behaviour has pressured teachers into watering down content in the name of engagement. Unfortunately, the dumbing down makes for facile, uninspiring history teaching, so we end up with the counterproductive situation where these efforts to entertain end up contributing to even more disruptive behaviour.

I know I’ve been going on about behaviour for a long time, but I’m more convinced than ever now that it is a social justice issue. Children will not get the education they are entitled to if the school they attend does not prioritise behaviour.

No gimmicks

Another thing that struck me was the absolute lack of gimmicks or fancy activities in the way these teachers described their classroom practice. This is music to my ears, as my followers on Twitter are well aware my current motto is ‘Stop the gimmicks. Keep it simple’. And this simplicity is what allows these teachers to focus on the content, the curriculum rather than the ‘how’. So I heard of lessons consisting of reading out loud from carefully curated text, followed by writing, and of course the frequent no stake testing to help memorise the knowledge. No card sorts or ‘game’ like activities. Just the simple, meaningful bread and butter of our discipline: reading and writing. At West London Free School, the approach is to have a separate reading lesson followed by a writing lesson, in a carefully planned sequence of lessons which culminates in an assessed piece of extended writing at the end of each half term.

I was also very impressed with the reading set as homework, with some easy comprehension questions. This ensures pupils are reading as much history as possible.

What is appropriate for KS3

Both the WLFS and Michaela approaches prioritise the teaching of substantive knowledge in KS3 over the development of second order concepts. No source work is taught until year 9 at Michaela, though that’s not to say pupils don’t get to experience any primary sources. Enquiry questions are also kept simple, using causal questions such as ‘what led to …’ rather than second order questions exploring change and continuity for instance. This is because of a belief that, at this stage, the most important thing is for pupils to get an understanding of the period, to build up enough knowledge to be able to move on to more analytical work later on. And the focus on knowledge is relentless. A third of every lesson is spent on recap at Michaela. The recap is not just of what was taught last week, but last month, last year or even four years ago in the case of year 10 pupils.

Explicit teaching of writing

Alongside knowledge, is explicit teaching of how to write. Here, Robert Peal’s session on the art of the paragraph was very enlightening. Taking the idea (which I first encountered in Daisy Christodoulou’s ‘Making good progress?’) of deliberate practice as a starting point, there is a focus on practising writing a paragraph, rather than jumping straight into writing an essay. This can be compared to footballers practising with drills rather than with playing football matches. Peal has refined his technique, using a range of tools: modelling of well written paragraphs (with colour coded underlining of key sentences), giving pupils a list of topic-specific tier 2 words to tick off and use in the paragraph, and of course giving them a structure to follow, such as starting with an ATQ (answer the question) sentence. Peal also mentioned that fabulous book which I have started reading, ‘The Writing Revolution’ by Hochman and Wexler, and how he is using some its techniques to help develop paragraph writing.

Keynote speeches

Robert Peal also gave a fantastic opening keynote speech. All I can say is, I’m now a massive fan and WLFS are incredibly lucky to have him on their staff. The main thrust of the speech was on curriculum, on how we choose what history to teach our pupils. He is not very convinced by the cultural literacy argument put forward by E.D. Hirsch, which can be rather utilitarian in its aims. Moreover history should be taught to enhance pupils’ understanding of the human condition. Thucydides was much closer to the mark when he said ‘history is philosophy teaching by example’. Peal also made a convincing argument for predominantly teaching British history as a way to bring together people with a shared national identity – with a clear distinction between national and nationalistic. I can vouch for that as an immigrant myself, who never studied my own native Middle Eastern history at school. What we all share, regardless of our backgrounds, is the fact that we are living in Britain, and that in itself is enough of a justification to make that the focus of our history study.

The day finished off with a keynote speech by Christine Counsell, which I found incredibly moving. I’m trying to rationalise why, and I think it is because she managed to convey both the preciousness and incredible fragility of the body of knowledge – or tradition – that we are entrusted to pass on to the next generation. While this was specifically about the history teaching community, it also spoke to me as a metaphor not just for teachers in general, but for me as a parent too. The incredible responsibility we have to pass on that knowledge to the next generation. And in doing so, it is beholden on us to read, keep up to date with our knowledge, as well as to be aware that we are part of a long teaching tradition and don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel. We should also be kinder to each other. Not everyone was lucky enough to have good initial teacher training. We should not criticise other teachers for their lack of knowledge but help them fill the gaps in a collegiate community. I’m afraid I might have been guilty of this at times, mostly in frustration at seeing gimmicky, lacking in rigour, practices that I know short-change our pupils. I hope in future to find a better way to navigate these frustrations without causing divisions.

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