It’s been a busy time the last few weeks. Amongst other things:

  • A presentation to the Education Faculty for my Master of Research proposal – which has shifted to looking at the ways in which a newly designed space is being used and whether this affirms what the literature says should happen in such spaces.
  • A focus group with AITSL looking at the ways in which they can reach more teachers and schools to support the profession.
  • Running two TeachMeets at the FutureSchools conference in Sydney
  • The 2015 March ICTENSW Conference, the biggest and best yet and at which the likes of @largerama @dan_bowen and @bronstuckey were in fine form along side students, teachers, pre-service teachers and specialists to explore the computer sciences and the use of ICT in the classroom.
  • Attending a seminar on the history of architecture, specifically focussed on ‘quiet’ spaces in progressive schools in the UK. Very interesting to see that a rocking horse can have such positive effects on learning. Movement + comfort seems to = learning gains.

But of course, the most important thing I do is be in the classroom with my students. We get to jump into our mental Tardis and fly through the past, looking at what happened from different points of view, evaluating the causes and effects of events and issues. We get to meet people who seem so human to us when we delve into how they thought and felt (at least, what they left behind for us to see). This week in particular I found the use of two particular strategies quite effective.

The first was a variant on the hexagonal thinking approach which is part of the SOLO Taxonomy. As we are coming up to senior exams for my Modern History and History Extension (historiography) classes, I thought it would be useful for the students to identify which ideas we had covered, which they wanted to cover in more detail and how the ideas connected to each other.

The beauty of the hexagonal thinking approach is that each student’s final pattern will look completely different to others in the room. There is no right answer. Each student will have different reasons to connect the main ideas and be able to give reasons for making those connections. Translating this into a written piece can be challenging, but is so very useful to having them think outside of a basic chronological understanding of past events.

As we are looking at the origins of the Cold War, some students connected the Yalta Conference to Soviet ideology, suggesting that Stalin’s aims and purposes were driven mainly by ideology rather than a genuine attempt at peace. Others connected the Korean War to the Truman Doctrine, arguing that it was one of the first examples of Containment (central to the US approach in the early stages of the Cold War).

The conversations that my students had between each other were fascinating, the questions were deep and provocative:

“Why did you connect those two when X is actually a cause of Y?”

“Because if you think about it thematically not chronologically, it makes sense.”

And so on.

This activity not only tests a student’s knowledge of content but also forces them to think beyond the literal and linear and also forces them to engage with other people’s perspectives and arguments, which in turn develops deeper understanding and – dare I say it – wisdom.

The second approach was with my Year 9 History class and it was pretty much as fun as you can get whilst still being educational.

The Industrial Revolution Game or sometimes called the Urban Game is a way to help students understand the sheer speed and impact of the industrial revolution on a sleepy English village from 1700 to the late 1800s.

A descriptive, narrative game that requires students to pair up (in one variant) and sketch the various buildings and infrastructure as you narrate through the ‘story’ of the village (I use slides on a screen to give kids visual clues and keep the game moving) the students start to find that, for example, their inclination to keep the forest around the village starts to be challenged by the march of progress. In the form of canals, railways, housing and, of course, pubs (amongst other buildings).

It’s stressful, challenging and fun. I saw students who are hardly engaged at all with the general idea of History light up and get right into the game as they sought to preserve what they had built as more and more people and industry flows into the town. Students feel something during this game – this makes the experience much more meaningful and reflects the pandemonium of the industrial revolution much better than reading from a source or answering textbook questions.

So although we may – and should – seek out opportunities to develop outside the classroom and make a contribution beyond our own schools, it’s good to remember that our core focus as teachers is to help our students learn in ways that are both productive but also engaging. And also, not often, not nearly as often as we’d like, but sometimes, just sometimes… inspiring.