Sources of inspiration
It was wet. It was windy. It was Thursday afternoon. Year 5 had been on their best behaviour for the team of Office for Standards in Education inspectors all week but there were 36 of them cooped up in a mobile designed for 28 and they were getting cabin fever.
It was not the ideal setting for an outstanding lesson. Mobile classrooms are a problem when it comes to display, but the class teacher had risen to the challenge. They were doing the Tudors and every available space was crammed with portraits and posters, topic books and replica artefacts. There were labels everywhere encouraging children to look, to touch, and to find answers to questions.
Children's work was up on the walls. There was lots of it and it was good. Stimulating environment for learning was the comment on the inspector's observation form.
The teacher set the lesson objective succinctly. She said: "Today we're going to compare two sources which can help us to find out what a rich person's bedroom looked like in Tudor times. Then we'll decide which was the most helpful. Here's the first."
Out came the slide projector, up went the picture of Sir Henry Unton lying picturesquely in a four-poster bed and the class forgot about the driving rain outside and focused in on the task. The note on the observation form went like this. Teaching: clear learning objectives, shared with pupils. Purposeful working atmosphere rapidly established.
Teacher: "What's happening? Who is he? Two minutes to talk with your partner and see if you can work out what this picture is about."
Clearly the class was used to this way of working. It was a death-bed scene, they decided. The people around the bed were crying because he was going to die. Someone spotted the doctor taking his pulse, and suddenly there was a more lurid discovery.
Pupils: "Those little bowls on the table. They've got blood in them!" There was a frisson of ghoulish excitement.
Response: all pupils fully involved, said the inspector's next note, as the class teacher delivered a crisp explanation of the theory of blood letting.
Teacher:"Now look at the furniture. How many different things can you see? Don't forget the bedclothes!" A list was compiled and written on the board.
Teacher: "Now then, this picture was painted in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Can we trust it? Do you think bedrooms really looked like that in Tudor times?" There was a forest of hands. Everyone had an opinion. More important, children listened to those of other people. There was a brisk exchange of views on bleeding cups. Did every bedroom have them? Opinions differed. Someone suggested looking at another bedroom, or a book. It was the perfect lead in to the next part of the lesson. "Here's the other source," said the teacher. "But we have to be careful with this one. It was written a hundred years later. Do you think that matters?" The class wasn't sure. As far as some children were concerned, both came from the "Olden Days", so they could be used impartially. But some thought things might have changed in 100 years. The teacher listened and took note of responses. The different answers revealed varying levels of understanding. Informal assessment skillfully managed, was the inspector's comment.
"Well," said the teacher after the children had had their say, "let's see whether the two sources agree with each other. Do they both show us the same things?" Out came the Speke Hall inventory, photocopied on an overhead transparency. Teaching: well-structured lesson using stimulating first-hand source material, was the next note on the observation form. Teacher: "Don't try to read it all. See if you can find just one word."
There was a frowning silence. "Curtains!" a boy shrieked. "It says curtains!" The teacher wrote "curtains" on the overhead transparency and marked off blanks for the words around it. "Rodds and rings" came easily. Bedstead, with its long "s" took some working out.
Teacher:"Now, get into your pairs and see if you can read the next bit. Write down the words you can read. Don't try to read it all, though. Start with the parts that I've highlighted."
The class dispersed in a buzz of excited activity, punctuated by cries of discovery. Words began to appear on the sheet. Censorious comments were made about some of the spellings. After 15 minutes the pairs swapped over to tackle a sheet started by someone else. Meanwhile, the special needs group, with helper, worked on a shorter, simpler sheet, illustrated with labelled pictures of some of the pieces of furniture. With the class settled, the teacher gave a five-minute tutorial on pre-decimal currency to a group of high-fliers, and left them with a fact sheet to work out the values of the goods. Activities cater for pupils of differing abilities, wrote the inspector.
The class worked furiously for another 15 minutes before coming back together for a final, triumphal reading. One or two words had defeated everyone. "Truckle beds" were not in Year 5s' vocabulary and pounds, shillings and pence had proved a challenge. But between them the children had read the inventory and the sense of achievement was tangible.
Back went the picture on the screen for a comparison of the two sources and then it was time to reflect on what the children had learned. Returning to the value of the two sources, children argued hotly about which was the most useful and why.
Excellent progress in children's ability to use and interpret historical evidence. Substantial gains in knowledge about everyday life in the period, was the final comment. A very good lesson indeed.
Why did this lesson work?
We tend to think that perfect conditions are required to deliver an outstanding lesson. That certainly wasn't the case in this example. Excellent planning, high expectations and very good resources led to a resounding success.
Children had a chance to use real historical source material in a purposeful way. The clearly stated aims meant that they knew what they were doing right from the start. The resources were pitched at the right level to make the task challenging, but not frustrating.
The material was well chosen to engage the interest of the group. Pupils tackled the inventory confidently, as if it was a puzzle. The lesson was beautifully structured and very well paced.
Not a moment was wasted, but the teacher left time for the discussion that helped children to tease out their ideas. She made skillful use of questioning to get children thinking about the issue of reliability of sources, and differentiation and the use of peer support were very well managed.
Dinah Starkey is an Oftsed inspector
LESSON PLAN: Year 5 history
The class: mixed-ability Year 5 group, studying the Tudors.
Learning outcomes: to develop skills in using and comparing historical source material; to recognise some of the problems involved. Resources: a facsimile extract from an inventory, listing the contents of the Little Nursery at Speke Hall; a colour slide from a Tudor portrait showing Sir Henry Unton in bed.
Whole-class introduction: introduce the word "inventory" and explain why they were made in Tudor and Stuart times. Look at the detail from the Unton portrait and make an inventory of the furniture shown in his bedroom. Teacher scribes. Decode the first sentence of Little Nursery extract together.
Each pair of children has a copy of the extract to decode. Children write in any words they can read. After 15 minutes, pairs move around and look at someone else's work. They add words and go on with decoding for 15 minutes.
The special needs group uses a differentiated sheet and is supported by an assistant. Mixed-ability pairing gives peer support.
Extension: pupils who finish quickly begin to work out the value of goods, using a fact sheet that explains the values of pounds, shillings and pence.
Read the text together. Supply words that the children have failed to get and discuss their meaning. Compare the contents of the Little Nursery with the Unton portrait. Which source is the most useful? What problems did children meet in using either source? Discuss the dating of the inventory. It is a century later than the picture. Does this matter?
Can children decode the words? Can they see literal differences between the sources? Can they explain why one source might be more useful than the other? Do they recognise problems caused by the dating?