Nick Dennis' Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: Dale Banham

‘Practise like you play’ – Schools History Project Conference, Leeds 11-13th July

Having done a lot of work on CPD in schools since I took over the role at Berkhamsted, I have seen a recurring theme around quality of CPD available to educators at events that are by their very nature, broad in their appeal. As a History teacher, it is great to learn about wider educational concerns but it has little direct impact on my teaching. In the ‘Pedagogical Content Knowledge’ frame, my ‘pedagogical’ knowledge may increase yet I am not able to ‘practise like I play’. Thankfully, the Schools History Project’s national conference allows me to engage with some of the best thinking about effective History teaching over three days.

I have made no secret that the Schools History Project is a major influence on my intellectual and professional development with the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference held at Berkhamsted being the most visible manifestation. And as I sat in the auditorium with 289 other History educators (including delegates from Brazil, Malta, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, Germany), I wondered if other subject areas had events like this that covered all specifications (the conference is for all teachers of History and not tied to the SHP specifications).

The highlights for me included Don Cumming’s opening address and two workshops from Christine Counsell and Dale Banham. I have admired Don’s work from afar and whilst others may have sought to use social media to celebrate their work and views, Don has continued to work for the benefit of the students under his care and the History teaching community in the North of England. Deconstructing the view that there is an ‘island story’ by close examination of the curricula used in Scotland and England and the narratives they tell by omission. We talk of the Norman invading but not of the Norman Empire. We talk of English monarchs yet do not discuss the Angevin ‘Empire’. We talk of the Vikings but not of Cnut’s rule in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In terms of stories about  Scottish History, Don identifies the bias in the narrative where the ‘English’ are seen solely as ‘conquerors’ and how we repeat this bias in England by missing out the complexity in these events (this was developed by Ian Dawson’s brilliant role-play on the importance given to Bannockburn). It really was a great opening session and showed that even when he feels like Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets, he is saying the right things.

Christine Counsell‘s session addressed a number of issues I have wanted to blog about for a while yet did not have the reading, thinking or subtlety to compose. Christine started by suggesting that we are able to read a piece of text by Simon Schama not because of ‘literacy’ but because we have substantive knowledge and knowledge of ‘second-order’ concepts in History (such as change, continuity etc). Teaching the subject well demands that we address both. Or in other words, we need to plan with ‘fingertip knowledge’ in mind as well as ‘residual knowledge’. Christine also addressed the issue of ‘measuring’ historical progress through assessments and the work of her PGCE students and former trainees is outstanding. When people suggest that University training of teachers is universally poor, I point to the Cambridge History PGCE course.

My final highlight was Dale Banham’s workshop which was pragmatic to its core with a focus on improving written work. There were so many ideas and my two key takeaways are his consistent approach to using the Cornell method of note-taking for Sixth Formers and the use of graphical organisers to help essay planning. I will certainly be using these two ideas when term resumes. I suggest you check the Schools History Project website for further information on the resources showcased by Dale.

There were also some workshop/plenary sessions where I left with more questions than when I started. Denis Shemilt and Frances Blow’s idea of ‘Big History’ and the practical application of it by Dan Nuttall and Laura Goodyer seemed to me more of a diachronic (through time) view of History rather than a reconfigured ‘Big History’. I think I need to read more about ‘Historical Frameworks’ before I can reach a genuine conclusion.

Outside the workshops it was good to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. Thanks to Michael Riley, the SHP conference team and all the workshop leaders and plenary speakers. In a world of CPD without context, it is incredibly useful to ‘practise as we play’ before the new academic year in September.

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#TLAB14 22nd March – update #1

After working on the conference for a while, I am very pleased to release the details for #TLAB14. The theme  is ‘Multipliers’ – tapping the genius inside our schools by working with students/colleagues.  Essentially, it is the idea that when you work with a ‘multiplier’ or are one, the capacities of those around you are significantly enhanced. Based on the work of Liz Wiseman who wrote the original Multipliers’ book and the education focussed version ‘The Multiplier Effect’ with Elise Foster, it provides a positive setting for a stimulating day of discussion and learning.

The real bonus for us is that Elise has agreed to open the conference and will be leading a workshop on educational leadership. Closing the day will be Dr Andy Williams, Head of Holmfirth High School.

We also have a range of workshops led by excellent educators from around the country and from different sectors. Speakers/workshop leaders include:

  • Cognitive neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore;
  • History teacher and textbook author Dale Banham;
  • Kevin Brown, Head of Menorah Grammar;
  • Dr John d’Abbro, Head of New Rush Hall Group

A list of current workshops can be seen here:


We have also taken on board the feedback from the last conference and have a few new things to offer including a crèche and the day has been adjusted so there are two keynotes and three workshops with the latter being extended to allow more thinking/learning time.

What we have not changed is the size of the conference and the belief that everyone should have a great time. Despite selling all 250 tickets and requests for more, we always wanted to create something that felt comfortable and not too large.

