What Makes a Great (History) Teacher?

5 principles which the best teachers are either consciously or subconsciously aware of

I have been pondering this question lately: what makes a great history teacher? By lately I mean for the last 19 years or so… and probably will continue to ponder for the next 20 to 30 years, God willing!

Lots of people seem to be experts on this subject, clever clog bloggers all over the place talking about why they are great and giving their strong views on all things history teaching. So what makes me different? Well, nothing really apart from the fact that my entire career model (if you can call it a career?) has been based around attempting to be the best history teacher that I can be. That is all I have ever thought about. Lots of (unneeded) energy has gone into worrying about lessons, classes, ideas, approaches, progress over time, how to teach trickier concepts, why I didn’t get it today…

Obviously, here at the history resource cupboard, we wholeheartedly stand by our enquiry principles.  For me, the best history teachers, and the best teachers for that matter, are so good because they are clear in their minds about the following  5 broad ideas.  They are not ideas of my own making. Loads of smarter and more thoughtful people have been talking about this for some time. But if I were asked to explain what the best teachers do, these would be at the top of my list.

The High Five:

  1. Clarity
  2. Engagement
  3. Access and Challenge
  4. Modelling
  5. Feedback

1. Clarity – this is hugely important. Hattie has this as one of his biggest hitters. I agree. Some people out there in the history world are talking in terms of subject knowledge. For me, this is clarity. The best teachers are clear about the knowledge they want to get across in each lesson and over time. They are clear about concepts they want their students to understand and how they will get them to ‘get it’. They are clear about what progress over time looks like and where they want their kids to be in 2 months, 5 months, 5 years. Our curriculum planning section provides ideas for this kind of clarity. They are also clear in their own heads in every lesson exactly how each micro-task builds on the next, and they are clear exactly what they want their students to do at each point of each individual lesson. By the way, the three of us at History Resource Cupboard is really clear that the best way to deliver lessons is through an enquiry based approach.

2. Engagement – this is a pretty big area I know but to my mind it is crucial. If we are going to be successful, we need to engage kids. This can be at the start of the lesson, and this can mean making things mysterious. This can be having an engaging end product. This can mean using artefacts, music, books, photographs, individuals…  But engagement can also mean making things hard and allowing students to really think. We are engaged when we are succeeding, and we enjoy being challenged. The best teachers understand all this and use a whole host of strategies to ensure that their kids are hooked in, want to learn and enjoy the challenge of learning.

3. Access and Challenge – Some people might call this differentiation, but I think that term just leads to confusion. Why? People think that it is all about writing 10 different lesson plans per lesson. Wrong! All we need to do is to ensure that the work we set is accessible to all and challenging to all. If work is too easy, it’s boring; if it is too hard or inaccessible, it is stressful. The best history teachers get this will bell on. Richard Harris wrote a fantastic article about this years ago in Teaching History 118 entitled: Does Differentiation mean different? I agree with everything that he wrote.

4. Modelling – it is such a simple idea yet so underused. The best teachers model how students should do tasks. They make it clear exactly what they want their students to do. When it comes to improving extended writing, this is absolutely crucial. Showing our students how we would write the first paragraph, what connectives we would use, and what phrases we might try and change is vital. The notion of the teacher thinking out aloud is key here.  I have watched loads and loads of lessons over the last few years, and I simply do not see this enough. But when it is done well, students really get it, and their progress accelerates.

5. Feedback – I know this is obvious, but the best history teachers keep checking to see if their students have ‘got it’. Their lessons are full of mini plenaries. They know exactly how well students are doing nearly all of the time and find it easy to change course in light of any misunderstanding. Feedback is not just about written comments in books – thank God because I don’t know about you, but I hate marking (shame it is so blooming important).

I cannot take any credit for these 5 principles,  but when I boil it down, the best teachers are either consciously or subconsciously aware of them. Here at History Resource Cupboard, all of our lessons are designed with our high five in mind.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Richard @HistoryResource and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

@HistoryResource Ideas for history teachers by passionate history geeks.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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