Anglo-Saxon attitudes

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Sue Mulvany on a history lesson that sparked unplanned learning and got top marks

Inspectors occasionally get to see teachers who are so enthused by the subject and their job, and confident of their ability to get children learning, that conventional planning structures, although present, fade into the background as the lesson takes on a life of its own.

Such a lesson took place at a school in the Pennines. The Year 6 class was studying the Anglo-Saxons and were now learning about resistance to Viking invasion.

The objectives of the lesson were clear: to consolidate understanding of chronology; to deepen understanding of the experiences of men and women, and to improve skills of historical enquiry by examining an Anglo-Saxon cooking pot.

The teacher checked that the pupils understood the difference between primary and secondary sources and showed them the artefact. "Look closely." He dimmed the lights. "What is it? Consider the shape."

Answers came fast: "A funeral urn", "A water vessel", "A jar". Pupils had to justify suggestions and use logic to find the answer.

"Look again, can you see the dark mark on one side? How was that made?" Through guided questioning, pupils identified the object as a cooking pot for use on an open fire. The teacher asked them to recall silently what they had learned about Anglo-Saxon coastal settlements. He questioned their knowledge to create a domestic scene for an extended family group at the end of a typical day.

Suddenly we heard tape-recorded sounds of invasion: beached longboats, war cries, mayhem. Then more questions. What would the people using the cooking pot have felt when they first heard this?

The point was made that human feelings were probably the same then as now. Just then a child burst out saying that he had felt the same emotions when the police invaded his home looking for drugs.

I was on the edge of my seat. How would the teacher handle this? So often in inspections, teachers ignore pupils' bids for recognition.

The teacher asked the child and the class: "Do we need a short circle time?" Ten minutes was agreed on. What transpired was a professional response to a child's needs triggered by the lesson. The class displayed sympathy. The teacher conducted support and guidance, and let pupils develop and express their own values and beliefs, making connections with the lesson's content.

But how should such teaching skills be evaluated? It seems pedantic to describe this lesson as an example of teaching as a technology, art or science. The teacher truly educated his class, improving pupils' knowledge, judgement and skills.

The lesson received the highest grade from the Office for Standards in Education. It showed an excellent level of subject knowledge. There were high expectations of behaviour and performance. The learning objectives were achieved and assessments made throughout, informing subsequent questioning.

But the thing that made this lesson unforgettable was the teacher's authority. He used the subject to link personal, social, spiritual and moral aspects of the curriculum. Respect was reciprocal. An OFSTED inspector happened to see it because the teacher was confident.

Sue Mulvany is senior primary and early years adviser for Birmingham

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