Thinking History – Ian Dawson
What is active learning?
The key features of the activities are that they require students to
a) move physically and constructively e.g. to represent patterns of alliances or the flow of events
b) “think from the inside” i.e. think about a past situation from the perspective of an
individual or group
c) take decisions from that perspective and relate these decisions to what we know actually happened in the past.
The activities fall mainly into 4 broad categories:
1. Enactive representation – activities where students, thinking in role as historical
individuals, move around a room which represents e.g. a map of England or Europe or a pattern of alliances or factions.
2. Hot-seating – activities in which the class interrogate the teacher or students in role as a historical character.
3. Group role-plays where a class takes on, for example, the role of a family or royal council to review options, determine priorities and take decisions.
4. Physical diagrams – using students to create family trees, timelines and change-continuity continuums. They involve less decision-making and role-play than Enactive representations. Why do these activities help students to learn more effectively?
1. The key to constructing and using these activities successfully is building them around learning problems that students have with a topic. Therefore activities can meet one or more of a wide variety of objectives such as
- developing knowledge of a sequence of events
- understanding contemporary attitudes and motives
- developing explanations or analysing patterns of change and continuity - challenging misconceptions about past events and thinking
- analysing why historians have differing interpretations of an event or person. Each activity in the Resources section begins by identifying its objectives and relating them to the learning problems that students have. The activities are therefore not bolted-on extras or end of term treats. They are serious learning activities – but that doesn‟t mean
they can‟t be fun as well.
2. Experience shows that these activities are very effective in motivating students of all ages and stimulating their interest. As a result they improve more traditional activities –
classroom discussion and written work. Discussion has more depth because the activity has required a higher level of concentration and has generated deeper understanding. Students are also more willing to contribute orally and to listen to each other‟s perspectives. Better-
focussed, more effective talking leads, in turn, to better writing.
3. Each student has a preference for how they receive and process information. Visual learners prefer to see information, auditory learners like to hear information and kinaesthetic learners learn best when physically involved (touching, doing, feeling) with their learning. Kinaesthetic learners are likely to benefit the most from active-learning although others, particularly auditory learners will benefit too. Variety is good for everyone, even the teacher! Students with special needs, such as dyslexia, are another group who benefit considerably from these activities.
4. These activities bring together four elements that are crucial to really effective history teaching. To teach history really well, we have to juggle four different kinds of knowledge and understanding
a) knowledge of the historical topic
b) understanding of how history is studied e.g. how evidence is analysed and used c) knowledge of the kinds of learning problems students have with a particular topic d) understanding that different students have different ways of processing and learning – as
above point 3.
In recent years, far more attention has been paid to (c) and (d) than in previous decades, and I don‟t think it is an exaggeration to say that they are crucial to making the best use of the
teacher‟s knowledge of (a) and (b) at all levels and ages of education. Put simply, you can be a really good historian and talk about history very well but if you don‟t think about how your students learn, then much of that wonderful knowledge will go to waste. The activities on this site attempt to juggle all four elements by diagnosing learning problems and providing opportunities for more varied, kinaesthetic learning and so enabling students to acquire deeper historical knowledge and understanding, which is our ultimate goal. And they‟re more fun so there‟ll be fewer people saying „I hated history at school‟.
What are some of the benefits of active learning?
1. Everyone can contribute effectively, regardless of literacy levels, and realise that hard work equals hard thinking, not necessarily lots of writing!
2. Follow-up work benefits from both the degree of involvement and the clarity of thinking generated by the activity. Continual references can be made back to pupils' actions and reactions during activity, using that very powerful question 'Do you remember when …?' to focus students' thinking.
3. Students respond positively and enjoy the activities. They report that they learn more when they enjoy a lesson and are actively involved. The power of involvement in decision-making and role-play can also be surprising. A host of anecdotal evidence suggests that students remember far more history when they have taken part in active learning. Many years ago I tried a Saxon village simulation with first year undergraduates, just for four weeks at the beginning of their course. I was a little disappointed by the outcomes at the time. Two and a half years later, after graduation, I discovered that nearly all of them could remember the names and roles that had had in the simulation, who other people were and some of the issues they had had to deal with.
4. Students have to think about and use language more precisely because words encapsulate attitudes. For example, in Je suis le roi! should the English talk about the Normans as their 'lords' or their 'masters'; whether England is 'ruled' or 'occupied'; whether the northerners were 'punished' or 'massacred'?
