How to boost real learning in the History classroom

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

I have been redeveloping all of my Nazi Germany lessons of late as I decided this session to take a hard look at the effectiveness of my teaching materials. I want to ensure that the lesson materials are engaging and facilitate real learning. This began my writing journey and I will be publishing my Germany (1919-45) textbook based on research-informed learning strategies in January 2020. I wanted to share a process that I went through and how I feel that it led to mastery of the topic - in this case the Munich Putsch of 1923.

My initial lesson centred around a standard textbook chapter followed by basic comprehension questions - all of which came in the same order as the textbook.

I talked through the events of the Munich Putsch, used a section of the film 'Rise of Evil' to dramatise this almost-coup.

All of my pupils did well and were able to answer all of the comprehension question.

Job done, right? Well....

I had been reading a great deal about the value of retrieval practice (I recommend this book for more on this) and so decided to give a quick low stakes quiz at the start of the follow up lesson two days later.

To my chagrin I found that pupils had either muddled events and people and had a very surface level grasp of the Munich Putsch. Taken out of context and out of order of the textbook and corresponding comprehension questions my pupils had a very low level of understanding or worse, none at all. I thought I had taught a solid lesson. On the surface, perhaps I had, but when I scratched the surface, it was clear that I had not. The knowledge and understanding of my pupils was shaky not solid.

This experience made me re-consider my approach.

Pupils have to be active participants in their learning and they have to think for themselves. Lessons need to provide opportunities and time to do so.

This one lesson made me really think about we actually learn. How can a teacher ensure learning has taken place? How can a teacher measure the depth of their pupils' understanding? Exam results? Do good results reflect real understanding/good teaching/effective memorisation/luck/strong study strategies?

I decided to re-teach the lesson. I told my pupils the rationale behind this. They appeared to be on board, perhaps because they were so dismayed by their poor scores in the low stakes quiz - I think that they, like me, believed that real learning had taken place in the previous lesson, and were alarmed that the opposite was true. I think that they also responded to my sharing of failing at something and then trying to put it right. This links to a concept discussed in one of my other blog posts. Dare I think it....did they respect me more now?

I ditched the well-meaning textbook and created new materials. Yes, it took me a while and it would have been easier not to do this, but such was my alarm at the ineffective teaching I had inflicted on my pupils, I had to address it.

I began with the following sheet which contains all of the factual points that a GCSE/National 5 pupils would need to know about the flow of events:

I discussed the flow of events and talked to the pupils about the use of dual coding (the use of images and words) and colours to help them visualise and make connections when they will need to retrieve this information again. Many of them were on board with my suggestion that they closed their eyes and tried to see the wheel above in their minds. Some of them were able to remember the images and then work their way to the explanation of each part of the event. We spent around 15 minutes on this sheet, with me talking and asking higher-order thinking questions about the implications or consequences of each event on the wheel.

I moved on to the second task - a paired task in which pupils were required to make connections between the individuals - all of whom had already been introduced. I modelled one example on the sheet:

I also projected the images on to my whiteboard and after 10 minutes I went around each pair and asked them for their best connection - we did this multiple times. I used follow-up questions to draw out their understanding and identify any misunderstandings:

I kept a score to determine which pair had made the most accurate and detailed connections.

Task three required individual pupils to re-consider the events of the putsch and complete a partially completed cartoon strip of the key events. I walked around the room, supervising and asking questions as I chatted with a number of pupils:

The next ask required paired pupils to consider sets of three words and phrases. They were not permitted to use their notes. They had to try to construct a sentence using each word, showing the connections between them. For example, if the word set included, ‘Chancellor Stresemann, the Ruhr and Bavarian’, the sentence could read as follows:

Chancellor Stresemann’s decision to begin passive resistance in the Ruhr was unpopular with a number of Bavarian state politicians.

This took more time than I had anticipated, and yet the results were fantastic. Again, I kept scores for the paired work. The competitive element really fuelled this task and pupils were actively engaged and talking to each other about the task. I don't think I had ever witnessed my pupils so animated.

Pupils were then shown the following slides that were projected on to my whiteboard. They were required to, without notes, construct a number of sentences that included the word or phrase shown. After 15 minutes the pupils consulted their other half of their paired group and worked together to fill in gaps or improve/correct their ideas:

I then went around the room calling upon the pairs to give a sentence. Each accurate response gained one mark and was added to the ongoing tally. I observed how the pupils actually appeared to be enjoying themselves - not something I witnessed with the textbook-comprehension task. Every single pupil was active and engaged.

