Over the last 20 years I have seen some outstanding individual lessons.  Usually the lesson was so good because expectations were high, and the activities chosen were not only appropriate, they were also imaginative.  It is impossible to be imaginative lesson-in, lesson-out in teaching.  But lessons are usually more enjoyable for you and the students when they are. To help inspire you to even more imaginative lessons then,  I offer you the product of my experience and have selected about 50 of the best activities that usually lead to high quality learning.

There is no system for arranging these activities other than alphabetically.   One possible approach is to group them under the headings of Gardner’s multiple intelligences, largely because schools are familiar with them.  Given the Institute of Education’s recent critical paper on this topic, I do not want to appear to give multiple intelligences special preferential treatment.

As you explore Outstanding Lessons, you will become familiar with the phrases that I have used as a shorthand for memorable activities. Having a pithy name to call them actually makes it easier to share ideas and approaches, building up a shared repertoire of approaches and a vocabulary to describe them.

This is a very long and important section of the site, difficult to read on screen. What follows therefore is a short snapshot of the first nine activities, with some illustrations to accompany them. The full set of 50 is available as downloadable resource for you to print off and use as you wish, but please be aware that new ideas are frequently being added.

The 50 strategies in alphabetical order

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1. Advising film director

Spielberg has been criticised for making his films too American-centred. He is producing a new film and wants historical advisers to ensure total accuracy. Pupils research with a keen eye on being able to verify what they say, not just ‘find information’.

2. Asking questions

Pupils are given data, for example about the transatlantic slave trade or number of witches hanged in the 17th century and have to generate five really good questions that top quality historians would ask of the figures.

3. Audio guide

The modern vogue for providing commentaries on headsets or MP3 players encourages pupils to script and then record their own commentary on an assortment of images.  Podcasts are great for pupils who can listen to history on their iPods without seeming to be studying.

4. Beat the textbook

Take any oversimplified account and ask students to improve it. Simply annotating, making corrections and additions saves so much time.  Pupils don’t always need to write from scratch.  It is the higher order skills of evaluating and then improving that we need to spend more time on.

5. Call my bluff

Great, fun way of looking closely at mystery objects, for example objects or replicas from First World War battlefields.  You don’t need many.  Pupils have fun being creative in working out their plausible bluffs. Great for speaking and listening too.

6. Creating categories

When pupils are organising the new information they have acquired, they are often given categories to place cards under.  An obvious, if not always effective, one is the causes of the English Civil War where pupils sort cards into social, economic, political religious etc, because they are told to, not because they see the need to.  But how much better it would be if the pupils created their own categories.  When you set the pupils any history mystery this is one of the key learning approaches.  During feedback you spend considerable time asking pupils why they selected their particular categories. I saw a great lesson on anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1930s in which pupils were given a set of black and white photocopies showing the ways in which the Jews were treated. Pupils had to group them in any way they saw fit  and then sequence them in what they thought was ascending order of severity. It was remarkable how accurate they were when they came to compare their order with that shown in the textbooks. By asking pupils to try to find a word to describe their categories using different nouns, the activity greatly helped their literacy. It was not long before pupils were confidently talking about humiliation, discrimination, victimisation, segregation, persecution, extermination  etc.

7. Creating shapes

This works well when you need to show a particular relationship, either spatial or personal.  The mutuality of the Feudal system works well if pupils stand in a hierarchy (using chairs and tables, with care!) and then show what each offers the others.  Pupils can also physically join hands, as if they were countries in the Alliance system before First World War creating in Germany a strong feeling of encirclement.  It is also a valuable strategy for looking at the tight packing during the transatlantic slave trade or for still imaging jobs done in a nineteenth century cotton mill or coal mine.

8. Dear producer

Pupils write to the producer of a made-for-schools TV programme they have just evaluated, explaining how it could be improved e.g. in its balance of reasons for the ending of the slave trade. Pupils like being cast in the role of expert and also enjoy the opportunity to tell others that they are wrong!  Perhaps too often we use video at the start of a topic for information and atmosphere, and less at the end as an example of an interpretation to be tested.

