Active Learning on

Class Management and Other Practicalities

This section addresses a wide range of issues and concerns about ‘active learning’.

An active learning workshop with trainees and mentors at Kingston UniversityUnfortunately there are very few hard and fast rules in teaching – but good preparation and planning are essential for success.

So too is confidence – transmitting to students of all ages that you know what you’re doing and you have a clear plan (even perhaps when you don’t!).

So these notes are aimed at helping you plan and develop confidence, especially if you’re new to teaching.

The Nature of the Activities

The key features of the activities on Thinkinghistory are that they require students to do some, or all, of the following:

• Move physically and constructively e.g. to represent patterns of alliances or the flow of events

• “Think from the inside” i.e. think about a past situation from the perspective of an individual or group

• Take decisions from that perspective and relate these decisions to what we know actually happened in the past

• Take part in physical diagrams e.g. timelines, living graphs, washing lines or physical family trees

• Ask questions of, or argue with, the teacher or other students in role as a historical character

This kind of activity is often called ‘active learning. A more impressive term is 'Enactive Representation' but I'd been using these activities for many years before discovering this! I could spend longer trying to define active-learning but, having avoided agonising over terminology for many years, I’m not going to start now.

The discussion that follows identifies the key issues to think about when using activities so that you get the best out of them and, most importantly, so that students learn more effectively.

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What works with one class ...

… doesn’t necessarily work with another.

I had a conversation with a young teacher a couple of years ago who was concerned that an activity that had worked well with his Y7 class the previous year had just gone disappointingly. He was focussing on the fact that it was another Year 7 class with a similar spread of ability – but there’s lots more variables to take into account, as you can see from the ‘it depends’ list below. What works with one class on a Tuesday morning after Maths may not work with a very similar class last thing on a Thursday afternoon after PE. And classes can look similar but be deceptively different – you don’t have to change ten personalities in a class of thirty to change the whole class’s outlook. Sometimes one of two different characters can affect the attitude of a whole class.

So … think about whether an activity will help an individual class, not if it’s suitable for a year 7 or 10.

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The ‘It depends ...’ Question

Before using an activity think carefully about the following:

• What teaching styles are the class used to?

• Do you know enough names to stay in control?

• What is their previous lesson (PE, Maths?) and how will it affect their behaviour?

• What is the room like and the time of day?

• What day of the week is it and is a holiday in the offing?

• And even – what will the weather be like? (Beware windy days!)

Even then there’s still the ‘it depends’ question. Some classes aren’t at all comfortable with a change of style of lesson so they may not like you doing something different. Others really take to the chance to stop writing and get on their feet. If you don’t know the class talk to a colleague or (if appropriate) your mentor – but also remember you learn a great deal by experimenting, by taking risks – if you don’t you don’t learn.

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What does the activity link to?

Adapt each activity to fit the needs of the course. You need to know WHY you’re using an activity – how it fits into an overall course, be it KS3, GCSE or A level and what you hope it will achieve in terms of learning. History courses, no matter whether they’re at KS2 or university level, should never be just a collection of individual ‘greatest hits’ lessons. You could put together such a course from the activities on this site and the lessons might be very popular – lots of fun – but what would they add up to? It’s vital that activities should be integrated into a whole course and this means being very clear what you hope to achieve with an activity – and your objectives should encompass two areas:

linking the topic into students’ knowledge and understanding of the broader course content. For example, in terms of KS3 you might use ‘Je suis le roi’ to develop understanding wider themes than just the Norman Conquest e.g. the power of the crown in the Middle Ages, the impact of conflict on ordinary people and why some rebellions and protests fail.

linking the topic into students’ understanding of the process of doing history. For example, you could use ‘Events of 1066 – could it have happened differently?’ to develop students’ understanding of both sources and of interpretations.

In all cases the crucial question to ask yourself is ‘when, in the rest of the course, will I ask the class ‘Do you remember when we did ….?’ If you’re never going to refer back to something what does that say about the value of the activity or topic within your course?

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How often should I use these activities?

Not every lesson – or you’d be exhausted by the end of the first week! But it depends on the activity. Playing the role of King John in a hot-seating activity is likely to be much more demanding on you than a ‘washing line’ activity. And a class doesn’t need a hyper-active lesson every time – one really good involving role-play may set up four or five weeks of more ordinary (but highly focussed and demanding) lessons. So you don’t need to win an Oscar for activity every session – think about the ebb and flow of a course across a term and think about the variety of activities students will undertake. Too much variety can be confusing, too little risk equals boredom for you and your class.

In that context, activities need to be repeated frequently enough for students to get used to a style of activity. The first time they do a living graph or washing line activity they’ll be adjusting to the style of activity as well as the content – next time they’ll be more confident and better able to focus on the content and next time … wow!

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Class Management

Trainees and new teachers (and some experienced teachers) often feel uneasy with the idea of role-play and active learning, assuming it to be a free-form invitation to anarchy. However, in these activities, the teacher's role can often be likened to that of a director of ceremonies. The only movement around the room is under your direction. There is no simulated fighting or arguing. If you have previously established an effective relationship with the class this activity should not lead to a breakdown of discipline. However, never make assumptions – just because an activity works with one group doesn’t mean it will work with another.

