Teaching the thematic study thematically: a small research project (pt 1)

This blog post is very overdue. I spoke at ResearchEd Rugby last June and started writing it then, but – busy. So busy. However, I have more data now that Y11 have sat their mocks and it has prompted me to share.

Back when the new GCSE was launched, I spoke at a Historical Association event and wrote a short Cunning Plan for Teaching History, banging the drum for teaching the new thematic study thematically, as opposed to chronologically. I’ve always taught a development study – first Medicine, then Crime, and back to Medicine again. I taught Crime thematically for several years, mainly because I was getting a bit stale, and I found that it was quicker and students were better able to recognise change and continuity across time. They also had a better understanding of the chronology after repeating it three times. I thought it was the better way to do it, but I couldn’t be sure, so I thought I would run a trial on my two year 10 classes this year.

During my trial, I was specifically looking for these things –

  • Difference in speed – the new GCSE has teachers howling about squeezing in the content and I wanted to see whether it was faster to teach it thematically. I thought it was.
  • Difference in retention – I posited that students would remember the content better by doing the course thematically, because they would be revising one strand while the second one was being taught.
  • Difference in application during an exam situation – as related to the above.
  • Difference in long-term retention – though this is going to be difficult to judge at this stage. I should have completed my study after the Y11 mocks next year.
  • If the method worked for all – does it work for all abilities, is it OK for kinaesthetic learners…just kidding…

I also had a concern that many schools that had previously been following the SHP syllabus would jump into the same development study for the new GCSE, to save time and reuse resources, and miss the subtle differences, therefore leading to overteaching and a study that went on for far too long and was crammed with too much stuff. Furthermore, the GCSE questions on this paper require students to recognise the broad sweep rather than relate the fingertip detail. So, my hope was that by putting forward some research (albeit with a very small sample size) I’d be able to win more people round to this way of thinking.

The set up

I went chronological for my first time through. Even though I wrote the textbook, I hadn’t taught Medicine for over ten years and I needed the refresher. This was helpful for my study, though, because I had already taught the content through once. It’s super-important to know your content well because you’ll be making the links across the strands as you work through the course.

In the second year of teaching, I picked up two year 10 classes. They were of roughly equal size, with a very similar number of SEN issues and PP codes. One group is, on paper, a little brighter, but the ability range is much broader. We’ll call them groups C and T.

I used my own book, of course. We’re in the fortunate position of still having a budget that covers more than stationery: students are issued with their own copy that they can take home, which they exchange for the next book they need at the end of the course.

I had a deadline: mocks were the first week back after half term, so I had to have the course completely finished by then. This course is 30% of the GCSE, including Western Front, which means that Pearson think it should be teachable in 36 lessons. At 5 lessons a fortnight, I had up to 50 lessons, best case scenario.

This worked out in the end as 38 lessons plus 4 hours of cover for the C group, and 40 lessons plus 6 hours of cover for the T group. The T group had the disadvantage of having most of their lessons timetabled during period 5, so in terms of useful time, I think it was probably even.

I was so convinced that the thematic way was best that I became concerned that I would be unfairly disadvantaging the C group with the chronological teaching, so I tried to load the dice in their favour a bit using the new in vogue teaching method – the knowledge organiser. The C group had knowledge organisers for each of the units and I set them learning HW and quizzes each week. Conversely, I gave the T group vocab books (which I didn’t make use of, sadly) and no quizzing. On the whole, the T group probably received less homework as a result of this, though I did give them some wider reading that I did not give to the C group. Kev Bartle pointed out at ResearchEd that I had muddied my own study by doing this, and this may sadly be true, but, well. I acted as my conscience dictated. As you’ll hopefully see from the results, I got some interesting data out of it.

Other than that, both groups had the same lessons. I didn’t plan different activities or cover the content in different ways, other than by the order I did it in. This naturally meant that the assessments and practice essays they did differed, but in terms of planning workload, it was no more onerous than it would have been to adapt the same lesson for the class context.

Results will follow in part 2. And then, after the summer results, part 3.

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