9. Design a museum display

This works really well if you give pupils three display panels only in which to tell the story e.g. of the ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They can choose just five images. Which will they be?  How large will each be in relation to the other?  What captions will they carry?  What will be the title of the display?  The ideas of tweaking it for different audiences offer endless opportunities for differentiation.  Would an exhibition be the same in Hull or Hackney? Seeing examples of how actual museums have created their own displays helps pupils not only to understand about interpretations in history but also how to put across an argument or point of view using carefully chosen text and visuals – a skill for life. See Image Gallery for example of a slavery museum.

What would your museum on slavery contain?
What would your museum on slavery contain?

10. Decision making

This is a really good way for developing that old-fashioned and much maligned concept of empathy.  What better way of understanding the motives of the peacemakers at the Paris peace conference in 1919 than asking them to make the decisions in role.  Or what about Charles I’s relations with parliament in the 1620s and 30s, or ‘What shall we do with Louis XVI?’ ? It is important that, from time to time, pupils see that the course of events was not always inevitable. Getting them involved in the decisions that were taken shows them it might have turned out differently. This offers a good way of looking at any issue of inevitability e.g. causes of the two World Wars.

11. Envoy

This is an excellent form of group work which forces pupils to cooperate and share information. It works like this. The class has an overarching question to answer and are told that they need to consult a number of experts in order to get the best answer. There need to be five or six groups of five or six pupils . Each group is given a topic or aspect on which to become expert. They need time to work together on this, possibly using an envelope containing different pieces of information. When they have discussed their aspect they then have to find out about the other groups’ aspects. To do this, each member of the group has to visit a different table where they will collect the information they need from the resident expert. Every table has to have one resident expert who acts as the spokesperson for that aspect and answers questions put to them by the envoys when they arrive.   This is a great way of improving motivation and speaking and listening, especially with cooperative but sluggish groups. Speak to your English department about the virtues of this approach to moving between groups specialising in different aspects.

12. Finding patterns

If we are not too careful we tell pupils what the patterns are, when they ought to be finding them out for themselves. Two great examples come to  mind. The first is the topic of medieval castles which uses a database. Ask pupils to look at all the records for concentric castles and to see what they have in common. Can they now write eight sentences based on the patterns they think exist? These sentences are then compared with textbook versions. See Outstanding Lesson on slave punishments on the West Indies’ plantations for another example of drawing conclusions from data about how slaves were punished. The ability to generalise from the particular is, of course, an important skill.

13. From where I sit

This is a fun activity that has been doing the rounds across the country, so I do not know where it originated. Its aim is to get pupils to look really closely at a historical image. Pupils are given tiny pieces of paper the size of their smallest fingernail. On this they draw a picture of their partner’s head and pass it back to them. They then have to place themselves in the picture (without showing their partner, of course). The partner does the same. They each then have to find where their partner has placed their face within the picture. They can only do this by asking, are you next to X? By playing this very quick game pupils get used to the details of the picture, start using words to describe images they see, and begin to ask questions about those parts that puzzle or intrigue them. A good way to get the involvement of pupils of all abilities. And you don’t even need to be able to draw well, as the paper is so small!

14. Gallery

This is a great lesson to get pupils to compare versions of the same scene/topic, whether it be scenes of Victorian country life or factory conditions, medieval punishments or Black protest methods in post-war USA. You place one copy of at least  eight and no more than twelve, A4 images around the room. Pupils tour around the gallery with a clip board (with or without a grid to give them direction), making notes on the topic from what they see.  I like to make it more challenging for the able pupils by including some more ambiguous examples. I also often start the able pupils at one end of the gallery where the images are often chosen to be deliberately contradictory. Pupils at the other end tend to start with all images showing  similar things and move towards images that are more tricky. Feedback allows pupils to identify and then explain, similarities and differences. See the Image Gallery and the Outstanding Lesson on medieval doom paintings for a cracking example.

