History - Have a blast with the past

1st March 2013 at 00:00
Aim for light-bulb moments by acting out historical dilemmas

Assessing children's understanding of history should never be pigeonholed as determining how well they can write about it. But sadly it often is.

For me, the light-bulb moment comes when a child suddenly understands why a person in history acted the way they did, and how that defines the period. This is one of the reasons I like to make lessons practical - to cater for all learning levels.

I also ensure that my groups are of mixed ability and that my learning objective is followed by clear three-tiered success criteria. This enables pupils to "show off" what they know, at different levels, allowing more of those light-bulb moments.

Experience brings about understanding, and lively activities lead to a love of history. Squeezing children into cardboard chimneys (to show what life was like for a Victorian chimney sweep), segregating them by the number of letters in their name (to bring home the horrors of discrimination) or playing "life and death" hide and seek (with Bloody Mary's Tudor reformers hunting Protestants to burn at the stake) gives pupils a practical understanding of history at a deeper level.

Children "get it" because the experience is real and that enthusiasm easily transfers to other areas of the curriculum where pupils with special educational needs may struggle; it can also help to raise the bar for higher attainers.

History is a living, breathing thing and it should not necessarily be assessed in the same way as other subjects.

Let's take the Romans, for example. They invaded, conquered and settled in the UK, but how did that feel for the native Britons? I thought that the best way for my class to understand this was to experience it. And so we did. In collusion with my like-minded colleague, at the end of lunchtime I kept my class out in the playground on the pretence of looking for a missing glove. Meanwhile, my colleague, with whom I had furtively swapped teaching books and possessions, got on with her lesson in my room.

When my pupils came in they were horrified to discover that their classroom had been "conquered". The outrage increased when the conquerors explained that they had taken our room because theirs was too small and ours had more windows.

"That's not fair!" my class exclaimed as we trudged into my colleague's classroom with its smaller chairs and "easy" reading books. The grumbles soon turned to a heartfelt discussion about how it felt to be invaded.

Then we discussed our options. We could fight for it (discouraged by me - although I explained that was what Boudicca had done), negotiate to get it back, or share it. As the discussion went on, I steered the children towards the real conquered Britons, what they had done and how they had coped. It was clear that deep-seated learning was taking place.

This lesson provided a fantastic starting point for further studies. The rest of the topic concentrated on how much life changed from the Britons' point of view - and the class was more inclined, indeed eager, to focus on it.

Chris Fenton is an associate head and educational publisher

What else?

Try alainechristian's chronology lesson for SEN pupils, which sets kinaesthetic tasks and uses visual aids.


Take your pupils time-travelling without leaving their seats with the TES History collection.


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