Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

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The misinterpretation of E D Hirsch

Today’s TES has an interview with academic E D Hirsch and it is enlightening to read his thoughts on how his work has been appropriated and used by educators. There are two telling passages in the article. The first deals with the application of his work to secondary education:

In Cultural Literacy, he repeatedly emphasises that his attention is on the primary age group. He does not endorse his work being used to justify a curriculum beyond that level. “My focus is on 3-11 education,” Hirsch reiterates. “I am calling for a solid, well-rounded, common early curriculum.”

The second deals with the ‘progressive’/’traditional’ pedagogic divide:

The truth is you can have a defined curriculum and use all sorts of progressive methods to deliver it. If the kids get the results and you can prove it works, then do it. Who cares how you deliver it as long as it gets into the minds of children and they’re happy? Pedagogy is highly variable. It is very context-dependent.” [Emphasis added]

It really does seem that we have been listening to shades of Hirsch.

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Architects of the Mind – A Blueprint for Education Innovators. Stowe Ed conference 4th Jan

It may appear that I am not keen on relaxing over the Christmas holiday. Not only do I move house on the last day of school this term and prepare to start my new post at Nottingham High School in January, I have also agreed to lead a ‘breakout’ session at Stowe School’s conference on the 4th January. Julie Potter, Director of Studies at Stowe and a former colleague at Berkhamsted, discussed a plan for a conference focussing on the ‘mind’ after visiting TLAB15 in March. The Stowe Ed conference is the result. Keynote speakers include Sir Anthony Seldon, Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Matthew Syed. The programme for the day can be viewed here and my session will focus on the power of ‘Nudges’ and how they can be used in education. If you are looking for a jolt of teaching energy before term starts, I look forward to seeing you there. Just don’t ask how the house move has gone!

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The Next Chapter panel discussion at the University of Brighton

On Friday I was part of the panel at the University of Brighton’s panel discussion ‘The Next Chapter | Our Future in Black and White‘ to discuss the absence of BME academics in HE.

When discussing the lack of BME students in HE, the curriculum was highlighted as a site of exclusion with school history lessons being the worst example. There is no denying the issue as this film explains:

History Matters from University of Chichester on Vimeo.

However, I wanted to emphasise that there are opportunities to go beyond the apparent limitations at school level. The first example is that many schools are not bound by the KS3 national curriculum as Academies and so have the agency to make appropriate content choices. The second example is that even when following the guidance, there is a still a great deal of agency/latitude in how much time is spent on certain topics leaving enough time to explore other areas. Emphasising existing capacity for revealing  the diversity of Britain does not mean that change is automatic, but it moves us from saying ‘we are constrained’ to asking the question ‘why are we not doing this?’

One response to this question may be that geographically speaking, we are an island and our focus should be on the ‘island story’. However, the story of this island, to use Kei Miller‘s words, ‘is a wide, wide open space’ and touches the shores of West Africa and the plantations of the Caribbean.  The politics of the European states, wars with Imperial China, exploration, colonisation and decolonisation are part of our ‘island story’. It is, as Marianne Hirsch suggests,  a connective history rather than a competitive one.

The possibility of teaching a rich history of Britain at KS3 demands a focus on practical matters and for teachers who are already engaged, they need help accessing the latest research.  This is where HE can be very helpful by working with schools in their location to provide access to library materials such as journals so educators. This will not solve the problem, but it removes a very real obstacle for teachers at KS3 who may lack the subject knowledge.

There is also hope beyond KS3. The new History GCSE from OCR has options on migration to Britain from the c200 to the present. Two units, ‘Migration Through Time’ and ‘Empire and Migration c.1688-1730’ have been developed in partnership with the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) and Dan Lyndon-Cohen and Martin Spafford are currently writing resources to support these courses. Other exam boards have yet to follow these lines but this is a clear change at the formal exam level.

Many other aspects were discussed and the video will shortly be available Youtube. Thanks to Marcie and the team at Brighton for organising the event and for emphasising the need for positive steps forward.

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The Next Chapter – event at the University of Brighton

As part of Black History Month, I am taking part in a panel discussion at the University of Brighton on the barriers BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students and staff in the Higher Education system face and what steps can be taken. Details about the event on Friday 9th October can be found here:

One area under discussion is how to increase the number of BME academics in UK institutions. There is a lot to discuss and if you would like some more background on the issue, read this.

What I hope to add to the conversation is a practical plan, starting at the school level:

  • BME academics should become more involved in visiting schools. Paul Gilroy is not sure about the effectiveness of role models but in my experience they are a powerful factor in motivating students to go beyond the boundaries of what they think is possible. Schools would be more than happy to host academics but they often lack the routes into academia to make this happen;
  • At HE, there should be bursaries at Masters and PhD level to help train students. This would not just be a funded place but there should also be a mentoring scheme attached to the bursary;
  • There should be a mechanism for enhancing the teaching experience of research students in addition to the normal routes. One possible solution is to run  additional seminars for interested undergraduates on aspects that are outside the normal course offering.

