GCSE reading

If I ever thought that history teacher Twitter was a bubble, history teacher Facebook reconfirms it every day. These groups are exceptionally helpful for sharing ideas, tips, resources and advice given by exam boards, but I must admit that I find them quite draining at times. People complain a lot (I get it: people are worried) and unlike Twitter, I can’t just unfollow people. I don’t go on social media to be angry and depressed (though I fully support anybody else’s desire to). I have a strict rule instead, that I don’t engage apart from to add positively, with a resource or a question for discussion.

After reading a couple of comments about the content of the new GCSE, I hopped onto Twitter to find out what people were reading to prep for it. With A-level, I’ve found that the more I read, the quicker and more efficiently I can get through the topics, but traditionally I’ve found that teachers don’t do a great deal of reading around the GCSE.

Although this was reflected in a couple of replies, I was surprised by how many people got back to me to share what they’d been reading. Here is almost everything that almost everyone recommended to me. It has been quite difficult to put all these into one post, so I have attempted to categorise. I haven’t read a fraction of them, so can’t vouch personally – do leave a comment if you can, or if I’ve missed something you love.

Thematic studies

Ian Mortimer’s Time Travellers series and Ten Centuries of Change both got a lot of praise. The former covers Medicine and Crime in varying levels of depth and are accessible enough to use with students as well. I heard Ian Mortimer speak at the BBC History festival in October and he was superb – he did an A-Z of Restoration England and he had exceptionally detailed subject knowledge for someone speaking with what seemed to be no notes.

Roy Porter also got a lot of love for Medicine reading.


Derek Reynolds’s Limits of Liberty and Hugh Brogan’s Penguin History of the USA were both mentioned a few times. I used these extensively for A-level and Brogan was good for the early stuff as well as the 20th century. Dee Reynolds’ American West and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee were also popular for American West. Leuchtenburg got a mention: I really liked his Perils of Prosperity when I was teaching A-level Boom and Bust. The Story of Us was also recommended as a documentary series.


Deep breath for this one – Richard Kerridge recommended, “Marc Morris and David Bates for basic Normans. Lanfranc by McDonald. Leach’s the Schools of Medieval England. Morillo ‘Battle of Hastings’, Gillingham’s William ii. William the Conqueror by Maurice Ashley.” These are all completely unknown to me, although Marc Morris got a few mentions from other people. Kerridge must never sleep!


I’d never thought of looking up podcasts to brush up my subject knowledge but these are also very popular. The BBC’s In Our Time series was recommended by a couple of people.

People shared some book pictures with me, too. My favourite kind of picture.

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I came away from this discussion much buoyed and reminded that, for the most part, history teachers love history. Many thanks to the following for engaging with my question:


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#youreallyshouldteach…Emma of Normandy

Last year, one of my favourite year 11s approached me at the end of the lesson and asked me if I’d ever heard of Emma of Normandy. Her gran has asked for a reading recommendation, she explained. I had not, but set about doing a bit of research and was aided by the helpful and knowledgeable Helen Snelson, who sent me a few links. Now that we are in the midst of an Anglo-Saxons and Normans revival, Emma is somebody worth getting to know, if only because she provides the blood link between Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror.

Emma was an 11th century noblewoman, the sister of Richard II of Normandy, and she ended up marrying two kings of England and giving birth to two more. She became the second wife of Aethelred in 1002, adopting the name Aelfgifu upon her arrival in England, and had two sons, Edward (ie, the Confessor) and Alfred. After he died, she took her sons to Normandy, but was soon back as the second wife of Cnut. Whether she consented to this or not is a bit obscure, but certainly she seems to have been held in much higher esteem by Cnut than by Aethelred. Apparently lots of the records of the time mention them together. Aww.

Unfortunately, after Cnut’s death, things got quite messy. Emma supported the claim of her son, Harthacnut, over the claim of Cnut’s son by his first marriage, Harold Harefoot. Although she was initially supported by the powerful Earl Godwine, after he defected she was forced to ask for help from her older sons, Alfred and Edward. Things went badly for both of them, though considerably worse for Alfred.

