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Sally Burnham

History teaching and working with non-specialists

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Eleven Non-specialists including a New Zealand Rugby Coach. Practical strategies to ensure high levels of history teaching when you are working with non-specialists.

Non-specialists are becoming more and more common in history departments, often because of the popularity of the subject at GCSE and A level, specialists are put with these groups leaving key stage three to a range of non-specialists. This year I have come to realise that although I have a large number of non-specialists, I can’t give the same thing to them all – I need to differentiate for my teaching staff. They are mixed ability in terms of experience, teaching ability and interest in history. My aim as Head of Department is to provide support for my colleagues whilst ensuring that there is the best possible history teaching across the school.

Many Heads of Department will know the sinking feeling when you first get to see the timetable for the following year and the history teaching staff run onto two pages – there are two choices – allow history teaching to run into the ground or make it work. Making it work is obviously the only real option we have and although I wouldn’t say I had all the answers I hope the following ideas will help you manage a diverse team of non-specialists.

Questions to ask yourself:

1. What makes a good history teacher?

2. What are the problems with non-specialists?

The key ideas I came up with are planning, resources, training, assessment and support.

Planning

How much planning do you do and how much planning should you expect a non-specialist to do? I have experimented with providing actual lesson plans for teachers and I have also tried just providing a detailed scheme of work with resources labelled in a filing cabinet. There are pros and cons for each – lesson plans model what needs to be done, show how to teach concepts and helps with subject knowledge but there is the risk of the non-specialist not planning the lesson themselves, not preparing and not thinking about differentiation needs of the class they teach. Schemes of work provide the outline and encourage new ideas and strategies but can lead to a knock on your door 5 minutes before the lesson and the statement “I’ve got history next and I haven’t…” and the danger of missing the point of an enquiry, for example an enquiry looking at why Cromwell has been interpreted in different ways becoming Cromwell – hero or villain.

Possible solution – a combination of the two? I have a folder with crib notes and a selection of lesson plans for teachers to refer to in my cupboard and I provide them with a detailed scheme of work. This year this does seem to have been quite effective and all bar one of my non-specialists have been planning their own lessons with reference to the folder at strategic points. This way is also good in that it encourages discussion among teachers as they share their ideas and resources.

Subject Knowledge

Last year at the SHP conference Charles Clarke spoke of the importance of specialists teaching subjects. One of the criteria when interviewing prospective PGCE candidates is their ability to talk about their subject with enthusiasm with reference to recent historiography. So with this much emphasis on subject knowledge it is worrying that some pupils only ever have non-specialists teaching them history for the whole of their Key Stage Three history education. There are two issues here for history teaching; subject knowledge and conceptual knowledge.

Ways to develop subject knowledge:

§ Scheme of work and accompanying notes

§ Textbook

§ Higher level textbook

§ TV programmes

§ Teaching History (specific articles and the Polychronicon – March 2004 edition looks at Cromwell, June 2004 edition looks at the Holocaust, both are key areas in most Key Stage 3 schemes of work)

Ways to develop conceptual knowledge:

§ I provide all history teaching staff with a pack at the beginning of the year outlining what we mean by causation, interpretation and significance and how we can help pupils get better at it

§ Teaching History articles e.g. when looking at significance I pop the Rob Phillips article (GREAT War) and Christine Counsell article (the 5 R’s) into pigeon holes and just put a note at the top asking which one we should use.

§ Department meetings can be devoted to looking at how to teach a concept, although when you have lots of non-specialists organising a meeting when everyone can attend may be a nightmare! We had a good meeting looking at ways of teaching causation using Chapman’s Alfonse article (TH)

Resources

What is the best approach?

§ Textbooks – which ones? Money? (Danger of death by textbook?)

§ Worksheets in a filing cabinet labelled so that staff can find the ones they need for a lesson without running up the photocopying bill (danger of death by worksheet?)

§ Videos with notes saying which sections are good. DVDs are great for this as you can recommend chapters.

