“I am a product of long corridors”: Opportunities for active learning in history

26th January 2016 at 15:01

Subject Genius, Paul Middleton, Opportunities for Active Learning in History

Another year, another Inset – this time on Active Learning and its benefits in subjects like history. “Spend time letting your students work out the true meaning of a concept, rather than just giving it to them straight away.” “Let your students choose their own learning objectives for the lesson and let them decide what they learn next week.” The basis of the idea makes sense; however, like me, I doubt many teachers have the time to discuss ‘revolution’ or ‘democracy’ at the length they would like to. Does telling them the answer after 5 minutes of discussion make me a bad teacher?

Coming from a performing arts school with lessons lasting just 35-40minutes (yes, you heard me correctly) makes completing the GCSE and A-Level courses particularly challenging. Corners have to be cut if my students are going to get a decent grade, in this case, Active Learning. But I’ve discovered that intellectual curiosity does not have to go completely out of the window. It is all about finding those moments in a child’s day where you can still educate and inspire them. The corridor is a great example, with display boards being the key device in delivering unique subject content.

These are the shop windows of our subject, with footfall rivalling that of Oxford Street on Black Friday. Break times, lunch times, before lessons…there are numerous occasions where students can be seen passing the time before they are summoned into lessons. These are valuable opportunities where a well-constructed display board can create a lasting impression on a student. From my experience, kids love displays that speak to them (not literally, although I am working on that…) A display that is interactive, a display that speaks their language or is relevant to the modern world; these are much more effective than a board on a subject that only a small portion of the school actually study, be it KS3, GCSE or A Level. Below are some ideas as to how we can seize those precious moments of every day in order to develop our student’s historical understanding.


  1. 1. Historical Emojis. I am leading with this one, as it has been by far my most successful display to date. Every fortnight I put up a set of emojis that represent a historical event. Students can then complete guess sheets, which are placed in an envelope attached to the display. The following week the students with the correct guesses are revealed, along with a description of the event for anybody that was unfamiliar with it. Students initially seemed surprised at the fact that a teacher knew what emojis were, let alone that they were being used in school [Insert: Shocked face. Scary ghost. Sassy dancer.] Although this display seems like a lot of work at first, it only takes 5-10minutes to update once the sheets have been printed out and it can be left up all year.
  2. 2. Historical Objects. Similar to the previous display in its fortnightly rotation; however, this one uses unusual objects from the past to encourage discussion and independent thought. Objects that I have used have included: an ancient teething charm, the first sketch of bacteria and a beauty micrometer (that was incorrectly guessed as a medieval torture device. This next generation of students are seriously disturbed…)
  3. 3. Historical Heights. This was a display that I’ve seen done before and I’ve adapted. The premise is to find the heights of historical figures from throughout history. Then, using a tape measure, stick a printout of the faces on the display board at the relevant height. The space underneath can be used to display facts about each figure. Most students love matching themselves against people from the past, whilst many 5ft 8in Sixth Formers look in horror as Adolf Hitler stares back at them…
  4. 4. History Across the World. This is actually a Geography display that I have adapted for our history department. Before the summer term set all your students the voluntary homework of sending a postcard displaying a historical site to the school. You’ll find that most of your pupils will jump at the chance to show off where they have been, yet you actually only need 10-20 to make the display work. In September, collate the postcards and stick them around a map of the world. Use pins and string to match up the cards with their locations, or to show the distance travelled from the school. This really shows off some of the most incredible sites in the world, as well as those of the British Isles. A Historical Environment study has now been introduced at GCSE; so this would be a great way to kick start the new specification! 
  5. 5. Concepts in History. Don’t have the Active Learning time to discuss those tricky concepts in history? Put a word in the middle of a white display board and encourage your students to give their ideas as to what that words means. You’re not necessarily looking for a dictionary definition; it’s more about encouraging your students to write (or draw) what they think of when they see that word. You can oversee the whole operation, writing replies to interesting posts or covering up those inappropriate doodles of the male anatomy (which, I’m afraid, will be inevitable).


Subject Genius, Paul Middleton, Medieval church display


So there it is, a way that we as history teachers can implement Active Learning without actually having to give up any of our teaching time. Not to mention the fact that we will now be considered the ‘cool teachers’ for introducing emojis to the school corridors… [Insert: Rocket. Unicorn. Pineapple.]


A sample Historical Emojis display (with a set of 15 events) can be purchased on my TES shop: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/history-display-historical-emojis-11195132



Paul Middleton is the History Co-ordinator at an independent school in Hertfordshire.