New booklets on the Anglo-Saxons

Earlier this year I asked primary teachers what topics they would most want me to tackle next, and despite a wide range of answers, the Anglo-Saxons were clear contenders. So I started researching them. When we talk about the Anglo-Saxon period, we sometime forget that it covers so much – after all, it lasted from the late 5th century all the way to 1066. What then to focus on?

After some deliberation, I decided to split it into three chronological periods: the advent of the Anglo-Saxons into post-Roman Britain, King Alfred’s reign and the beginnings of a unified English nation, and Anglo-Saxon England on the eve of the Norman conquest. Some further thought led me to fashion the following enquiry questions, each to be tackled in a separate booklet:

  • How reliable is Bede’s account of the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain?
  • What kind of changes did Alfred the Great bring about?
  • What made Anglo-Saxon England so attractive to its 11th century invaders?

The Adventus Saxonum is a contested narrative. On the one hand we have Bede’s account of a horde of Germanic tribes conquering Britain by “fire and sword” and driving the Britons into exile; on the other hand we have archaeological evidence which points to significant continuities and cast doubt on the population displacement thesis. More recent scholarship, notably Susan Oosthuizen’s “The Emergence of the English“, goes as far as to argue that there may not even have been an Adventus Saxonum, that those Germanic Anglo-Saxons were in fact the self same Britons, adopting German customs and language through greater exposure to German influence and trade.

This controversy, if we want to call it that, presents a wonderful opportunity to introduce Key Stage 2 pupils to the investigative part of a historian’s work. In the past I’ve had to teach “what is history” to year 7s, introducing them to primary and secondary sources, bias, provenance etc, and in isolation it can be quite a dry and boring topic. What if I were to present the advent of the Anglo-Saxons as a great mystery that historians are trying to solve, and try to engage pupils with source work by using Bede’s story as a starting point and then looking at other sources of evidence to evaluate that story? I decided to take this approach in booklet 1 of the Anglo-Saxons series.

I start with a short overview of Roman Britain and the end of Roman rule, explaining why the paucity of written sources leaves us largely in the dark about what was happening in Britain during the mid-5th century period. I then go on to introduce pupils to Bede, who he was and the main thrust of his argument. Finally we look at a range of evidence, including a contemporary written source (Life of St Germanus) and archaeological evidence from excavated cemeteries and Iron Age hillforts, all the while evaluating Bede’s narrative in the light of this additional evidence. Naturally, as this is a school booklet it is not meant to be an exhaustive investigation – however, it should give pupils an introduction to this period of history and hopefully pique their interest in the work of historians and in unearthing mysteries of the past.

As always with Learning For Memory booklets, there’s plenty of retrieval practice built into the lesson sequences to ensure the content sticks.

In the second booklet, I skip to King Alfred’s reign. Following a suggestion made by Christine Counsell, I have focused on the changes (and continuities) of his reign, including military, political and social changes. As with other booklets, I start with an overview of the situation before Alfred became king, picking up the threads from the previous booklet to help pupils connect the dots. The dramatic story of Alfred’s reign is told, the Viking incursions into Wessex, his retreat into the wetlands and his fight back, culminating in victory at the battle of Edington. The booklet then focuses on the changes that Alfred put in place after his victory at Edington, for example his development of the defensive burhs and the law code that he issued. I also highlight continuities – for example some of these burhs were originally built by the Romans and it could be said that Alfred merely added to them. His law code too drew on texts from previous kings and Roman law.

The third booklet skips forward to the late Anglo-Saxon period and looks at the factors that made Anglo-Saxon England so attractive to its 11th century invaders. In essence, England was a victim of its own success, its wealth and relatively sophisticated system of government turning it into a target for invasion. This booklet sets the scene nicely for subsequent studies of the Norman Conquest, giving pupils a broad overview of England on the eve of the conquest.

The Anglo-Saxons series of booklets can be purchased and downloaded here. As with all my booklets, I invite feedback from practitioners who have downloaded and used them in the classroom. Let me know what worked well, and what needs further fine tuning. I can be contacted via my Twitter account @LearningForMemo.

New Booklet for KS1: The Great Fire of London

I have been hard at work producing another history booklet, this time for KS1, on the Great Fire of London. This is on the National Curriculum for KS1 and is a popular topic in schools. However, quite often this topic is handled through role-play, videos and delightful artwork of burning London. I wanted to create something knowledge-rich, memorable and steeped in the disciplinary tradition of history teaching. This presented several challenges. How do I make it knowledge-rich without overwhelming early readers in KS1? And by limiting the amount of text to what a 7-year old can digest, what part of the story do I leave out?