§ Always embrace any attempt by others to create their own resources and make sure they are shared within the department.

Staff Training

Again what is the best approach?

§ Time set aside for you at training days

§ Afternoon off timetable for your department so you can lead some workshops

§ Meetings (If you have a large number of PE staff breakfast meetings help to overcome the problem of fixtures after school)

§ Chats over coffee/lunch to share ideas

§ Observations (make sure when you observe non-specialists you follow the golden rule of lots and lots of positives and one or two areas to develop)

§ Invite non-specialists into your classroom to observe how certain concepts are taught

§ Encourage dialogue between your PGCE students and non-specialists and if possible get the PGCE student to plan and teach one or two lessons with the non-specialist.

Assessment

Assessment is the buzz word among historians this summer and as a Head of Department it is important to develop a policy that moves pupils forwards, allows teachers to assess their own teaching and helps you as Head of Department to evaluate long term planning as well as monitoring progress. See Teaching History June 2004 edition for reading about assessment.

For both Key Stage 3 and GCSE I have a series of common assessment tasks that all pupils must complete in their books and there are mark schemes for each (see attached document). I then get all teachers to bring samples of work to department meetings so that we can moderate them and this allows us to discuss again what we mean by a certain concept, what we are looking for and how to provide constructive feedback to pupils on their work. By making this a regular event no one feels threatened and non-specialists quickly become confident in what they should be expecting and how to provide feedback that will allow pupils to get better at history.

A final word…

SUPPORT, PRAISE and THANKS are crucial – we all work better when we feel valued and this is very much the case with non-specialists.

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You have provided some excellent advice on how to improve the quality of history teaching by non-specialists.

I have found the main problem with being a head of department having non-specialist history teachers concerns their motivation. In many cases, they are reluctant history teachers. They really want to be teaching their specialist subject but because of time-tabling problems they are being forced to teach history. Therefore, they lack the most important characteristic of a good history teacher – enthusiasm.

The other major problem is a lack of self-confidence. This is often made worse by the tendency for heads of department to give them less able groups to teach. This is understandable given their lack of subject knowledge. However, it only makes the problem worse.

The long-term solution to this problem is to persuade the non-specialist teacher to think like a specialist teacher. For that to happen, the teacher has to be treated like a specialist teacher. This includes given them a fair share of the higher attaining groups. This is a difficult route to take but it is the only satisfactory solution.

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I agree - it is a justifiable response to give non-specialists the weaker groups, but the only way to turn a non-specialist into a 'specialist' history teacher is to make them want to teach history. And the best way to do that is to make them think - 'oh, I didn't know you could do that...' or 'that's much better/more efficient/saves me time compared to the way we do it in my department...' We used to distribute 'lead tasks' or preparing resources around the whole group of us, specialists and non-specialists alike. With a little thought you can choose areas/topics that fit in with a non-specialist's interests and skills. Give them, or better still let them think they have chosen to do, something that suits their skills, and get everyone else to use those resources. Discuss the way you used them, or if possible, let them observe you using them. It works.

Some team-teaching can be a useful way to inspire/motivate non-specialists, as long as it leads them to think 'I can do that,' and not, 'God I'm hopeless!' Patience, leadership skills, knowing your own subject and having the confidence to inspire non-specialists are an essential part of being a Head of Department in many schools these days.

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Since becoming Head of History in 2000 I have been the only specialist in the department (now numbering 4) and I have found this quite a challenge, particularly as I came from a department of 3 very passionate History teachers. I have tried to use a combination of schemes of work and a pack of worksheets / textbooks etc but I am not really confident that this has worked that effectively. I have also given out articles from Teaching History and led INSET on assessment / NC levels but the nagging doubt still remains. This year I will be getting a PGCE student and I shall be using this opportunity to be more prescriptive (seriously against my gut instinct, I hasten to add, as I would hate to have had this restriction imposed on my teaching) and in particular planning the dept meetings much more carefully. I was also shown an action plan recently which was really tightly focused on delivering a key skill in a half term and I am going to pilot that too. I really think that the best way forward is to get the rest of the department to produce their own teaching material, but that is easier said than done, particularly if you want to get away from low level knowledge and understanding type questions. If any one has any more great ideas I shall be very interested to read them as this is the hardest part of my job!

