'History teachers, don't get caught up in chronology'

History teacher Samuel Mack-Poole explains how his method of grouping content has revolutionised students’ understanding

History doesn't have to be taught chronologically - teaching by theme can improve understanding, argues this teacher

“Every misconception is a poison: there are no harmless misconceptions” – Leo Tolstoy

There is nothing worse for a history teacher than a misconception.

Despite our best efforts to inspire, engage and fundamentally teach what is a very academic subject, students connect similar events in an erroneous way. 


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We know why: the developing brain is besieged by information on a daily basis from a variety of different subjects, especially core subjects with their dominance on a student’s timetable.

Not only that, students are preoccupied with their social lives, and have a variety of apps on their mobile phones with which to manage them.

Tackling misconceptions in history

We are fighting an uphill battle, yes, but it is a noble battle to fight, and it can be won. This is a cognitive battle.

It all ties in quite neatly with the latest in-vogue educational philosophy: cognitive load theory. One aspect of cognitive load theory is that knowledge should be reduced to a core level of simplicity. 

The strategy I employ – and I have amassed enough evidence through teaching eight GCSE classes over the past two years with improved results – is to teach content that is similar within the same lesson. 

History teachers often opt to teach a course thematically or chronologically. I try to incorporate a dual approach: I’ll start chronologically, but I’ll teach thematically where I know misconceptions arise.

Back to the Black Death

Let me elaborate. Medicine Through Time is a very content-rich course. I’ll introduce the Middle Ages, going through the influence of Hippocrates and Galen. 

Eventually, as a class, we will get to the Black Death of 1348. That pesky Yersinia pestis will also crop up in the Great Plague of London in 1665.

Therefore, I actively teach the similarities and the differences. I will explicitly teach this and emphasise these facts strongly.

I dual-code, create a table, storyboard, perform a cringey teacher rap and generally do as much as I can to teach the same differences (albeit in different ways) in order to steer my students away from misconceptions.

This applies to various examples across modules I have taught. Various examples are:

·       The Hungarian Revolution vs The Prague Spring.

·       The Berlin Air Lift of 1948 vs the Berlin Wall 1961-1989.

·       The Kapp Putsch 1920 vs the Munich Putsch 1923.

·       Hyperinflation 1923 vs The Wall Street Crash 1929.

·       The Ridolfi, Throckmorton and Babington plots – particularly tricky, as it’s a triple whammy.

·       Likewise, as above, the three conferences of the Cold War (Tehran, Yalta and Postdam).

·       Sir Francis Drake’s raids during his circumnavigation 1577 vs his Singeing of the King’s Beard in 1587.

 

In showing your various line managers how you’ve devised strategies to enhance your students’ grades, you’ll be able to demonstrate how you’re proactive, thoughtful and pedagogically focused.

This is something I have also used to enable my students to get through some turgid content on the new 9-1 GCSE specification at a more rapid pace. 

Therefore, I can only quantify this practice as a win-win; your students will have fewer misconceptions and you will have covered twice as much content. There is a caveat here – the lessons at the school I work in are 105 minutes long. 

So, you could say that it is easier for me to cover far more given the length of the lessons I teach. Nevertheless, if I went back to 60-minute lessons, I would still actively teach in the same way.

The choice is yours, historians – given the narrow time constraints and wide course content, what are you going to do?

Samuel Mack-Poole is a director of humanities at a secondary modern in south-east London

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