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Handing it over – Part 1 (success)

In this and the next blog post I’m going to be looking at the first two of my three attempts this year to hand over some control of the curriculum to my students.

Why?
One of the things that seem to be increasingly important both with a skills focussed curriculum and with the massive growth in information available is pupil choice in their curriculum. We have done this on a large scale within the SMART programme, but I was interested in how this could be done within a normal classroom.

What?
I decided to try three separate activities over the year, each with my year 9 History classes. This was primarily driven by the fact that by running the same project with three different classes I could hopefully get a more accurate reflection of the ideas, rather than just one classes reaction to them. I decided I would try the following:

1. An open research topic on anything within the 20th Century. This was to be presented back in a class exhibition, and so could be a poster, a book, a movie,  an interactive powerpoint / animation and so on.

2. Group based ‘mini-lessons’ on any aspect of World War 1, where students with similar interests got together to research, plan and deliver a 20-30 minute lesson on a topic of their choice.

3. Repeat the first activity, but this time giving students any topic at any point in time to study!

The rest of this post will focus on the first project. Tomorrow’s post will (hopefully) focus on the second and I’ll blog about the third in a few weeks time when we’ve completed it!

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The project

1. The set up

We started with a lesson recapping all the questions that they have tried to answer in History lessons over the last two and a half year. From this list, they tried to draw up a list of ‘big’ historical questions. We wrote these up on the board, creating three lists as we did so:

‘Small questions’
Who was..
When was…
What happened at…

‘Big Questions’
‘Why did…’
‘How did…’
‘Who do you think…’
‘What caused…’
‘What was the consequence of…’
‘What changed / stayed the same between…’

‘Hypothetical questions’
What would have happened if…

Each group came up with an hypothetical question themselves (I wouldn’t have introduced it to them otherwise!) and we discussed why they were so hard to answer.

I then explained the project and the fact that they would have three weeks to do their research and put their finished piece together. To try and make sure everyone was on track and completing something reasonable, at the start of the following lesson, each student submitted their title and brief outline on a slip of paper, which I then looked over and either approved, or suggested amendments to.

Each student made a note of my email address in case of questions / problems, and each lesson between this and the exhibition had a two minute ‘questions and update’ session in, where students could ask questions, and I would pick on people at random and ask them how they were getting on.

The exhibition

Each class got one lesson. Students had five minutes to set up their ‘stall’, and each exhibit had a feedback form along side it. We then split the class in half, with the first half going around for 20 minutes, asking questions and leaving feedback, before swapping over. Those people that had produced ICT resources swapped over at this point, and I was able to use the classroom computer, my laptop, one of the macs that I’d borrowed from SMART and one of the new Asus EEEPCs to ensure that everyone got a go at showing their work off. At the end of the lesson we talked about which projects we particularly liked, techniques and approaches that we thought had worked well, and their views on this approach.

Overall the quality was very impressive. Around 50% of them had really nailed the idea of finding a ‘big questions’ to ask and answer about their topic, and even those that hadn’t had clearly done some research.

What Went Well

  • Overall, the level of engagement was over and above that of a normal lesson / topic. In some cases an exceptional amount of effort had been made. I put this in no small part down to the level of choice afforded to the pupils
  • A range of topics had been explored, including some that would not normally find a place in the History classroom, including Fashion, the founding of the Red Arrows, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the factors in Rugby becoming a safer sport over the 20th Century.
  • The exhibition kick started some excellent conversations with and between pupils and had a very positive atmosphere
  • Some students had clearly used the opportunity to try something new, including in one case movie making
  • It opened up discussions about the nature of historical questions, something that is often overlooked

Even Better If

  • Some were fairly copied and pasted, while others were about ‘facts’ rather than the history. However I hope that by repeating the process next term some of those students will understand this and be able to move beyond it
  • In the case of one class the exhibition was not as well focussed and as positive as the other two. This may be in part down to the small class size and also down to some key individuals. I will consider providing more structure in the feedback, and perhaps a follow up sheet for the next one.
  • Much of the feedback was superficial, and in the EBI comments in particular focussed on the number of facts or the presentation, rather than the quality of the history. I hope to address this by looking both at more clear success criteria, and some possible comments before the next exhibition

Would I do this again?
Absolutely! And not only will I do another one later in the year with these three classes, I’ll also be looking at ways of making this a regular feature of my teaching in future years with all my year groups.

Dave Stacey