Over a period of weeks, I researched the Great Fire, made notes and came up with three enquiry questions:

  1. What were the living conditions for people in London in 1666?
  2. Why did the Great Fire of London cause so much destruction?
  3. How did London change as a result of the Great Fire of 1666?

Through these three questions, I wanted to get pupils to start tackling the second-order concepts of cause and consequence, as well as change and continuity. By whittling it down to these three questions, it soon became clear what I would regretfully leave out. I had thought about discussing the war with the Netherlands and France, and immigrants in London who were scapegoated after the Fire. This part of the story would have to be left out. The focus became on London’s streets, buildings and trades. What factors contributed to the destructiveness of the Fire, and how London changed, including what didn’t change, after the Fire.

As a Learning For Memory booklet, naturally I also had to focus on making the content as memorable as possible. With this in mind, I tried to write an engaging and accessible narrative, whilst also interleaving vocabulary throughout the narrative. Terms such as ‘flammable’, ‘tinder-dry’, ‘sewage’ and ‘wood, straw and pitch’ make regular appearances in the text. There are also regular retrieval practice exercises dotted throughout the booklet.

The booklet is available for purchase and download here.

Keeping it simple

One question has been nagging away at me for a while now. How can we effectively reduce teacher workload? With teacher recruitment and retention at critically low levels, and workload being one of the factors driving people away from the profession, this is a question being asked by many of the great and good in education. The solutions are multi-faceted. Switching from marking to whole-class feedback. Reducing the amount of data teachers need to produce for their senior leadership teams. Fewer meetings being scheduled.

One area that interests me greatly, as it was the one thing that ate up most of my time when I was teaching, is lesson planning. The considerable time I spent preparing powerpoints and worksheets was surely not optimal nor sustainable over the long term. Part of the problem was the idea that lessons needed to have a range of activities that should be, if not entertaining, at least visibly keeping the students busy doing something.

This last point was brought home to me in a Tweet I saw posted on my timeline recently. A teacher had asked for lesson ideas on the Agrarian Revolution and one idea suggested in response was to cut up lots of paper in tiny pieces and throw them around the front of the classroom, then asking ten students to pick up the pieces while timing how long it takes. Then the process is repeated but this time with just one student picking up the pieces with a vaccum cleaner. And hey presto, the students will have learned about the transformative power of mechanisation on the agrarian economy.

I have a problem with this. First, when we are talking about teacher workload, this seems like a time-consuming activity to prepare and deliver. There is also another opportunity cost. Because the students are being taught the concept via an experiential, constructivist activity, they don’t get to read some meaty text which could enrich their vocabulary, their understanding of the period and their knowledge of how to construct good historical writing. By choosing the ‘kinaesthetic’ over the reading or over good story telling by the teacher, how often are we denying our students the gift of language?

This isn’t a one-off. Over the last two years that I have been active on Twitter, I have seen many lesson ideas posted online by teachers. Not once – I repeat not once – have I seen a teacher simply share a good quality text with some accompanying questions (that’s not to say it hasn’t happened). The only text-rich resources I have seen being shared are knowledge organisers, many of them full of busy diagrams and boxes all over the page – not really what I believe knowledge organisers should be (but that is the subject of another blog for another time).

What I would have liked to find, as a teacher desperately trying to create lessons from scratch, was two or three pages’ worth of narrative prose on a particular history topic. This dearth of good quality prose is one of the factors behind my setting up Learning For Memory. I wanted to create high quality, text rich resources for busy teachers. Instead of spending valuable planning time preparing powerpoint presentations or activities to keep the students busy, wouldn’t it be better for a teacher to just read through ready-made text and make notes on particular bits of vocabulary that might need explaining or questions that might need asking?

In this respect, I was heartened to read a recent blog by Warren Valentine, in which he described the structure of a typical lesson he teaches as follows:

1. The presentation of some text, including the key knowledge and events I would like students to know.

2. Some activity involving the processing of this text, by transforming it into a different format.

3. Some stretching and searching questions based upon the text to probe for understanding.

4. Applying the knowledge to answer a historical question.

This absolutely nails it! Such an approach should be the bread and butter of history teaching. Start with good quality text. Probe and analyse it, answer questions to deepen understanding and then work towards applying that knowledge to answer a historical question. Would that this were the norm in history classrooms around the country.