I look forward to discussing these ideas and many others. If you are at the event on Friday, please come along and say hello!

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Frameworks and narratives

In our first history department meeting last week, we discussed the school’s new approach to ‘Building Learning Power’ and how we could create resources to use the language and ideas to structure planning and work for the students. As we went over key ideas, I recalled some work I had done in 2009 with a Year 9 class and presented to the PGCE students at the University of Cambridge which would fit into the ‘Building Learning Power’ language. I managed to dig the resources up and thought I would share them too. I must stress that the lessons were not designed with ‘Building Learning Power’ in mind but by a focus on subject pedagogy and subject knowledge (from reading Carr’s book again).

At the time, I was struggling to get my students to think about the second-order concept of ‘change and continuity’ and felt that the work I was doing with them at the time really was a ‘march through history’.  After re-reading some work from Ian Dawson, Alan Kelly and Christine Counsell, I went back to Denis Shemilt’s four narrative frameworks for use in history teaching in his chapter ‘The Caliph’s Coin’ from the book ‘Knowing, Teaching & Learning History’:

  1. A chronologically ordered past – events are told in sequence via timelines and with varying degrees of sophistication;
  2. Coherent historical narratives –  where history is presented as a story and historical events have meaning attached to them;
  3. Multidimensional narratives – history is taught through three ‘interlocking and interpreting dimensions; means of production and population history, forms of social organisation, and cultural and intellectual history;
  4. Polythetic narratives – teachers teach history in a way that allows students to understand that truth is constructed and there is no one narrative of the past.

I felt pretty sure that I was good at getting them to think about the first two levels but wanted to stretch them on the last two. An opportunity presented itself when we reached the end of the First World War topic. I had also finished reading E H Carr’s book ‘The Twenty Years’ Crisis’ again, a classic in the field of International Relations. In it, Carr suggest the following:

The main feature of the crisis of the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 was the move from hope in the first ten years to grim despair in the second. E H Carr,

With only two lessons to work with, I wanted the students to challenge Carr’s argument and gain a deeper understanding of how historical narrative is constructed (following Shemilt’s ideas).

Drawing on Ian Dawson’s work on ‘living timelines’, I created three sets of cards representing three European powers at the time. Each card had a ‘crisis rating’ on them and the students were asked to place them chronologically on their own graphs first and then arrange the cards according to the ‘crisis rating’.

Twenty Years' Crisis overview

When placed along the main classroom timeline, students were asked if Carr’s idea of a ‘Twenty Years’ Crisis’ was a valid one. The students were able to see, through the use of the coloured country cards, that Carr’s assertion stemmed from a particular view and the move from ‘hope to despair’ was more aligned with Britain than with Germany.  Students began to grasp that the historical narrative employed by Carr was a indeed a constructed one and could be challenged by examining other countries. This was a major achievement but I wanted to push them a little further in their thinking. Each card had an image which represented a different historical factor such as the Treaty of Versailles (picture of the actual treaty and represented a political factor), the Wall Street Crash and its effects (economic factor represented by a picture of money) and the role of the individual (represented by the green figure).  A close up can be found below.Twenty Years' Crisis card

By tracing these themes on the diagram by focusing on the images on the cards, they were asked to compare their graph of factors against Carr’s assertion. The hope was that by doing so, pupils would gain a  ‘multidimensional narrative’ of International Relations and also an overview of the period. To round it off, a written piece was generated when they wrote to Carr and explained that he needed to take a wider view of the period between 1919 and 1939.

The resources for the lessons can be found here and a video of the events (used as a prompt in the second lesson) can be seen below.

I plan to use the lesson framework with my Year 8 students as we study the Tudors. Any ideas would be very welcome.


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The St Albans School Forum on Education Saturday 28th May

One of the most pleasing aspects of organising TLAB is hearing about the impact it has had on other educators. Partly inspired by the conference , Michael Smyth in his new role as Assistant Head at St Albans School has organised a conference on feedback and assessment on Saturday 28th May. Jill Berry, Ian Yorston and Martin Robinson are the main speakers and they will be joined by a variety of workshop leaders. I will be leading a workshop based on my research this academic year:  Exploring the ‘testing effect’ to enable knowledge retention and deployment in the Key Stage 3 History classroom.

Further details can be found on Michael’s site. I hope to see you there!