15. History mystery

Since the publication of the Thinking Through Geographyand History series which featured the work of David Leat and Peter Fisher, many departments have experimented with a range of thinking skills techniques which have now become incorporated into the National Strategy.  In history lessons, the number of history mysteries being used has mushroomed. Not all are worth doing, however. Critical to success is the need to make it generally puzzling and capable of different interpretations. It is not to be used to help pupils to find the right answer. The other critical consideration is the need to allow time for deconstructing and debriefing the activity and to discuss how different groups of pupils made their own, quite different, meanings. This emphasis on what we call metacognition, or  Learning how to learn,  is key. The examples  featured on the site usually have an edge to them, when the outcome is not what pupils expect. Clearly this is often achieved by finding exceptions to the rule. But it is the thought processes that matter not the answer. If the answer seems too obvious, pupils won’t be engaged. They may turn over the cards and read out the words but they may not be thinking deeply at all. For a few examples of better practice see Outstanding Lessons on: why the Verney’s, father and son, fought to the death on opposite sides; why Ernest Coleman went to war under age: why Wilf took his family from the country to the industrial towns where life expectancy was half what it was in the country; why John Cole joined the Peasants’ revolt when he had so much to lose.

History mystery. Why did Ernest join up in 1914, aged just 15? Read his letter to his father explaining why. See Outstanding Lesson
History mystery. Why did Ernest join up in 1914, aged just 15? Read his letter to his father explaining why. See Outstanding Lesson
Battalion 101. Why did they fire on Jewish women and children? The answer is far more complex than you think. Pupils love the depth to the mystery. See Outstanding Lesson for all the resources you need.
Battalion 101. Why did they fire on Jewish women and children? The answer is far more complex than you think. Pupils love the depth to the mystery. See Outstanding Lesson for all the resources you need.
Why did Ralph fight for the Parliamentarians who killed his father at Edgehill? A history mystery. See Outstanding Lesson
Why did Ralph fight for the Parliamentarians who killed his father at Edgehill? A history mystery. See Outstanding Lesson

16. Hold the front page

This is a fast-moving activity ideal for getting children out of their seats and working to a deadline. They have, by the end of the lesson, to write a newspaper front page in which they describe, and then slowly begin to explain, a particular incident. Pupils are provided with sources of information. Some might be called background and are placed at strategic points around the room so that pupils can look at them at any time. The second type is more like breaking news and are fed in at regular intervals. You simply ring a bell, call out or program the PowerPoint to change slides. I have seen it work really well for important but small-scale events, which take place in a few hours, such as the Peterloo massacre, the death of Becket or Wat Tyler, the Arrest of the Five Members, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

17. Horrible histories

This provides a highly motivating and memorable way of getting children to describe the horrors of Victorian cotton mills, industrial towns and World War One trenches. Done well, with close attention to Terry Deary’s stylistic features, this can make a major contribution to literacy as well as history.

 Horrible histories. One of the Outstanding Lessons on Empire asks pupils to write an antidote to Terry Deary's view of benefits and downside of Empire
Horrible histories. One of the Outstanding Lessons on Empire asks pupils to write an antidote to Terry Deary’s view of benefits and downside of Empire

18. Jigsaw

This is a simple, but effective method of collecting and sharing information. Pupils start in HOME groups of five and each has a number 1-5. Each is given a different aspect to research. All the number 1s meet together, so do the 2 s, 3s, 4s and 5s in what are known as expert groups. When they have spent say twenty minutes in an expert group each of the five returns to the home group and starts sharing their knowledge of the different aspects. The idea is that each expert will improve their knowledge by working with four others and will deepen their understanding by having to explain to others who know nothing. You will need to help pupils with techniques such as checking and summarising before they leave the expert group, how to feedback effectively and how to listen to others’ feedback. A great way to make the finding and exchange of information active and cooperative.