Multiple Choice Questions for ‘The Middle Ages’

Below is a link to a downloadable Powerpoint file with multiple choice questionnaires for each of the 11 booklets forming ‘Learning for Memory: The Middle Ages’. These can be used as a starter activity or as a low stakes test at the end of each topic. I also recommend using the knowledge organisers for quizzing, simply by deleting the content from the boxes on the right or left column. I have tried to include plausible answers for each question, and to set questions that get students thinking about the main issues covered in the booklets, with a view to enhancing understanding, clearing up misunderstandings and helping students to retain this knowledge in their long-term memory. Correct answers are indicated with (C), which should obviously be deleted before printing out for a lesson.

Multiple choice questions: The Middle Ages

Rich Knowledge and Cognitive Load

If your finger is anywhere near the pulse of education, you will no doubt have heard the term ‘knowledge-rich’ bandied about rather frequently of late. You will also have heard mention of cognitive load theory or Rosenshine’s principles of instruction. These three ideas often seem to go hand in hand, as part of an increasingly prevalent core of educational thinking, yet at first glance one may think they contradict one another.

Let’s start out with the term ‘knowledge rich’, which is in itself generic enough to be defined differently by different people. I’ve heard many a grumble from some corners of edu-twitter, claiming that they have always taught knowledge and that ‘knowledge-rich’ is just a cipher for a type of rote-like, fact memorisation model of instruction. This faction seizes on the usage of knowledge organisers as its prime exhibit to claim that the ‘knowlege-rich’ approach is really just the regurgitation of facts. I think this type of characterisation can sometimes verge on the willfully obtuse.

For me, ‘knowledge-rich’ education is the antithesis of ‘knowledge-light’, and a reaction to the skills-based genericism that crept into education over the last decade or so (nowhere more obvious to see than in the ‘usefulness of a source’ type questions on GCSE papers). While it does include some element of fact memorisation, the ‘knowledge-rich’ approach is founded on the principle that skills or knowledge (those two terms can sometimes be interchangeable) are domain specific and not as transferable as has been claimed in the past. To be good at something, you need to know a lot about it. That knowledge will not automatically mean you will be good at another, distantly related skill. So when we talk about a knowledge-rich history curriculum, we mean that it will have breadth and depth. Children being taught the Middle Ages in a knowledge-rich way will come out knowing an awful lot about the Middle Ages.

I’ll give one example of the level of depth that may differentiate a knowledge-rich from a knowledge-light approach. In booklet 8 of ‘Learning For Memory: The Middle Ages’, I discuss the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket, which culminated in Becket’s brutal murder. A knowledge-light approach to teaching this topic would give students the main bullet points of the story and have some engaging activity for them to do, for example getting them to write a catchy newspaper headline and article about the event. We’ve all seen those big headlines such as ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, followed by a tabloid type retelling of the gruesome story. I’m not so keen on these type of activities, not least because they encourage an anachronistic way of thinking about the past.

In contrast, the knowlege-rich approach taken in my booklet is careful to set the scene with a rich level of detail, allowing students to build a picture of the relationship between Henry II and Becket, to get a feel for their character and to gain some insight into the causes of the dispute between them. I include source material as vignettes, which of themselves don’t advance the story but which go towards exploring the two characters in greater depth. Thus for instance, I include the infamous cloak incident:

So much can be inferred from this one incident and go towards a better understanding of the dynamics between Henry and Becket. Henry treated Becket as his servant who always did his bidding. Becket submitted to this treatment because he had no choice in the matter, but internally he may have chafed at it. Contrast this incident with another, after Becket has been made Archbishop of Canterbury – again, an incident which doesn’t of itself advance the story but which gives that level of insight into what is really going on.

It is fascinating to juxtapose these two incidents and see the development of the relationship between the two protagonists. One can’t help but think there’s a little payback for that lost cloak in Becket’s manner towards his king. So much can be learned by delving into this level of detail, something that doesn’t necessarily happen in the ‘knowledge-light’, skills driven approach. I might add that this knowlege-rich type of story telling is far more memorable for students.

So, perhaps we are now a little clearer on what is meant by ‘knowledge-rich’. Then we come to cognitive load and Rosenshine. I don’t have enough space here to discuss these fully (follow the links for more information) but the main takeaway from these two theories is that students should practise what they already know, and only small levels of new knowledge should be added at any one time, to avoid cognitive overload. How does this square with the knowledge-rich approach? How can we teach our students lots of stuff in great depth if we can only add small bits of new knowledge at a time?

