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Tag: Ian Dawson

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!”

 

Moral:

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 form 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:  http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/courses/msc-learning-teaching/

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How to use an iPad effectively in your classroom: #2 Feedback Support/Overviews with Attitude

Feedback on students’ work is, according to the research (John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam), the most effective way to raise achievement. Despite knowing this, we find it hard to give the necessary time to discuss in depth the strengths and areas for development due to perceived constraints (syllabus/curriculum coverage, behaviour management issues or lack of time). I remember a few years ago when I was struggling to find a way to incorporate feedback that an inspirational teacher (and good friend ) Iain Biddle at Presdales School pointed me in the right direction. Iain would set up a task and then use the lesson to meet every student for a few minutes to go through their work. His argument that the feedback was more important than the curriculum being covered for one lesson stuck with me and I soon adopted his idea with my own students but I always felt a little dissatisfied about the tasks I set as I felt that sometimes there was more emphasis on keeping the students busy rather than learning.

With my IB History class this term I have really worked hard to give effective feedback but I was at the point in my Scheme of Learning where I really needed to start the new topic of Mao’s consolidation of power in China 1949-57. I normally start a new topic by using an overview so students can gain a sense of the ‘Big Picture’ and lean heavily on the work of Ian Dawson. However, the overviews I employ demand heavy teacher involvement which means not being able to spend quality time giving the necessary feedback. I needed an alternative.

I had been toying with the idea of using ePub books for a while but needed to find the right time. ePub is an electronic book format that can be created using a number of applications including Apple’s Pages application and the results can be pretty stunning with audio, video and images embedded with the text. This seemed to be a good alternative in terms of giving the students information but I also wanted them to gain a sense of chronology. An ePub book by itself was not going to allow me to do this (apart from using a very drab timeline) but I returned to one tool that has been incredibly useful for teaching chronology: Beedocs’ Timeline 3D. What is impressive about the application is the ability to create timelines and embed multimedia into the timeline itself giving both a sense of chronology and knowledge. Having created a timeline with clips from a number of documentaries on China and audio clips by Professor Rana Mitter and Dr Patricia Thornton from the University of Oxford, I embedded the video file created by Timeline 3D into Pages. I added a few questions for the students to work on and made sure the video file was ‘inline’ with the text (necessary to do otherwise Pages cannot convert the document to ePub). I then copied the ePub file to the iPads and told the to bring their headphones in to the next lesson.

What followed was an example of the pedagogy driving the use of the device, not the other way round (or as I have started to say, the device is not the pedagogy). I handed the students the iPads, pointed out iBooks to them and told them to open the book and complete the work. The duly plugged in their headphones and set about gaining an overview of Mao’s China. Whilst they were watching/listening/reading, I spoke to each student individually about their essay using the following format:

  • I ask  how they felt the essay went (they usually fill in a self assessment form when they submit work).
  • I go through the aspects I really like
  • We then discuss specific things they could do to improve.

As I have come to expect, the students responded positively to the feedback but what was particularly interesting was what I noticed when I observed the students using the iPad:

  •  Students could pick up their learning where they left it after discussing their work and they did not feel disadvantaged by spending a few minutes in the corridor discussing their work;
  • The ability to ‘scrub’ through the clip and minimise the video within the ePub so they could see the questions allowed them to replay important points at their own speed and to reduce the friction between moving between the questions and the resource.

This may seem a pretty mundane lesson as essentially they were given some material and I spoke to them individually about their work. The result in the first instance was extremely positive; they were able to return the following lesson and relate the overview of events to the abstract discussion on Mao’s political ideology which I was very pleased about. As for the feedback, I am looking forward to the next essay as I now get drafts before the deadline with the feedback incorporated into the work. It may not be the most ‘showy’ use of an iPad, but it certainly was very effective in terms of learning.

 

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SHP Reflections

 

Ian Dawson holding court

As usual, it has taken me some time to process this year’s Schools History Project conference in all its glory. Held over a July weekend at Trinity and All Saints, Leeds, the conference is the premier event in the country for History teachers. Packed with workshops by innovative practitioners, I always walk away with ideas and challenges for the forthcoming year. My personal workshop highlight this year was seeing Johannes Ahrenfelt and Neal Watkin in action. Their session covered making the subject relevant to learners today but with a deep appreciation of pedagogy. I was particularly inspired by the work Neal is doing in school – more to come in a future post…

 

Neal Watkin at work

Neal Watkin at work

As always, I ended up missing some workshops due to scheduling and hearing the conversations about how great the workshops were did not make me feel any better! One interesting plenary session that I was able to see was the work of the Black and Asian Studies Association in conjunction with Dan Lyndon and Martin Spafford. The use of academic research in schools is so exciting and as we are rewriting our schemes of work/learning, I hope to get my hands on some of the showcased material.

I did not run a workshop this year but helped organise the second TeachMeet SHP edition at the conference. Last year we had around 30 delegates attend. We were given a much larger room this year and I was very pleased to see that the presenters drew a large crowd!

 

TeachMeet SHP edition

 

Once again, I must thank Don Cumming, Mark Stacey, Esther Arnott, Lesley Ann McDermott, Terry Haydn, Neal Watkin, Nichola Boughey, Sally Thorne and Julie Wright for giving such great presentations and putting up with me snapping away on my camera. I hope that for next year’s conference I will not have to twist the arms of people I know and I must give a special mention to Julie Wright for ‘walking the talk’ about a growth mindset and getting up and giving a presentation about Carol Dweck’s work in the context of the History classroom. I also need to thank Pearson for kindly providing sponsorship for the event and  Michael Riley for having the wisdom to see what a TeachMeet could do despite my very poor explanation of the format. I believe that the forthcoming London History Network event in October will also have a TeachMeet session so if you would like to come along, please sign up on the website!

One of the best things about the conference is the collegiate atmosphere cemented by many a conversation and Ian Dawson’s saturday evening extravaganza. Unfortunately, not everyone can make it to Leeds so I was very pleased to hear that the ‘SHP Family’ will be making a day excursion to London on the 26th November to hold an event in the British Library. If you would like to come along and gain some of the best CPD ever, please check the SHP website, Twitter feed and Facebook page.

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