19. Karate chops

Works well when you need pupils to summarise two sides of an argument. I have used it to look at allegations that Mary was Bloody or no worse than other monarchs. Pupils work with a partner. Each takes on one side of the argument. They have to ‘land blows’ NOT LITERALLY, by miming a karate-like blow in front of their partner, accompanied by the point they want to make. Their partner then replies with a counter-argument. The exchange of ‘blows’ or arguments continues until one runs out of points to ‘land’. This only works if the arguments are well-balanced of course. I am very grateful to Neil Bates of Fort Hill School, Basingstoke for permission to ‘nick’ his idea!

20. Layers of inference

This neat technique places a picture or a piece of enlarged text in the middle of an A3 sheet. Around the picture there is a border about two inches from the edge of the picture and going all round it. Inside this border, pupils say what they can literally see in the picture. Then in the outer border they write What I can infer, thus making the distinction very clear in pupils’ minds. Some departments go one step further and have another outer border headed ‘what I cannot work out/need to know’. Examples of this approach have featured in recent editions of Teaching History and textbooks such as Ian Dawson and Maggie Wilson’s new Year 7 book in the Hodder series

21 Left luggage

As the name suggests, this activity relates to a collection of artefacts which lack an identity. Pupils have to use the clues to work out who it might belong to. You have to do this as a whole class because of the difficulty of getting hold of the artefacts/ faked documents. But you could split the class and one half could work in a neighbouring space with an LSA. The advantages of this novel approach are obvious. You won’t be able to do it more than two or three times across the key stage but when you do the kids love it, and always remember it! One of the Outstanding Lessons describes a Gladstone bag with crucial evidence relating to the death of the Suffragette Emily Davison. As well as a forged race card, photocopied from a book onto card, a mocked-up train ticket , and three ribbons in Green White and Violet ( for Give Women the Vote) there are other general clues, some faked some just photocopies. Obviously you do this at the start of a topic when the children know little. You must take care to reveal the clues carefully in a strict order from the general to the very specific so as not to give the game away. What inference can we draw from the train ticket? Is it a return or just one-way? Had she marked any races on her race card? You can guarantee that pupils will remember almost every physical clue, and the appeal to those who like learning kinaesthetically is obvious.

race card derby day, june 1913
race card derby day, june 1913

22 Letter Art

I came across this in one of Sarah Herrity’s lesson at Wyvern Technology College. She was teaching the Renaissance to Year 7s and wanted a way of combining knowledge of the ‘characteristic features’ of the Renaissance with a clear understanding of some of the iconic images. The neat result was that pupils had to take a letter from the words The Renaissance and then find a word and accompanying image that represented a feature of the Renaissance.

Creating Word Art on the main features of the Renaissance
Creating Word Art on the main features of the Renaissance

23 Line of uncertainty

As you might guess from the title, pupils are given a number of statements relating to a topic on cards. Each statement contains different degrees of truth/relevance etc. Pupils have to express the degree of certainty that they think should be attached to that statement. To make this visual and kinaesthetic, a washing line is strung across the room with big cards either end saying VERY SURE, and DOUBTFUL at the other. As pupils are given a card they have to read it out to the rest of the class and then peg it where they think it belongs on the line of (un)certainty. The rest of the class are asked if they agree and then some adjustment may take places. When all the cards are used up, you should have a group of certain statements, some doubtful and some in the middle. Discuss what makes these statements dubious. Is it exaggeration, one-sidedness, improbability , vagueness etc. Time is then taken to translate this into language historians use to express uncertainty such as ‘perhaps’ ‘maybe’ ‘possibly’, ‘it could be argued’ ‘some people say’ ‘not everyone agrees’ etc. Pupils are then asked to use two or three of these words in sentences about the history topic for homework which can then easily be checked by their peers at the start of the next lesson without you needing to take them in and mark them.