5. Enactive representations enable students to realise and understand the complexity of a developing situation, not see an event as a single moment in time when simple, unemotional, cut and dried decisions were made. This helps students to develop more sophisticated explanations.
6. Some activities reach the undefinables that play a part in decision making. For example, why did so many people join the revolt of 1381? Only a role-play is likely to help pupils understand the fear of being left behind alone in the village, the moral pressure to join in with your mates, the adventure of going up to London - all reasons which must have played their part in 1381, just as in 1914 and on other occasions when people made individual choices in the midst of group action.
7. Role-play also leads into the vital question of 'how do we know that these recreated attitudes and feelings are accurate?' Empathetic reconstructions must relate to evidence. Therefore an important follow-up activity is to look at the available evidence and ask pupils how certain they can be about the accuracy of their feelings in role - completely certain, fairly or totally uncertain.
What is hot-seating?
This is an activity where a teacher plays the role of a named individual (e.g. King John, Oliver Cromwell), of someone anonymous (e.g. a 1381 rebel or a survivor of Peterloo). Students can also take the hot seat but this often works better if two or three students play a group of people (e.g. Levellers or opponents of these new fangled anaesthetics). Hot-seating can be used to achieve many different purposes, such as
a) understanding different interpretations – role-play Elizabeth I to draw out her strengths
and weaknesses as queen
discussing significance – ask Napoleon to explain why he was so important
analysing motivations and attitudes – quiz Wellington on his attitudes to political reform
developing a sense of period – ask Lady Agnes Luttrell about life in the 1300s
understanding evidence – grill William of Poitiers about the value of his chronicle for the events of the Norman Conquest
In addition, the activity is good for group dynamics and student confidence. It also shows that the teacher is prepared to take risks to provide a stimulating lesson, something that students do respond well to. And, of course, it can engage students‟ emotions, creating better motivation and thus the likelihood that they will learn more.
Hot-seating works at all levels, from KS1 to undergraduate level. I first put King John in the hot-seat with second year undergraduates but, with a bit of tweaking, the same structure works well for Year 7. It‟s always worth re-iterating that students of all ages require the
same variety of teaching methods. Just because the older ones have opted for history doesn‟t mean they don‟t still need to be enthused, challenged and motivated.
Who do you put in the hot-seat? The choice is between a character who the students naturally identify with and support or someone whom they naturally oppose and even dislike. I have generally taken the latter approach, creating a tension and argument between the character and the students. Ideally try using hot-seating three times a year with a class so they develop familiarity and confidence and to vary the structure, ultimately, putting small groups of students or even a whole class in the hot-seat with you as their interrogator. What about props, dressing up etc? Period music helps to create a sense of difference and using a different room can help too. I dressed up the first time I played King John in order to boost my confidence but discovered it adds to the fun and that sense of creating a special session that students remember – always valuable at option time! A simple crown or gown is
generally enough however.
The key to the suspension of disbelief lies in your own confidence in being someone else –
always look individual students straight in the eye and hold their gaze for a few seconds so they can see that you really see yourself as the king. Ignore giggles and whispers, just play the role. It‟s amazing how appearing convinced yourself transmits itself to your audience. If
you‟re playing a royal role, make sure you walk more upright, more regally. If you‟re a 1381 rebel, be grumpy, resentful, remember you‟ve probably got advanced osteo-arthritis from
toiling in the fields.
At least as important as the hot-seating activity itself are the setting up and debriefing sessions. The setting up will take at least as long as the event because you need to ensure that students are armed with the questions and evidence to engage you in argument. First find out whether, for example, the class sympathises with Charles I or Cromwell. If they‟re
for Cromwell, then hot-seat Charles. Set up very specifically – if Charles I walked into this
room, what questions would you ask him? What would you say to him about the way he governed the country? What evidence could you use to show he was a failure as king? If he says x, then what would you say in reply?
Debriefing is equally important because you need to show that this has been about doing
what did x say? what some challenging history, it‟s not just been fun. Start with recapping –
evidence did he use? Then move onto other kinds of questions e.g. Was he convincing when he said …? Was he consistent? How do you feel about him now? Would you trust him? How would you check to see if this interpretation of him is an accurate one? Can you see any reasons why historians might disagree about him? (For „him‟ above, of course read „him or her‟ – hot-seating is a good way of getting more women into the history curriculum through playing the women who took part in key events or can tell the stories of their daily lives. For male teachers this just requires wearing a shawl instead of a gown – and believing!)