I then posed a bigger and higher order level analytical question - Why was the putsch a failure? Instead of describing the event pupils had to think about the things that went wrong for Hitler on that evening which resulted in the failure of the putsch.

With notes pupils, in groups of 4, were asked to come up with 6 reasons. They were handed out a diagram of a ladder onto which they could write their 6 reasons:

Many found this tricky, but I advised them that this was a desirable academic challenge and that collectively they could, if they thought and tried, come up with 6 reasons. They accepted the challenge and while most could achieve 4 solid reasons, only a few groups achieved all 6 accurate reasons.

The groups were then asked to rank the reasons for the failure in order of their importance. A follow up whole class discussion ensued and we arrived at a consensus for the order of importance of the failures of the Nazis in 1923. I asked a trickier question relating to the notion that the putsch was not, in fact, a failure. I asked the class how might one justify such a statement. Only a small proportion of the class were able to access this question. I realised that I needed a fair chunk of waiting and thinking time to garner any responses from my pupils.

The final task required pupils to read a short extract from Hitler's official biography and then in their groups of four, discuss the questions provided. I monitored the discussions by walking around the room, prompting and drawing out further ideas where appropriate.

The tasks above took around two hours of teaching time. When the class came back two days later, their first task was to complete a 'cloze' reading of the Munich putsch without notes. This simple task required pupils to 'fill in the blanks' of the events of the Munich Putsch. After 10 minutes I went around the class asking each pupil in turn to give a response to the missing word. This type of retrieval practice is low stakes and pupils tend to find this fun.

Pupils then completed a key vocabulary activity- a list of 10 important individuals and concepts from the previous lesson for which they had to provide definitions or explanations.

I then moved to an examination practice question. I taught the technique - you can find my National 5 Skills Workbook here.

I wrote an original question as follows:

Evaluate the usefulness of Source A as evidence of the reasons for the failure of the Munich Putsch, 1923. (5)

Source A is from a textbook written by a modern historian in 2010

The Munich Putsch failed in 1923 because the Bavarian politicians, von Kahr and von Lossow abandoned the putsch. They also telephoned the police to inform them of the uprising. Hitler failed to secure the army barracks and this meant that he did not have control of the armed troops. Ludendorff encouraged Hitler to carry on and march to Berlin as he was convinced that they could take over the Bavarian government and later, the national German government. If the putsch had been a success, Ludendorff would have been appointed as Commander-in-Chief.

I projected and went through the set technique required for this type of source question for National 5 History (I used the mnemonic 'JTACO' which received a united cringe from the class, but they will probably remember it as a result):

Pupils completed the timed examination practice without notes but I offered a writing frame to all pupils:

With a mark scheme provided, pupils marked their own work and then swapped their work with their neighbour to check their assessment judgements.

A model answer was projected on the screen and explained:

These tasks all proved to be more engaging, active and resulted in a firm grasp, dare I say it mastery (in the long term) of this material.

Why did this work?

I believe this strategy worked because it gave pupils the opportunity to rehearse material that connected to their background knowledge. It also allowed for subtle differentiation as some pupils were able to create more detailed and advanced sentences and connections. Some used the writing frame whereas others did not. Everyone received the same information and attempted the same tasks.

New material introduced was presented in eye-catching and manageable amounts. Tasks were modelled and worked examples and writing frames were provided along with sentence starters, key words, prompts, the teacher helping when errors were made and pupils encouraged to self-correct. These strategies are all in line with the research undertaken by Rosenshine.

Only one of these learning resources introduces new information - the first resource depicting the wheel or flow of events. The rest of the resources simply offer pupils a new opportunity to generate a new version of what they have already learned. The pupils are continually processing the initial information - this all contributes to an improvement in working memory.

Nuthall's Project on Learning found that 80% of information would be retained after three separate re-presentations. This research highlighted that when information is presented in different ways it allows pupils to see connections with what has gone before. I think that this could go some way to explain why the learning was 'deeper' using the tasks above as opposed to the passive 'comprehension questions from the textbook' approach.

If you feel that these resources may help you, please use them freely, leave a comment or contact me with any questions or comments.

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