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Legacies of the British Slave Trade

With results out of the way, the focus now turns to planning lessons. For my Year 9 classes this year, I plan to get them to do some research using the Legacies of the British Slave Trade database.  Based on the records of compensation claims after the emancipation of slaves in 1833, it provides an insight into how slavery was intermixed with politics, economics and society in Britain. The British government paid out £20 million from the taxpayer to slave owners as compensation for their loss of ‘goods’. The research suggests that half of that amount remained in Britain and was used in a variety of ways to build or refurbish houses, make donations to charities and extend influence.  The database has also been extended to include the structure and significance of slave ownership from 1763 and as such, they have been able to chart some of the physical, cultural and commercial legacies of the slave trade.

One aspect you can search for is the education establishment/place of residence of names in the database. I immediately checked to see if any former Berkhamsted students/inhabitants were involved in claims or had links. No records were found. Out of interest, I searched for other institutions attended by claimants/individuals associated with the slave trade/compensation claims. The raw figures are below:

  • Harrow School – 25
  • Eton College – 70
  • Westminster – 15
  • Charterhouse – 19
  • University of Oxford – 137
  • University of Cambridge – 133

It is worth pointing out again that the figures above are just the basic returns and it is only by going through the individual records do you get the detail. For example, the Rev John Wilson of Queen’s College, Oxford was awarded £2165 17S 10D. The Rev. Samuel Edward Bernard (attended Winchester and then Cambridge) claimed £3,983 12S 4D. There are children of slaves and planters in the records too reinforcing the view that the numbers cited above should not be used as a blunt instrument to tell a particular and limited story. My plan is to use the database to help the students understand the legacies by examining the records related to Hertfordshire and places close to Berkhamsted (like Tring).  The hope is that rather than something that occurred ‘out there’ in the past and in another place, they will grasp that the slave trade had a considerable impact on British society.

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One approach to adolescence

One of the most enjoyable books I have read this summer is Tony Little’s ‘An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Education’. Covering topics such as headship, character education and vocation in teaching, there is something for everyone, regardless of the school you work in or attended. One story in particular struck me as an ideal piece to share with new parents at a boys’ school. Little quotes John McConnell, a Housemaster at Eton in 1967 who imagines a letter written to all mothers on their son’s fifteenth birthday. Text below from pages 52-53:

Today is Tom’s 15th birthday. You will be glad to hear that he received a nice bundle of envelopes and packages in the post this morning. The cake you ordered has arrived safely and I have given him leave to go home to lunch with you next Sunday.

However, the real purpose of this letter is to try and prepare you for an imminent change in the relationship between yourself and your son. The affectionate small boy who has quite justifiably been your pride and joy is about to undergo such a transformation that you may begin to wonder if you have mothered a monster. The piping treble voice, you will observe, has already begun to crack. The down on his cheeks and chin is stiffening into defiant bristles and there is an angry hue about the blemishes on his skin. Perhaps you have started to wonder where you have gone wrong, and what you have done to deserve his new found anger. You, who have shown him most affection, will seem to be the butt for his most barbed and unkindly remarks. That is because you are still the most important woman in his life and the most convenient target for his burgeoning masculine aggressiveness.

Do not despair. Ride out the storm. Be firm but affectionate. At this moment when he seems to need you least, he needs you the most. Make a stand about the principles you regard as fundamental. Give him rope about the less important things. Do not worry too much about his wearing of apparel or the length of his hair. Comfort yoursellf with the knowledge that his present mood is transitory. If you do this and stand firm as a rock in the midst of his tempestuous life, the small boy whom you thought you had lost will return to you a charming young man – well groomed in appearance and with delightful manners. He will have been worth waiting for.

Meanwhile, we are both of us in for one hell of a time.

I wonder if there is something similar written from a girls’ school point of view?

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How to read a research paper

After Ben Goldacre’s intervention about the need for greater evidence in education,  I thought it best to speak to someone who reads a great deal of medical research for a living and knows a bit about the research process too. Paul Simpson is the Deputy Editor of PLOS Medicine and a former researcher at Cambridge and Birmingham. As I peppered him with questions over what should have been a very relaxing lunch about a year ago, he recommended that I read Trisha Greenhalgh’s ‘How To Read a Paper’. Targeted at medical and nursing students, it gives the basics  of evidence-based medicine, the issues to consider when reading research papers, and the arguments for and against an evidence-based approach.