24. Living graph

Also known as fortunes graph or feelings graph this is an activity very much from the thinking skills stable. Pupils  are given a graph with the vertical axis marked as happy at the top, sad at the bottom. It could easily be ‘success’ or ‘failure’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘peaceful’ at either end. Along the horizontal axis is the time frame you are dealing with. The idea is that you give pupils event cards which they must place on the correct part of the horizontal axis, which helps with sequencing. You may, or may not want to put the dates on the cards, depending on whether they should already have this contextual knowledge. Having sequenced the cards, the pupils then move them up and down vertically depending on whether the event made the person happy or sad etc. Pupils quickly start relating this to what went before as well as to the overall picture.

So far so good, but the learning really happens when you start exploring what they have created. I ask children to draw a line using a pencil around the cards. This then creates a line graph. They bring their line graph to the front and draw their graph’s shape onto the whiteboard, which you have already marked out with the axes. When they have finished drawing theirs, you ask the rest of the class if they think there should be any changes. If there is a consensus the changes to the line graph are made. Pupils then make their own copy on their blank axes. For homework they have to annotate between three and five points of the line graph that are sufficiently significant to deserve an explanation. I have used this many times with the rise of Hitler. Pupils quickly see the ups and downs of his life and can explain the importance of events in 1923 and post 1929.

Living graph
Living graph
Living graph for life of a peasant from 1300 to 1500. A great way of looking at cause and consequence.
Living graph for life of a peasant from 1300 to 1500. A great way of looking at cause and consequence.

25. Making documentaries

This provides an excellent opportunity for pupils to edit digital film to make a documentary on a particular topic. Clearly, with so much Pathe news material available, a documentary on the Blitz would work well. Pupils select and edit, then organise the clips they want along with inter titles. They then run a voice over with music if they like. Great potential to make this highly effective in a cross-curricular way (ICT, media etc) but also for pupils to know whether the film they have chosen is actually typical of the time or exceptional. Best if pupils are given a choice of aspects of the topics, not only to help with their own motivation but also to make the feedback more interesting!!

Making a documentary on aspects of life in Nazi Germany
Making a documentary on aspects of life in Nazi Germany

26. Making movies

Very similar to making documentaries of course, and the techniques are common but here pupils have more licence to be creative. They should make the movie with a particular audience in mind.

27. Mantle of the Expert

This generic term describes the philosophy of Dorothy Heathcote who believed that pupils learn most powerfully when involved in real situations, as experts. So instead of them always knowing very little and lacking confidence, pupils are placed in a ‘real’ situation in which they can make use of their knowledge and build on what they already know in order to establish their expertise. They could receive an email from someone investigating a topic who needs the pupils’ advice. Pupils get very involved in sorting out what they will say, how they will communicate it etc.

28. Missing page

Take an exciting event and read a short extract in a motivating way so that the pupils are gripped and want to know more. Then, in an exaggerated way, turn over the page of the book (inside which you’ve stuck your script), only to declare that the page is missing. Because it is a gripping story the kids obviously want to find out what happened. Well, let’s hope so, anyway! How will we ever find out? The ensuing discussion talks of evidence. Pupils are therefore given enough sources to provide ‘an answer’, but some of them are conflicting. In their need to establish a clear narrative they have to reconcile the differences in the sources. How will they do this? What criteria would they use? All these are powerful questions for pupils learning that history is very much a construct. So as not to leave them in mid-air, you miraculously find the missing page, which you read to them, again with great verve. How did their version square with yours? Again, fruitful discussion should follow.

29 Museum brochures

This is a motivating product which forces pupils to decide on issues to do with balance, selection and significance. If they were to produce a brochure for an Indian audience to mark the 150th anniversary of the Indian Mutiny what language would it use and which images? If you give pupils the same task (to produce a museum brochure) but for a different audience or for a different aspect, you can not only deal better with differentiation, you also make the feedback more interesting!