She eventually returned to England with Harthacnut when Harold died, at that point commissioning a lavish biography of herself, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, from a Flanders monk to try to raise her profile and win favour for the Harthacnut regime. This possibly was not very successful, though, because when Harthacnut died in 1042 and Edward the Confessor ascended the throne, Emma was deftly chastised for perceived poor behaviour towards Edward in the past and was never as powerful again. I suppose this could have been Edward separating himself from an unpopular noblewoman, but apparently she might also have been overly close to the Bishop of Winchester around this time, so perhaps this was the problem. She did deny the latter, and successfully undertook the ordeal of the ploughshare to prove the rumour false. I had to look up ordeal by ploughshare. It’s akin to walking over red hot coals.

So, you really should teach about Emma of Normandy. She was politically important for around 50 years, at a time when women don’t seem to have been, and as well as having two kings as husbands (and a priest as a lover, allegedly) she was the mother of two more and the great auntie of William the Conqueror. I like to think Eleanor of Aquitaine read about her and drew some inspiration.

This blog is brought to you, with some discomfort on my part, using only one source, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I’m not a medievalist. But I think she’s a great character.


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TLT17: Plenary

Lisa Jane Ashes asks, why are we still here? She is a self-confessed geek, but spent a year away from school as a child because nobody could tell her the point of going. After spending her first year as an adult in school sitting in a cupboard and observing the same mistakes being made with children like her, she was inspired to try to solve them. 

Lisa encourages newbies to come to the front for an activity. They have to make a paper aeroplane and get it as far as possible up the hall. Thirty seconds of strategizing followed by 30 seconds of making and throwing. 

To these, Lisa would add comparison, which can stop you in your tracks and create fear. Haters do too. They stop us from putting stuff out that we want to put out, but the only way to avoid crticisim is to do nothing at all.

Your ideas don’t have to be massive, world-changing ideas. They can be little. But, take them forward and share them with others. Look at what’s going right and what’s going wrong, and do something about it. 

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TLT17: Session 4

Owen Carter and Mike Slavinsky on knowing your impact. Some context: The Brilliant Club. PhD researchers are recruited to go to work with small groups of high potential students through the Scholars Programme; its twin, Researchers in Schools, places PhD grads as trainee teachers in schools. 

This session outlines ways to reliably and realistically evaluate interventions, intervention being anything that happens in addition to classroom teaching: mentoring, external provision etc. 

When you’re looking at effect sizes, it’s important to look beyond the average. Feedback surveys, for example, show that 38% of studies showed a negative impact – so you have a 1 in 3 chance of doing more harm than good. (“Mark less!” I can hear Matt Pinkett instructing). 

As well as looking at long term outcomes, it’s also important to consider intermediate outcomes, so it can be measured part way through, as opposed to waiting until the intervention is over to find out that it has failed. The Brilliant Club starts working with pupils in year 5, with a long term goal of entry into a highly selective university – so the intermediate outcome is really important. 

(So, if my long term goal is to have more A-level students studying history at university, my intermediate goal is…)

Confidence, test scores, use of meta-cognition strategies might all be good intermediate outcomes. We discuss what we are using as intermediate outcomes, but we all seem a bit stumped tbh. Luckily, we move on to discuss valid and reliable tools to help with this.

We do a short questionnaire to show us how to measure confidence. We look at the Marvel app, which helps with the building of these questionnaires and analyse the results, and discuss how this might be used. We then discuss what sort of intervention we do and how we assess its impact. 

Historical control groups can counter the ethical issue of not intervening with a group to give you a control group. Using outcomes of similar groups of pupils at similar schools can give you a good idea of what happens without the intervention you’re planning. 

Case study. In an intervention – low stakes quizzing – aimed at improved GCSE performance, the intermediate outcomes identified were better achievement at exam questions and better meta-cognition, motivation and extraversion. In these, students did increase their ability to deploy cognitive strategies; lower attaining students became better at judging their own progress. Look out for this in Teaching History in the future. 

Good point: if an intervention doesn’t work, it could potentially save the school a lot of money, so negative outcomes are not to be ashamed of. They’re also useful for refining approaches. 