I believe that the science of finding, evaluating and implementing the results of medical research can, and often does, make patient care more objective, more logical and more cost-effective…Nevertheless, I believe that when applied in a vacuum (that is, in the absence of common sense and without regard to the individual circumstances and priorities of the person being offered treatment or to the complex nature of clinical practice and policymaking), ‘evidence-based’ decision-making is a reductionist process with real potential for harm. p. xvii

One clear line of argument made by Greenhalgh’s is that the research used is ‘research on populations to inform decisions on individuals.’ As stated near the end of the book:

But as many others before me have pointed out, a patient is not a mean or a median but an individual, whose illness inevitably has unique and unclassifiable features. Not only does over-standardisation make the care offered less aligned to individual needs, it also de-skills the practitioner so that he or she loses the ability to customise and personalise care (or, in the case of recently trained clinicians, fails to gain that ability in the first place. p,236

This is an important point to remember as we think about using research in our classrooms/schools. One useful comparison is  student baseline data. The baseline scores give an idea of what someone with the same score might achieve, but it does not tell us about the individual.  Although not aimed at the education sector, with the growing call for research to inform/influence decision-making on pedagogy/pastoral care and well-being, it should be read, especially if you really want to ask some interesting questions at the forthcoming ResearchEd conference or your next inset day when a speaker is parachuted in and starts talking about the research papers they have used as the basis for their talk.

Greenhalgh provides a number of checklists to help you on your way and the chapters provide a variety of nuggets and fascinating stories. I found the diagram below to be particularly interesting.

Simple Hierarchy of Evidence

Simple Hierarchy of Evidence p.18

Note that anecdote, case studies and personal opinion are still useful despite the lack of quality when compared to other forms of evidence.

The book also considers the issues involved in applying research in the ‘real world’, recognising that possessing evidence is not enough because the difficult job of influencing/changing behaviour has to occur (your habits and that of other people).  The comparison with ‘eLearning’/ICT in schools is instructive. As many have pointed out (often in favour for research in education), all the new tech (iPads/IWBs/VLEs) in the world is not going to create change by itself.  If the use of research evidence in schools is not planned and thought about in a sensible way, especially when it comes to engaging colleagues and being realistic about timeframes, I can foresee that the ‘research champions’ and their projects for change may look like many of the ‘eLearning’/ICT projects in schools. Ignored, unloved and an easy target for when the next ‘revolution’ in education occurs.

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The Blind Men and the Elephant – the role of research in the history classroom

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.


The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a WALL!”


The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, “Ho, what have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a SPEAR!”


The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a SNAKE!”


The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he:

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a TREE!”


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a FAN!”


The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a ROPE!”



And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

As teachers, we have a tendency to be on a ‘Grail Quest’. One approach or activity that will make such a difference that it everyone else will think, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ when they see it (or hear about it). A new spin on analysing sources. A novel approach to significance. Technology as the saviour. The forces pushing and prompting us to go searching are immense, and the appeal is great, yet in our pursuit of teaching and learning salvation we can forget what caused us to start the search in the first place – our students and our context – and focus instead on the quest itself.

The latest ‘Grail Quest’ in education is the role of research and how it can guide us to the most efficient and effective practises. John Hattie’s analysis of educational research has gathered a lot of attention in part due to the emphasis on feedback in lessons and also because of his advocacy of ‘visible learning’. Psychologists such Carol Dweck on ‘Growth Mindsets’ and Cognitive Psychologists such as Robert Bjork on ‘Desirable Difficulties’ have indicated new ways to think about learning and student motivation. Other educators are focusing on the role of knowledge and using the work of E D Hirsch to justify a particular style of teaching (and sometimes to show that other forms are really damaging to our students).

Using these authors and the wealth of research is undoubtedly useful. It makes you reflect carefully on your own assumptions and what you are doing with your Y9 lesson on the Corn Laws on a Thursday morning. The danger however, with drawing upon these sources is that many of us appear to become nothing more than advocates for a particular approach. Armed with this new knowledge and the courage of our convictions, there is a danger of falling into the trap that the particular adopted approach is now the answer for all historical learning and educational problems. We seem to forget that it was a particular contextual problem that led us to wondering (and wandering).

One way to avoid the practise of groping around, seizing what is in front of you and using it as the basis for claims about teaching and learning is to do some research yourself. The academic Stuart Hall talks about comprehending the complexity of a situation so that you can make an effective change, and it is this desire for wisdom, rather than knowledge, that has made me by become a MSc student again (part-time). The desire for wisdom is practical (phronesis); comprehending the issue at stake will allow me to make an effective change for my students and the school. This is rather different to the argument that knowledge by itself can make a difference because as we can see from the blind men, poor choices can be made when based on (limited) knowledge.

Aside from all the reading, the best part of this process is getting to really think about Learning and Teaching with a group of other History teachers. The fact that we all come from different types of school and face unique challenges is fascinating and humbling at the same time. It offers a clear reminder that a particular approach is just that and does not speak truth to all contexts.

This post in its original form was on the ThinkingHistory site in January but commitments over the year meant that the following posts I hoped to write did not materialise. However, I’ll be picking up issues of research sporadically over the next academic year as I complete my fieldwork. I hope you’ll join me as I study my elephant carefully and deliberately.

The MSc in Learning and Teaching at the University of Oxford is designed for currently serving teachers. For more information about the course and how you can apply, please click the link:

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