30. Plaque writing

This is a really cool ideal neatly encapsulated in the Outstanding Lesson on Robespierre.  Pupils are told that the commemorative plaque on the wall of the house Robespierre inhabited in Arras has been vandalised so many times that it has kept having to be moved further up the wall to avoid attack. So what does it say? Pupils are shown the plaque and quickly realise its partisan nature. Can they write a plaque that is more balanced, but they have only 60 words, as that is all that will fit on the plaque. Good to word process, using ‘word count’ and delete. To make it really authentic they paste a textbox over the original plaque.

Rewriting plaques.
Rewriting plaques. This one on the Peterloo massacre hardly mentions the violence and certainly does not use the word massacre!

31. Poll position

If we were to conduct another poll into the top10 Britons as the BBC did fairly recently, who would the pupils vote for? They could ask friends in and outside school for their (polite!) suggestions. A good talking point on the issue of significance and an interesting homework to come up with each pupil’s Top 10. They must, of course, be prepared to justify their choice, thereby providing excellent speaking and listening opportunities and an engaging way of discussing the issue of significance.

32. Post-it challenge

Although I first started using this with Key Stage 2 pupils I now use it with KS4 too. Basically, pupils work in teams of two or three, with two teams per table, playing against each other. Each table has a poster on the wall nearest to them with a line down the middle creating two columns. At the head of each column is the name of the teams. Each team also has a contrasting colour set of post-it notes. Small ones are cheaper and just as good. The teams have to be the first to post onto their part of the big poster, 10 different ideas which they write on separate post-its. You provide a context and stimulus by showing  a film, explaining an event, perhaps a PowerPoint presentation.

When you feel that the pupils have all the information they need, the challenge begins. You want them as a class to remember at least 10 important features or reasons. Each partner in a pair (or three) takes it in turns to write an idea down and then post it. Their partner cannot post his or her ideas until the first has returned. That way only one person in each team is on their feet at any given time. The winner is the first to 10. Underhand tactics are often used by teams who look at their opponent’s list and remember ideas they had not got . They then write them onto a new post-it note and post it on their column. That is part of the game the kids love.  I did it this recently with Year 8 who had two pictures of factory conditions and two short reports in front of them. From these they had to list the 10 harshest forms of treatment that the children had to endure. You may feel that this is a lot of effort for a few minutes work, but I then ask the pupils to collect their post-it notes, group them under headings and then use the sources to back up their statements. The (optional) denouement was then to write a factory inspector’s report in 1832.

Post-it challenge
Post-it challenge

33 Powerful PowerPoints

This is fairly self-explanatory but we need reminding that some PowerPoints pupils are asked to create are Point-less. Try to encourage use of film and sound wherever appropriate and add that extra element of challenge by specifying the particular audience the presentation is for. Vary this so that the more able have more complex audiences to please. One of the best I have seen recently is Sarah Herrity’s First World War songs, when pupils have to move a graphic of a soldier up and down an electronic living graph to show changing attitudes to the war. Their only clues, however, are the songs and their lyrics. A great use of the medium which can be both a teaching tool and a learning activity.

Sarah Herrity's excellent interactive PowerPoint presentation
Sarah Herrity’s excellent interactive PowerPoint presentation

34 Prove it!

Here pupils are given a set of statements and some source material in written and visual form. To make it less resource heavy, the numbered sources are placed around the room. Pupils take the statements with them and have to list the number of the source which proves the statement written on the card. To make it competitive the first to finish and get answers right wins, though to add an extra element of challenge the more able pupils have to find the best piece of evidence, and one other, whilst the rest just have to name the one.

35 Quality captions

As you know, most illustrations in textbook come with a caption which anchors the meaning of the image. Why not separate the two? Give the children the picture but say that the caption has gone missing. Can they write a really informative caption? Focus on the 5Ws, what is shows, who produced it , why and when, and where was it produced. Pupils should also be encouraged to think of ways of making their caption interesting e.g. If you look closely on the bottom right of the picture you can see Having discussed the criteria for what makes a good caption, pupils then research as widely as they can. They have just fifteen minutes or one homework to produce the best caption they can in the time.