Here I think, in the context of history as a subject, is where the focus on teaching second-order concepts as the holy grail can sometimes derail our students. Yes, professional historians are often engaged in thinking about these second-order concepts (e.g. cause & consequence, change & continuity, significance etc), but while our students are still novices (and at KS3 they certainly are, a little less so at KS4 and so on), we need to be mindful that focussing on getting them to the top of Bloom’s pyramid is probably not the way to go. Can students really analyse in depth the significance of an event if they only have surface knowledge of it? Probably not. I’m not advocating here that we don’t teach second-order concepts, but that we do it with a light touch.

A lot of that second order thinking can be drawn out in the sentence writing exercises (inspired by Hochman and Wexler’s “The Writing Revolution“). In these exercises, students practise writing by focussing on completing a sentence stem with the conjunctions because, but and so (they can also be given sentence stems starting with words such as although, while, unless, whenever, before, after etc.). For example, one could present them with the sentence stem “King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as Archbishop of Canterbury,” and possible answers could be:

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as Archbishop of Canterbury, because Becket had been his loyal chancellor for many years.

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as Archbishop of Canterbury, but Becket ended up doing the opposite.

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as Archbishop of Canterbury, so he was infuriated when Becket went against his will.

If we think about it, there’s a wealth of cause and consequence embedded into these sentences. The conjunction because will inevitably look at a cause, while so will discuss a consequence. Ostensibly students are practising their writing skills, but in the background to all this, they are also developing their historical thinking. So in regards to cognitive load, and only teaching students small amounts of new knowledge at a time, my thinking goes like this. Using the metaphor of a science experiment, where there are different variables put in place, a lesson should consist of:

  • an independent variable (the one that changes), which would be the new knowledge being added, for example two or three pages of reading that advances the story or topic we are following.
  • a dependent variable (the thing that a scientist focuses his or her observation on), which would be the sentence writing (or paragraph writing), related to what has just been read.
  • a controlled variable (the thing that stays constant), which would be the retrieval practice, such as multiple choice quizzes to test prior knowledge.

In this way, I hope we can achieve the objective of a knowledge-rich curriculum while at the same time respecting the limits of working memory and not overloading our students with more information than they can process.


Deliberate Practice

The Learning For Memory project has been influenced by the idea of deliberate practice, as explained in Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning‘, as well as by the application of deliberate practice expounded in ‘The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades‘ by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler.

Deliberate practice vs generic skills

According to Christodoulou, there are broadly two approaches to teaching skills: teaching them directly (the generic-skill method) and teaching them indirectly (the deliberate-practice method). The generic-skill approach involves teaching the desired skill directly, with the activities mirroring the desired end product. So for example, if we wanted to teach students how to write a history GCSE essay, then the activity would be to write such an essay.

The deliberate-practice approach, on the other hand, does not involve practising a skill in its final form. Instead, the skill is broken down into different component parts and these are practised until mastery is reached. Only then, does the student attempt the actual intended skill to be learned, such as the GCSE essay mentioned above.

The main problem with the generic-skills approach is that skills are not generic, they are specific. Thus it is nigh on impossible to teach discrete skills such as problem-solving or critical thinking. You cannot get better at problem-solving simply by practising solving problems. Christodoulou suggests that experts in all fields

‘depend on rich and detailed structures of knowledge stored in their long term memory. These structures – often called schema or mental models – are what allow the expert to encounter new problems and solve them with such ease.’

In other words, when experts are problem solving, they are not exercising some generic problem solving muscles. What they are actually doing is using a store of specific mental models in their long term memory to help solve the new problem. Thus, if we want our students to get better at something, we need them to acquire these mental models in their long-term memory, and the best way to do this is through deliberate practice.

Applying the deliberate-practice method to teaching history

I have thought long and hard about how we would go about breaking up the skills needed to write a good history essay. Where would we start? Of course, to write a good essay, you need to be able to make strong arguments and to show both your knowledge of the period and understanding of the question. So one of the starting points is the actual knowledge of the period we are discussing. My main approach in building up this knowledge has been the use of narrative. In this, I am not alone. The most recent issue of Teaching History (June 2018) has an article by Alex Ford and Richard Kennett which also suggests using narrative to make knowledge more memorable.

‘One way teachers can make knowledge memorable is by giving greater emphasis to narratives in our classrooms… Stories are easier for our brains to process and to remember and they allow us to attach additional information to them. In short, the story can act as a skeleton schema to help with memorisation.’