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TLT17: Session 3

Mark Enser on challenge for all. How can we create the correct level of challenge without leaving anybody behind?

How do we create a culture of evidence? How do we do this while leaving nobody behind? 

In 2015, Mark’s department was average, in terms of headline measures, but underperforming in terms of progress and had low uptake for A-level among their students. They came to accept that they could be doing better and that something needed to be different. 

As well as the culture he wanted to foster, he also thought a out the supporting structures that were needed to make the change. Focus was on a move from excellent work – excellent learning – excellent geography. It was also important that the team remained happy and productive – nothing extra without something else being taken out. 

Having made the plan, the team agreed what excellence in geography looked like. They broke it down into what made the subject unique, and for each one decided what excellence would look like. This created a common language and informed planning at all levels – long, medium, lesson. 

They made their motto “Expect Excellence.” There was more focus on re-drafting, inspired by Berger’s work. Is it excellent yet? Encourage this language among students – put it in a poster on the board. 

Identify the top end and really push them. They targeted an excel group. Examples of their work was shared in the corridor; extra homework was given; they were encouraged to read further on the Geography blog: readings from the media with a bit of context and a few prompt questions: things to think about while reading the article or watching the clip. Email subscriptions to WordPress helped them to track which students had signed up and parents were also able to subscribe. 

The department used PLCs to help students identify areas where revision was needed; flipped the knowledge revision and focused on skills in the classroom – worked very well at KS4 and 5.

Their excellence gallery was annotated to explain why the work was excellent: not pretty, but changes frequently and with student names in big writing over it. Students encouraged to look at the work when asking, “Is it excellent yet?” It is also good for parents evening, giving them something to talk about with their children while they wait to talk to you, and giving you something to discuss with them when they see you. 

But what about weaker students? 

Plan for problems. Anticipate misconceptions and pick out the threshold concepts in your subject, so you know when you’ll need to intervene. 

Modelling. Give exemplar pieces (teacher created) early on: it’s important that they can see what the expectation is. Bad exemplars are even more fun: search and destroy! Live modelling on the whiteboard helps to show your thought process – good for metacognition. This models what an expert in your subject does. Making the exemplars take some time, but you save that time in marking and feedback. I was chatting with Will Bailey-Watson yesterday who said he used to write exemplars while students were writing answers in class: great idea. 

Strengthen recall. Quiz regularly. Dual-coding: use text and images to support pupils in recalling. Words are transient but pictures remain. 

Work as a team. It’s impossible to do it alone. Mark’s team plan their lessons together, playing to their strengths. They shared good practice from their own lessons. They involved parents early and often (high on my agenda this year) – make them part of the team, email home a lot. Use SLT a lot – bring them in to help get reticent students on board. 

Prioritise. Will it lead to better progress? 

The results of this were quite spectacular, though Mark is quick to say two years of results are not really enough and it’s no possible to select just one cause. Conversion to target nearly doubled, though, and A-level uptake more than doubled. 

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TLT17: Session 2

Kev Bartle on the chaos of coalition: trust, vulnerability and interdependence in schools. 

He suggests we pay too much attention to the apps in education, without looking at the operating system. We should look at changing the way we operate – upping the trust – before we look at any extras. 

Trust is rooted in vulnerability: you cannot be vulnerable with someone unless you trust them. While we use the word trust a lot, there is less mention of vulnerability. 

Kev has read Trust in Schools, a study of schools in Chicago in the 90s. They found that trust is important as a tool for school improvement. 

Organic trust is characterised by a sense of family; contractual trust by pieces of paper. Both of these are part of schools in a small way, but the important one is relational trust: it is an organisational property and very specific around the school community. The authors compared feelings of trust with school results and found that there was a correlation. Trust correlated with success – big among teachers and between them and their superiors. The evidence suggests that trust makes an impact to academic achievement in spite of socio-economic or racial background. This therefore might be a good way of diminishing differences in these special interest groups. 

These five ideas are all important when it comes to achieving trust.