36 Reconstruction relay

You may know this by another name, as it is similar topictures from memory but if you haven’t tried it don’t delay. It has teams in groups of four, cast as spies. Because spies often have to work on their own the pupils are given an individual spy number 1-4. Their mission is to carry out some form of espionage which will entail them memorising detail to recreate a picture. It works like this. Suppose you are Saxons who are annoyed at what you have heard about the latest tapestry that is being created in Normandy. You want to make sure that it shows events, especially the death of Harold, in the right light. So you send four spies, one after  another, to get as clear a picture as they can. Having set the context, you place one large A3 sheets of blank paper, a pencil and a rubber! for each team of four. You also place close to them on a nearby table/filing cabinet/floor, upside down, a large picture showing the death scene of Harold from the actual tapestry.

On your instruction, all spies called spy 1 rush to the nearest picture and have just 10 seconds to memorise the detail and then return to their table and begin a rough outline sketch. They have just 10 seconds to do this, before you abruptly stop them. The stop must be insistent. Then give them 10 seconds to talk to spy number 2 before they go, on your call, and memorise for 10 seconds, draw for 10 and then discuss with number 3 for 10 seconds. This carries on until number 4 has finished. You then tell them that the room with the tapestry  has been carelessly left unguarded so you can all have another look. At this point I place the the picture they have been copying from on each desk and ask them to draw in any changes they want to make. They appreciate this!! Now, with the picture drawn, I ask the teams to come up with five questions they would like to ask about the picture. These will then become the questions we investigate. See Outstanding Lesson on the death of Harold. I have tried this with a lot of topics and it always works if you keep faithful to the idea of the spies. Most recently I did it with Year 7 who were spies working for a baron wanting to copy the latest ideas in castle design in 1270 .

37 Selective tension

This is a neat idea which many of you already use, I know. You give pupils a set of sources which lead them into a particular way of thinking – except that you give a few pupils a slightly different set of sources which tell the story very differently. When it comes to feeding back what they have discovered, it seems that one group has a completely different view. How can that be? Are they just stupid? It gradually emerges that what you write in history in part is governed by the sources you use etc

38 Sort it

This is one of those lessons when the pupils think you’ve finally flipped. You come in with an envelope of images/sources which are completely jumbled up. You then ask the pupils to sort them out. But you don’t tell them how to. They have to work out their own criteria. Are some to do with rich and some to do with poor? Are some positive images others negative? Are some rural other urban? Some British others non-European. How many categories should there be? The options are endless, but they all have one thing in common. You are making the pupils think creatively, rather than simply giving the headings and asking them to match them up. Some are disconcerted at first, especially if they have never done anything like this before, but they soon get the hang of it and enjoy the sense of achievement when they bring order out of chaos!

39 Spectrum

Now widely used in schools, this flexible technique can be used to make pupils express an opinion that is not just black and white, right or wrong, but enables them to have shades of grey. It can also be used for reliability and utility, or for different views. I used it recently to help pupils look at strength of evidence. See the lesson on Mary Tudor for a cracking example of this which also features the clinching argument activity.

Spectrum or continuum
Spectrum or continuum. Pupils have to work out the relative weighting of evidence they will use in defending Mary Tudor on the charge of being Bloody. See Outstanding Lesson.

40 Spy dossiers

This is just a fun way of getting pupils to gather information . I’ve seen it used brilliantly when teaching the causes of the First World War. Pupils in role as agents for different countries have to create a spy dossier which is always marked ‘top secret’ of course on the other countries involved in the conflict. This entails them finding out how strong their neighbours are in various categories e.g. size of population, size of army, navy etc. For an extension of this task, able pupils could make Top Trump cards for perhaps eight countries and others could play the game.