Why do many activities work best as introductions to topics?
Enactive representations and group role-plays provide an effective introduction by outlining events, people or issues or encouraging students to predict events or outcomes. This acts as a first layer of knowledge on which further classes can build. Reinforcement through layering of knowledge seems the best way to build up lasting knowledge in depth. The activity also generates enthusiasm and a desire to know more. Older students are also enabled to read independently and more effectively, building on the introductory framework provided by the activity.
Why is it helpful to use another room for some activities?
Another room creates a sense of occasion - this lesson is going to be far more special than anything in Science or another inferior subject! It also helps the suspension of disbelief that is particularly useful for, for example, hot-seating. A hall or gym is also larger and usually without the clutter of desks getting in the way. Music also helps prepare students for something different and creates a sense of period.
When debriefing, it is important to move students on from being 'in the past' to reflecting 'on the past', albeit reflections enhanced by their experience of thinking from the inside of the historical events. This is easier if the debrief takes place back in the normal classroom, rather than the room in which the activity had taken place.
Be careful if you are tempted to take a class outside to make use of more space. Your voice and those of students won‟t carry as far outside and even a gentle breeze plays havoc with tabards.
How long does an activity take?
A piece of string question! Some activities designed for A level or university are lengthy will probably take at least an hour although they can be broken into sections. Others last 20-30 minutes although some are shorter still. Ian Luff has shown, in several articles in Teaching History, how effective even very short activities can be. Everything depends on the students and the demands you want to make on them. The length of the activity is less important than the clarity with which the activity targets the problems students have in learning about the topic.
What are the key elements of debriefing?
Firstly, use closed questions which allow students to demonstrate knowledge of people and events or other information gained from the activity. These boost self-esteem as they realize how much they can remember without having written anything down! These questions also reinforce the narrative framework.
Secondly, ask more challenging, higher-order, open questions which deal with motives, explanation, consequences, attitudes etc.
Thirdly, ask students to describe aloud what they were thinking and feeling at different stages of the activity. For example, in Je suis le roi! students who played English landowners were able to express how their feelings had changed from insecurity to anger during the activity and reflect on how their inability to understand William (who spoke in French) had affected them.
The bravest questions of all are the very open ended (but worth asking!)
What have you learned today?
What surprised you about what happened in that activity?
Is there really time to add these activities into a course?
Active learning provides a most effective first layer of learning when beginning a topic. Students take vital steps in building their framework of knowledge and in developing conceptual understanding. Over 20 years experience of using these activities suggests that they are not luxuries but essentials because they accelerate learning in the early stages of a unit of work. They enable students of all abilities (although most obviously the weaker students) to overcome initial obstacles they might otherwise bounce off. Having 'walked through' events and 'thought from the inside' they are much more able get to grips with detail and complexities and, crucially at A level and beyond, they can read about them more effectively. The page is no longer an obstacle course full of completely unfamiliar material. What about the class management risks?
Students and new teachers often feel uneasy with the idea of role-play, assuming it to be a free-form invitation to anarchy. However, in these activities, the teacher's role can be likened to that of a director of ceremonies. The only movement around the room is under your direction. There is no simulated fighting or arguing. If you have previously established an effective relationship with the class this activity should not lead to a breakdown of discipline. However, never make assumptions – just because an activity works with one group doesn‟t
mean it will work with another.
Experience also suggests that the apparently risky movement can actually be of benefit with "the fidgeters", students who quickly become bored, lack confidence, feel trapped behind desks and so seek refuge in talking and other more disruptive ways. These activities licence controlled movement and talking and this meets the need of some pupils to escape from their desk-bound prison in a constructive way.
PGCE students have used these activities successfully but should first think carefully about the following:
What teaching styles are the class used to?
Do you know enough names to stay in control?
What is their previous lesson and how will it affect their behaviour?
What is the room like and the time of day?
And even – what will the weather be like? (Beware windy days!)
Are these methods suitable for A level and university classes?