Experience also suggests that the apparently risky movement can actually be of benefit with "the fidgeters", students who quickly become bored, lack confidence, feel trapped behind desks and so seek refuge in talking and other more disruptive ways. These activities licence controlled movement and talking and this meets the need of some pupils to escape from their desk-bound prison in a constructive way.

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Consider using another room for major activities

Another room creates a sense of occasion - this lesson is going to be far more special than anything in Science or other inferior subjects! It also helps the suspension of disbelief that is particularly useful for, say, hot-seating. A hall or gym is also larger and usually without the clutter of desks getting in the way. Period music is also a much under-used resource which helps prepare students for something different and creates a sense of period.

When debriefing, you may want to return to the normal classroom. Debriefing moves students on from being 'in the past' to reflecting 'on the past', albeit reflections enhanced by their experience of thinking from the inside of the historical events. This is easier if the debrief takes place back in the normal classroom, rather than the room in which the activity had taken place.

Think twice if you are tempted to take a class outside to make use of more space – this may be a move too far. Most importantly your voice and those of students won’t carry anything like as far outside and even a gentle breeze plays havoc with tabards!

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Why use cuddly toys?

Are unusual props (cuddly toys, hairdryers, sugar mice, apple juice masquerading as urine etc etc) too silly to be useful? No – provided you explain what they’re for and double check understanding of the word ‘anachronism’ e.g. why a mobile phone was an anachronism during an activity on the Armada.

Remember that students go from one class to another to another and are yearning for something to lift a class out of the ordinary. They will notice and respond to the unusual (and even the plain daft) and want to know why you’re using a hairdryer to teach the Norman Conquest! And they’ll remember - not just the hairdryer but why you used it.

Unusual props make asking ‘do you remember when …?’ much more likely to be successful – and that’s a key component in making any long course (e.g. Key Stage 3 History) more coherent and enabling students to make links and comparisons across time.

And all this applies at A level and university level as much as in primary schools. Why shouldn’t students aged 18 benefit from these effective ways of making key points memorable?

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Are there age limits?

A good teaching method is a good teaching method,
no matter what the age of the students.

My own PGCE trainees heard me say that a lot, probably too often, but that principle informs the activities on this site, which are as effective at A level and university level as they are in primary and secondary schools. Just because students have volunteered for further study doesn’t mean that they don’t need and deserve to be motivated, enthused and to take part in activities that vary the ways of learning. There are plenty of students in A level and university classes who will learn more effectively through active learning than they will through note-taking and lectures. Everyone benefits from better group dynamics and constructive talk. Another major benefit of active learning with older students is that it helps them to read more confidently because it has introduced them to names, events and issues and so they can make sense of what otherwise was completely new material.

The major danger with older students is that they feel these activities are beneath them. It is vital, therefore, to explain the objectives and reasons for using this style of learning, even talking about varieties of learning styles. Demonstrating the maturity of your approach to teaching will help them take the risk of joining in the activity. Once they have undertaken an activity they will realise that the demands on thinking and concentration are far greater than during a one-hour lecture. These activities are not easy options!

Of course, with older students, you need to increase the quantity of information that students handle according to their abilities, and you can expect more sophisticated responses as students gain experience of these methods, but the principles behind the activities remain the same, no matter what the age or ability of the students.

A good teaching method is a good teaching method,
no matter what the age of the students.

There, I’ve said it again.

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A piece of string question! Some activities designed for A level or university are lengthy and will probably take at least an hour although they can be broken into sections. Others last 20-30 minutes. Some are shorter still. Ian Luff has shown, in several articles in Teaching History, how effective very short activities can be. Everything depends on the students and the demands you want to make on them. The length of the activity is less important than the clarity with which the activity targets the problems students have in learning about the topic.

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Is there time for all this ?

Yes, a thousand times, yes! They improve the quality of learning (in terms of both knowledge and understanding) and the motivation of many, many students. This applies at all levels and I’m a passionate advocate of the crucial importance of this style of activity at A level. Why? Because over 20 years’ experience of using these activities suggests that they accelerate and deepen learning and motivation, especially in the early stages of a unit of work. This makes these activities essentials, not luxuries.

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Why use some activities as introductions?

Active learning provides a very effective first layer of learning when beginning a topic – this can be particularly true of A level when you have a complex series of events to study. The aim is to help students take the vital first steps in building their framework of knowledge and in developing conceptual understanding and so prepare them for reading what can see intimidating material. Activities therefore enable students of all abilities (although most obviously the weaker students) to overcome initial obstacles they might otherwise bounce off. Having 'walked through' events and 'thought from the inside' they are much more able get to grips with detail and complexities and, crucially at A level and beyond, they can the read about them more effectively. The page is no longer an obstacle course full of completely unfamiliar material.

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What are tabards?

Tabards are mentioned in many activities and used to identify individuals, factors or other things represented by students:

• Take a piece of sugar paper and fold it in half

• Then cut a hole large enough to put your head through along the folded side

• Open it out and it resembles a short poncho!

• Now write the name, factor or whatever on it

Causes tabard

Time period tabard

Character tabard

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This Page


Nature of Activities

What works with one class

It Depends Question

What does it link to?

How often?

Class Management

Use another room

Using cuddly toys

No age limits


Is there time?

Activities as introductions

What are tabards?