War! What is it good for?

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Plenty, says Neil Smith, who has built a topic based on the conflict between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers
Plenty, says Neil Smith, who has built a topic based on the conflict between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers

I wanted to develop an exercise that tested the factual knowledge of Year 8 pupils about a topic we'd just covered - the causes of the English Civil War. I also wanted to introduced them to the idea that historians like to group similar factors together in order to identify broad trends or themes.

Each pupil downloaded the task from the school's virtual learning environment. The first part, testing their knowledge of the course content, was a list of explanations for the outbreak of the Civil War, mixed up with a few red herrings. After reviewing their previous work, they had to decide which explanations were correct and delete the false ones.

The decision-making became more challenging when pupils were asked to identify any similarities between the correct explanations, and deciding what type of cause each explanation represented. For example, they might recognise that "Parliament objected to many of Charles's advisers" and "The 19 Propositions forced the King and his supporters to take action against Parliament" were both related to how the country was governed, and so could be classified as a political factor.

They dragged each explanation into one of three textboxes: political, economic and social. The pupils typed their own understanding of the terms at the top of each box.

Given the more sophisticated nature of this section, it can be easily adapted for pair work; for instance, pupils could compare which of the explanations they have retained, before discussing what type of category they fall into.

By evaluating their own, and their peers' performance, they will hopefully be encouraged by their progress and motivated to move on to the more demanding aspects of the lesson. They can also reflect on errors that they might have made, so they can go back and redo this part of the exercise.

Working in pairs, most pupils should be able to group the factors together into the correct textbox.

This is all done in Word but, for a last challenge, I insist that the final piece of work is written on a single piece of A4, with the textboxes neatly spaced out.

Neil Smith teaches history at Manchester Grammar School.

What do you hope to achieve?

- By requiring the task to be completed with a reasoned conclusion, pupils are encouraged to make links between features within the time period.

- Introducing the notion of relative significance forces pupils to make links between the different causal factors that were principally responsible for turning King and Parliament against each other in 1642.

- This particular task, which is easily adaptable for different topics and age ranges, forces the pupils to become decision-makers at every stage. It tests knowledge and understanding in a challenging and interesting fashion. Most importantly, it makes them think.

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