Schools see themselves as professional bureaucracies. Teachers can choose what to do in their classroom, but senior leaders require monitoring. Kev fears that we are moving towards machine bureaucracy, with a high level of dictating expectations, when we should be moving towards professional organisation, when trust replaces monitoring. Teachers who are in the job for the right reasons, and want to do well and get better, could have greater autonomy and discretion in the conduct of their work. 

(+ Mediate conflicts and foster strong collegial expectations)

Kev talks us through how he tries to achieve this. He doesn’t look at results from individual classes – just subject areas. He meets with department heads to discuss the performance of the team. There’s no link between student performance and appraisal. There are no top down lesson observations, and no lesson grading. He doesn’t pay people extra, because it creates distrust between colleagues. 

Viviane Robinson: Trust is a result, not a precursor. Leadership and interpersonal competence, getting the work done – these things build trust. 

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TLT17: Session 1

Matt Pinkett on Feedback. “We’re spending too much time ticking, flicking and dicking about.” He will talk us through three methods of verbal feedback and give us an overview of the evidence base for written marking. 

Beginning with the latter, evidence on written marking (as opposed to feedback) is scant. There are relatively few valid trials. What we do know is that putting a grade on a piece of work reduces the impact that marking has. Tick and flick has no impact: kids and parents might like it, but this seems a bit self-service for the teacher. Better to tell the students youve looked at their books, but that ticking has no impact and then move on. Students do need time to respond, though Matt is moving towards making this an ongoing process rather than a one off DIRT-type thing. SMART targets are also important. Don’t be fuzzy! 

Matt does not mark books because he doesn’t think it is a good use of his time. Having said something similar to the History PGCE lot at Bristol yesterday, I find this comforting. I think tick and flick marking is the equivalent of deleting emails, or laminating. The time is better sent honing your teaching practice. 

Another reason: the written word is flawed. Trying to explain yourself in a SMART target is very tricky. It is better to talk through these ideas, with nuance and cadence, until you can be sure the student gets it. 

Another: mental health. Getting stressed about the marking is damaging. Doing the marking can be comforting and therapeutic, but the association of good and lots of marking is damaging to the profession. 

And margins are too small!

Matt does more verbal feedback, because it’s respectful: a sit down conversation helps to build the relationship and is arguably more respectful than many ticks. It’s motivating: if they know they’re going to talk with you about what they’re doing, there’s more incentive to get it right. It’s efficient: gets the job done quicker than writing it down. It’s easier.

Model 1: preach in practice. Call students to the desk individually. Give them a red pen and ask to see the piece of work they’re most proud of. Awkward at first but then they will start to open up a bit, and you can ask about a piece of work they’re embarrassed about. They stay for 7 or 8 minutes and you’ll get an idea about diagnosing the problem – easier to identify the errors in understanding and practice. Also gives you an idea about which students you need to see more of. Students can even complete the work in front of you, so you can watch the process. 

Model 2: crib sheet marking. Inspired by Greg Thornton. Using a whole class marking sheet helps to track common misconceptions. 

There’s a preach in practice box on here too, to flag up who needs conversations. This makes the written marking quicker, because the only thing that goes in books is literacy correction.

Model 3: visualiser marking. In response to a two assessment model being adapted at his school, followed by an instruction to mark everything in preparation for Ofsted, Matt used a visualiser (the new VAK of learning đŸ˜‚) to mark some work of a student who volunteers for whole class marking. As he marks, he articulates the marking he’s doing. Then he does another, asking who thinks they might have done slightly better. Having done a couple, he then invites students to mark their own. Watching someone using a markscheme, and maybe struggling to do it, is instructive…and also I imagine gives them a much better grasp of the assessment criteria, which is indicated to have a big impact on progress. Matt found that his SLT were very keen on this. 


What about the teacher who loves marking? Carry on! Do as much as you choose. Kids do value it, associating lots of marking with their perception of good teachers, but they don’t always know what is best for them. 

What sort of feedback have you had from parents? Matt is honest with them and provides evidence. It’s ok to know best, we are the professionals. 

How do you manage to have the conversations at the same time as teaching? Behaviour needs to be impeccable, so you need support from your leadership team. 

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