Skills under the microscope

After teaching A level History since 2004, I was offered the chance to write for Hodder My Revision Notes series. I have always wanted to have a go at writing something and this was a good start I thought, because it is not a lengthy piece. Working on the book had some challenges, many I did not anticipate, but I really enjoyed the process and I would thoroughly recommend it. More importantly, I had an epiphany. I think I had slid into a habit of setting full exam questions at the end of topics or as homework whilst trying to teach all of the skills needed simultaneously. This is in part, because the persistent pressure from senior management to ‘weigh the pig’; to ‘evidence’ student progress and have completed online grade books (the more the better it seemed). There is no doubt that there are moments when full exam questions are necessary in year 12, and even more so in year 13 – but until the students are ready to take on such a big challenge, what is the point?

The pressure to set full questions also made me a worse tutor. I often forgot that the students are learning this for the first time (unlike myself). I couldn’t understand why the students just – don’t get it. I forgot to break the skills down to the microscopic level. A colleague recently said to me that when you teach a topic for the first time, you are really careful to explain everything and define everything for the students because you are unsure too. However, we end up after 5 or six years of teaching the same specification and topic, over-pitching; teaching to our bank of A* model answers whilst demoralising and frustrating many students.

As part of the work for Hodder, they gave some guidance and a few ideas from the editor about activities for students for each page spread. Activities were graded and the idea was to build them up throughout the book. Early exercises for AQA paper 2 example, looked at sources individually and tested simpler skills such as comprehension of content and scaffolded provenance, later exercises saw students make evaluative judgements and tackle full papers. This really got me thinking about my own practice. It is absolutely right to set exercises using one extract or source and build them up slowly. After all, this is a two-year linear course and is surely within the spirit of the new specification. We should not be setting full papers until some time into Year 12 because they have not had the time to develop their skills. Indeed, giving grades so prematurely can be damaging to their self-confidence and potentially cause retention issues. Consequently, I started creating my own bank of differentiated exercises which you can also download from this website. The students have really appreciated it and I give them free choice as to which exercises they do depending on how confident they are.

We must defend the educational benefits of doing it differently. We can still evidence progress in source or extract exercises without a grade. For example, get the students to set themselves targets ahead of repeat exercises and revisit them to see if they have been successful or create a skill coversheet within which you highlight what skills they have demonstrated. We need to remind everyone that the students have signed up to a two year course and it will take a two year journey until they have mastered the course.

Is there anyone else out there bravely doing this? If so, what exercises are you doing and how are you defending you practice?