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I also agree, but I've always thought that you should give the weaker groups the best teachers in this case the specialists. The better groups can do with cope with a weaker teacher whereas the weak groups need to have a specialist that can lead them and manage them, molding them into a stronger group.

I agree - it is a justifiable response to give non-specialists the weaker groups, but the only way to turn a non-specialist into a 'specialist' history teacher is to make them want to teach history. And the best way to do that is to make them think - 'oh, I didn't know you could do that...' or 'that's much better/more efficient/saves me time compared to the way we do it in my department...' We used to distribute 'lead tasks' or preparing resources around the whole group of us, specialists and non-specialists alike. With a little thought you can choose areas/topics that fit in with a non-specialist's interests and skills. Give them, or better still let them think they have chosen to do, something that suits their skills, and get everyone else to use those resources. Discuss the way you used them, or if possible, let them observe you using them. It works.

Some team-teaching can be a useful way to inspire/motivate non-specialists, as long as it leads them to think 'I can do that,' and not, 'God I'm hopeless!' Patience, leadership skills, knowing your own subject and having the confidence to inspire non-specialists are an essential part of being a Head of Department in many schools these days.

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1. What makes a good history teacher?

I find this question to almost be impossible to answer. I think it is almost at the core of the problem of evaluating teaching. A competent observer can tell good teaching when they see it, but it is near impossible to create an effective rubric that accurately rates a teacher's abilities.

Factors short of an adequate education include: Ability to connect with the students, enthusiasm for learning, charisma, energy, willingness to be a continual learner, ability to continue to lesson plan even in subjects taught by that teacher for decades.

Someone who starts out under-qualified by degree can get to that point with hard work and a deidcation to doing things as well as they can. Nothing teaches a subject to someone better than trying to teach something. That is one of the inronies of education.

2. What are the problems with non-specialists?

The key problems with non-specialists are many. We do not have anyone I would call non-specialists in my history department, but I was taught history in high school and dreaded it. If the non-specialist is in the history classsroom in order to keep a coaching job or for some other reason, then that is a problem. A lack of dedication to teaching history can be a problem. If the motivation to improve is not there, or the knowledge that it could and should be done a lot better in not there, we have a problem.

The key ideas I came up with are planning, resources, training, assessment and support.

Having non-specialists in your department is something that can be addressed in a positive manner. Modelling effective. energetic teaching and showing an enthusiam to help non-specialists become specialists seems to me a much better approach than grumpling about the sad sacks teaching history to a better informed clleague over a cup of coffee.

For department chairs, it seems there are some great ideas. The folders could be very helpful, as long as it doesn't turn into a handout scenario where the non-specialist remains a non-specialist. Classroom supervision and evaluation with a clear message that there are resources for improvement for non-specialists, and that the observations are not meant to embarass or find grounds for firing someone.

Non-specialists with a thirst for knowledge and a healthy support team cannot remain non-specialists for long. Someone who has been in a history classroom for five years who is still a non-specialist is a failure on the personal and institutional level.

These are obviously disorganized opinions and not scientific evidence. So get you grain of salt out.

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I was a Head of History who had lots of non-specialists working in the department, but fortunately, they were all strong in their overall professionalism (preparing thoroughly, good with the kids, conscientious in parking etc. This helps but obviously it is not enough, and I should have done more to help them, to make sure that they set tasks and did lessons which were genuinely valuable in historical terms. Regular, friendly meetings to share resources and ideas help, Teaching History (the journal) is an excellent resource to develop colleagues' skill in addressing valid historical agendas. It's not perfect, but on balance I'd reather have a good professional who is not a subject specialist than someone who is history trained but is not a strong professional.

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