A good teaching method is a good teaching method, no matter what the age of the students. My own PGCE students heard me say that a lot, probably too often, but that principle informs these activities, which are as effective at A level and university level as they are in primary and secondary schools. Just because students have volunteered for further study doesn‟t mean that they don‟t need to be motivated, enthused and to take part in activities
that match their preferred learning styles. There are plenty of kinaesthetic learners in A level and university classes who will not learn as effectively through note-taking and lectures as they will through active learning. Everyone benefits from better group dynamics and constructive talk. Another major benefit of active learning with older students is that it helps them to read more confidently because it has introduced them to names, events and issues and so they can make sense of what otherwise was completely new material. The major danger with older students is that they feel these activities are beneath them. It is vital, therefore, to explain the objectives and reasons for using this style of learning, even talking about the variety of learning styles. Demonstrating the maturity of your approach to teaching will help them take the risk of joining in the activity. Once they have undertaken an activity they will realise that the demands on thinking and concentration are far greater than during a one-hour lecture. These activities are not easy options!
Of course, with older students, you need to vary the quantity of information that students handle, according to their abilities, and you can expect more sophisticated responses as students gain experience of these methods, but the principles behind the activities remain the same, no matter what the age or ability of the students.
Can these activities lead to better written work?
The development of constructive talk in these activities supports the arguments advanced by Ian Luff and Rachel Rudham that listening and speaking play a vital role in stimulating thinking, turning half-formed ideas into clear arguments and promoting more effective writing. Rudham writes tellingly of pupils previously 'going through the motions of completing a piece of written work without real thought' but then, motivated by carefully structured listening and speaking activities, achieving a depth of thinking that 'greatly enhanced the standard'.
Other reasons why activities can enhance written work is that involvement and identification with roles increase students‟ ability to remember information and situations and leads them to care more about the issues. Having been involved in thinking 'from the inside' of a situation, students feel that the topic matters and want to do justice to it on paper. As Geoff Lyons has written 'Arousing pupils' emotions .. is deliberately intended to help them understand that the topic matters'.
I’d like to try this kind of activity but there isn’t an activity on the site that fits my syllabus or scheme of work?
There may not be an activity on the site that matches the topic you are seeking or the age-range you teach. However that does not mean the site can‟t help you! There are many
different models of activity here that can be adapted to other topics and to other age-ranges. For suggestions see the Notes, Variations and Feedback section under each activity or use the Site Search facility to track down references to topics.
What does the teacher get out of all the hard work preparing these activities?
Excitement, a sense of real achievement as a teacher, more students opting for your courses, the delight of getting a great response from students, parents at parents‟ evenings and even
degree ceremonies saying „I wish I‟d been taught history like this‟, jealous colleagues, the satisfaction of taking a risk that comes off, better results. To rephrase Terry Pratchett, it‟s the most fun you can have in front of 28(or even 280) other people.
Teaching History articles
Teaching History is a Historical Association publication. Subscribe via the Historical
Andrew Wrenn, Making learning drive assessment: Joan of Arc – saint, witch or warrior?,
115, June 2004.
The whole of Edition 114, March 2004 – Making History Personal
Ian Luff, Stretching the straitjacket of assessment: use of role-play and practical demonstration to enrich pupils‟ experience of history at GCSE and beyond. 113, December
Anna Hamilton and Tony McConnell, Using this map and your own knowledge, become Bismarck, 112, September 2003.
Maggie Wilson and Heather Scott, „You be Britain and I‟ll be Germany …‟ Inter-school
emailing in Year 9, 110, March 2003.
Ian Dawson and Dale Banham, 'Thinking from the inside: How active learning can deepen students' understanding of attitudes and reactions to the Norman Conquest.' 108, September 2002.
Phil Smith, International relations at GCSE .. they just can‟t get enough of it, 108,
Ian Luff, 'Beyond 'I speak, you listen, boy!, Exploring diversity of attitudes and experiences through speaking and listening', 105, December 2001.
Rachel Rudham, 'A noisy classroom is a thinking classroom: speaking and listening in Year 7 history', December 2001, 105.
Geoff Lyon, Reflecting on rights: teaching pupils about pre-1832 British politics using a realistic role-play, 103, June 2001.
Ian Luff, "'I've been in the Reichstag': rethinking role-play", 100, August 2000. Websites
http://www.thinkinghistory.co.uk/ Ian Dawson‟s website
http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/forum/index.php?showtopic=3844 The History Teacher‟s
Discussion Forum postings about thinking history
http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/forum/index.php?showtopic=2422 Also from the Forum
about Active Learning