Workshop 1: Beth Baker

Beth is talking about improving student ability to argue. We start by considering why students struggle to argue; Beth polled her students and the common responses were not having the words to express themselves, not having the confidence, not being interested enough and not knowing whether it is correct. So, we need to enthuse them first and then give them the tools to be able to do it.

Students need to understand that history is a live subject, constantly being debated, which means they have to learn to deal with a level of uncertainty. They need to create nuanced arguments, avoiding sweeping generalisations; to learn the read critically so they can distinguish between argument and narrative; and to appreciate the wider historiographical debate. These skills should be introduced earlier on and built on as students move through the key stages.

Step one: getting them to be ok with uncertainty. We are given medieval character cards and asked to order ourselves from best to worst quality of life. This got us to discuss and reach a compromise, and make comparisons among different people. Helps to show students hat there’s no right or wrong answer.

Using historians. Beth shares a year 7 exercise where students read a piece from Schama and have to match an opinion with the text, to help them access it. They then write speeches that challenge what Schama said: they had a desire to argue, so this exercise worked as a good hook.

How to maintain this progress at key stage four? Beth bemoans the lack of opportunities for argument at key stage 4. I am reminded again of what Mastin said at SHP last year about getting them to do more than they will be expected to do on the exam: big debates and long essays will help them to develop their arguments and improve their writing skills. Suggestion of working backwards from A-level to help students improve their formal writing by deconstructing texts. ABC questions – answer, build it up or challenge – help to encourage students to listen carefully to each other. Beth gives us some phrase cards to help students construct arguments, and looks at blacklisted words that help students to avoid contradicting themselves in their written responses. Reminds me of a tweet from Richard Kennett last week on nuanced words to show a scale of argument/agreement. Hopefully he’ll blog about that so I can link it.

A-level. Beth explains that adults can more easily pick arguments out of text because we don’t read the lexicon. A-level students can’t do that and this means they struggle to both read and construct argument. Beth gives us a targeted reading sheet and an extract from a political science book. We highlight knowledge, then argument, then where argument is refuted. Beth then talks about getting students to peer and self-assess to add nuance to their arguments, and encouraging them to name and reference historians, rather than just saying “some historians”. Plan a historians’ dinner party, or come up with an argument between two historians. This will help them to humanise the debate.

We finish by sharing what we do in our schools to encourage debate. This was a great session!

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