The price for all of the above plus breakfast, lunch and refreshments is £50. Once again, the event is not-for-profit and sponsorship is invaluable to running the event. We would like to thank Rising Stars for their initial support. If you or your company would like to support #TLAB14 via sponsorship, get in touch.

Tickets are not on sale yet so if you would like to register your interest, please email  events@berkhamstedschool.org. If you are considering the crèche, please supply the age of the child as this will help us tailor our offering to you.

I look forward to seeing you in March for what will be a very exciting day!

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‘Stay on the f**king bus’

I originally came across the ‘Helsinki Bus Station Theory’ earlier this year and was struck by a number of key ideas from Arno Minkkinen’s commencement speech. Rather than summarise it myself, I’ll use Oliver Burkeman’s version from the Guardian:

There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”

What hooked me at the time, and still does, is its relevance to teaching by challenging what has become a maxim and revealing a proclivity towards the ‘new’ that can be detrimental to doing great work with students and colleagues. The precept it challenges is that feedback is useful. With the work of Hattie, Berger (and many others before) now becoming a normal part of discourse when discussing education and professional development for teachers,  it seems that sometimes we forget to explain that it is the quality of the feedback that matters, especially in a world of RTs, ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’.  The kind of feedback we wish for our students can be missed or in extreme cases replaced by  these tiny affirmations.  As useful and helpful as these comments may be in certain contexts, they can represent feedback of the most tenuous kind (I often think about the hopefuls in televised singing contests when they are faced with the unvarnished feedback that they are not as good as they have been led to believe by family/friends in their desire to be supportive). Consequently, emboldened by these recommendations, the blogs/writing/books/talks proliferate. For every instance of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ there  lurks the spectre of ‘groupthink’.

According to Burkeman, the second aspect the metaphor illustrates is our propensity to ‘fetishise originality’. In education, this may be a new turn of phrase, a new technology, a new blog post or even a new book. The cost of chasing these new ideas, essentially taking the taxi back to the station and taking another bus, means that you will delay your progress in becoming the great, effective educator you hope to be. I was reminded of the consequences of keeping to the same route when I saw the project Dale Banham and Russell Hall are leading using Hattie’s work at the Schools History Project conference in July. Five years on after I was first introduced to the book by Dale, he is still grappling with the ideas to the benefit of  his students and his school.

I was also reminded of deliberate and thoughtful work when the Head of Boys, Chris Nicholls, retired at the end of term. I’ve already written about him in a previous post and I don’t want to embarrass him any more although I think the picture below captures some of the depth of feeling the students had for him on his final day after 38 years at one school.

Goodbye, Mr Nicholls

Goodbye, Mr Nicholls

I’m not suggesting that absorbing new ideas and ways of looking at things is wrong. They are vital for development and are essential for finding your own way yet they should be tempered by the realisation that there are no quick fixes or slogans that substantively lead to progress. Minkkinen writes:

The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest. For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere. It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.

The journey to becoming a great educator is hard and can be frustrating. However, by following Minkkinen’s exhortation to ‘stay on the fucking bus’, working hard, being reflective and possessing the courage of your convictions, which motivated you to start the journey in the first place, you may just become the great teacher you hope to be.

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Comic Life and changing life in Germany 1933-1939

We have almost come to the end of the first unit of the new GCSE and I want to help the students revise some of the topic and create a wall display that is more than decorative. My first plan of attack was to use the pictures/graphics from the excellent Schools History Project book ‘Essential Germany’ to illustrate change through the use of representative characters in 1933 and then their position in 1939. However, I thought this would be too passive and students would move into ‘cutting and sticking’ mode and not really reflect on the process of change. Dale Banham, one of the authors of the textbook, was kind enough to send me his presentation from the Schools History Project conference in 2009 and in it he had photos of students representing different stages of medical development through time aided by props and clothing to help identify the period/technology. Normally,  this would be an excellent idea to represent change but in the context of Nazi Germany, I wanted the students to take the subject seriously and also think carefully about how the lives of different groups (women, workers, children, Jewish Germans) were affected during this period.

A representation of Banham's change graphic on women in the 'Essential Germany' book (made with Balsamiq Mockups).

To help them really think about the topic, I decided to change the focus slightly by asking the students to create/bring in items that represent the lives of the people in 1933/1939 and photograph them. Text boxes (like the ones titled in the graphic above) would still explain the changes between two dates but the information in them would build on the image rather than just explain it. As great as this sounds in terms of the learning, it does not make for a particularly effective display and this is where Comic Life comes in. This great piece of software on the Mac (and now on the PC) allows you to create stunning comic/graphic novel pages easily. By placing the images and text within this format, my students will be able to take away something visually appealing, reflective and creative. Their understanding will be demonstrated not only by what they write but also the images they choose to represent change and after each group has created their page, I will be able to combine them into one graphic novel/revision booklet on changing everyday life in Nazi Germany. I hope to publish some of their work within the next week and would appreciate comments as this may be one of the things we look at as an Apple RTC…

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