41 Thought tracking

Those of you who use drama techniques a lot in history will be no stranger to thought tracking. What it means is simply that pupils who are in role are asked from time to time to explain what they are thinking. I’ve seen it used brilliantly when teaching the causes of the French Revolution. The teacher had broken down the events on 1789 into distinct phases, with the pupils in role as citizens on the streets of Paris. They would carry on chatting when all of a sudden there would be some breaking news to which they had to react. From time to time the teacher would touch one of the crowd (called ‘tapping in’ in drama circles, I believe) which would be the signal for them to explain how they were feeling. If you wanted a written or visual product from all this work, then how about a living graph showing how happy/sad the citizens were throughout 1789. The pupils would identify the ‘tipping points’ so much better having been part of it, as it were.

42. Top trumps

This is a brilliant activity as those of you brought up on these cards probably know. Despite the limited number of times one might use it, I still wanted to include it. Imagine pupils looking at the changing balance of power over time. Pupils have cards with key points in history on them with their date. Below are scores for the power of the king, parliament, prime minister even. Pupils play this from time to time, perhaps every time the issue comes up , so that they refer frequently to past significant events. Familiarity within a fun setting makes some of the key events stick. To win though they need to know for whom they were significant. Therein lies the challenge. Older, more able pupils, can make their own, of course, as they may well be motivated to. The design and ICT skills they might have could also be used to good effect. So not quite a thematic approach to history but good fun, nonetheless.

Can you show the changing power of King, Parliament, Prime Minister over time using Top Trumps cards?
Can you show the changing power of King, Parliament, Prime Minister over time using Top Trumps cards?

43 What happened next?

You stop the action on the video/DVD just at the point when pupils are desperate to see what happens. You pretend that the tape has broken, DVD is scratched . Never mind, we can reconstruct what happened using the sources we have. Ask pupils to use sources to create their own short narrative which is then compared with the next section of the film which you have miraculously repaired. Now discuss possible reasons for any differences discussed. I’ve used it for the Storming of the Bastille, and the confrontation between Henry and Becket and Richard II and Wat Tyler.

44 Wiped / dubbed commentary

Great way of using Channel 4 Film century and British Pathe. You turn down or remove the sound to the film which you tell the pupils is silent, focussing on just one short piece of about  a minute’s duration. You then ask them what their commentary would be if they were to add one. Naturally this needs to be short, no more than a minute, I’d say. You then ask a couple of groups to give their version which is spoken over a the mute film clip . Then reveal that you had stupidly pressed the mute button. So you replay the original and compare with pupils’ versions. All sorts of variations of context are possible. How about the example of Dunkirk with the Channel 4 series Film century when pupils create a German commentary?  What a wonderful opportunity for able linguists to try it in another foreign language too. It has worked really well with the meeting of Wat Tyler and Richard II at Smithfield. Timelinestv has suitably short section on most incidents in British history.

45 With/without knowledge

Pupils are given a mystery picture to explore, without any background information. A good example would be an image of one of the less well-known Native American customs. Pupils annotate what they can work out in a frame just around the image. There is also another frame outside this in which the pupils write more authoritative notes having discovered more information and developed deeper understanding. Good for showing how much they have learned, especially if you save the early pages on the Interactive whiteboard. I have used a similar example of a photograph of two very young Welsh girls carrying very heavy buckets, pick axes and other heavy equipment. Pupils annotate the image and are then told some key information written on the back of the photograph which suggested it was one of many that were put on sale. How does this new knowledge make them re-evaluate their views?

With/without knowledge

46 Zone of relevance

This is a highly effective activity for helping pupils answer different questions on the same topic but deploying evidence differently and more selectively. As those of you who have worked with Christine Counsell will realise, she did much to popularise this approach in the late 90s, not as an end in itself but as a key stage in the process of effective extended writing. Using information on cards, pupils have to place them on an A3 sheet on which there are zones which can be labelled, as you please, to show degrees of relevance, significance etc. In the middle of the page is a question. Pupils work out how relevant each piece of information is to the question. Some might be totally irrelevant, placed there to be red herrings. By changing the question, pupils see how information can be used in different ways.

zone of relevance
zone of relevance