Through the medium of telling a story, we can immerse our students in the past and help them build a picture of the characters and events we are describing. One other aspect of making the knowledge memorable is to use approaches suggested by cognitive psychology for effective learning. The three approaches that I have found most useful in the context of history are:

  • retrieval practice
  • interleaving, and
  • dual coding.

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice involves regular low stakes quizzing, as the more often we try to retrieve knowledge from our memory, the more memorable it becomes. At the end of each lesson sequence in the Learning For Memory booklets, I include a set of 3 recap questions. The first question usually recaps on a topic discussed in the previous lesson, and the other two questions delve further back. Knowledge organisers and multiple choice questions can also be used for quizzing, for example as a starter ‘do now’ type activity. I will be adding these as free downloadable resources in due course.


Interleaving was initially problematic, for history is very reliant on chronology. However, after much deliberation, I was able to find opportunities for harnessing this approach. In booklet 3 of ‘The Middle Ages’, I interleaved the three overlapping stories of Harold Hardrada, Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy. The battle of Stamford Bridge gets covered twice: once during Hardrada’s story and then during Harold Godwinson’s narrative. The same applies for the battle of Hastings, which gets covered twice, from each protagonist’s perspective; each time a new level of detail is added.

I was also able to weave in particular concepts on numerous occasions, for example the concept of chivalry. We first encounter chivalry in booklet 5, when discussing the effects of the Norman Conquest on English society. Subsequently, we encounter chivalry again, this time in booklet 7, which tells the story of the ‘Anarchy’. When King Stephen is captured by Matilda’s forces at the battle of Lincoln, he is imprisoned because the code of chivalry prohibits the murder of opponents who have been captured, causing a bit of a conundrum for Matilda. Having seen chivalry in this context, students are then better placed to understand the haemorrhage of support for John after he captured Arthur and had him murdered (discussed in booklet 10).

Dual coding

Dual coding is basically a way to overcome constraints of working memory by displaying the information as a mixture of graphics and text. The Learning For Memory booklets contain a wealth of diagrams to summarise the information in a more digestible way. For example, there is frequent use of simple flow charts, summarising the main events just studied. This is one that was used to summarise the events following the sinking of the White Ship and Henry I’s naming of Matilda as his heir.

Here is another type of diagram used, this time to summarise how King William I profitted from the feudal system when a tenant-in-chief died.

Deliberate practice for writing

Of course, knowledge of the historical period is not enough. Students need to be able to formulate arguments and write effectively. Here, I was much inspired by The Writing Revolution, which argues that students need to be taught explicitly how to write, starting at the sentence level. Hochman and Wexler explain the main problem:

“To be effective, writing instruction should start in elementary [primary] school. But when students do get a chance to write in elementary school, they’re often encouraged to write at length too soon, sometimes at a furious pace. They don’t learn how to construct interesting and grammatically correct sentences first, and they aren’t encouraged to plan or outline before they write… When students get to middle school or high school, it’s assumed that they’ve already learned the basics of writing. As many secondary teachers know, that assumption has little to do with reality. But rather than beginning with teaching the fundamental skills their students lack – by, say, guiding students through the process of writing well-crafted sentences – teachers feel pressured to have their students meet grade-level expectations and produce multi-paragraph essays.”

I have been as guilty of doing this as anyone. In fact, when re-reading my first draft of ‘The Middle Ages’, I had to prune back several essay questions. Instead, I put more focus on completing sentence stems using the conjunctions because, but and so, as recommended by Hochman and Wexler. For example, in booklet 5, students are asked to complete the sentence stem ‘William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England,‘. This task is more difficult than it looks, and might need careful scaffolding and modelling by the class teacher. Possible sentences could be as follows:

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, because lots of people refused to accept him as their ruler.

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, but he was able to put them down easily with his military machine.

William faced many rebellions against him after becoming king of England, so he had to march his army from one part of the country to another in order to stamp his authority.

Then, every couple of sequence of lessons, I up the challenge by getting the students to write a paragraph, scaffolding the process by giving them a sentence starter. For example, in booklet 6, which discusses the consequences of the First Crusade, I start off with a sentence completion exercise, followed by a paragraph writing activity.

One other approach, which was nabbed from Robert Peal’s blog ‘The Art of the Paragraph‘, is to present students with a list of key terms and words (including Tier 2 words) to be included in the paragraph. For example, in booklet 8, students are asked to write two paragraphs, discussing the personal and principled aspects of the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket.

Only after having practised sentences and individual paragraphs, do we then go on to writing essays, the hope being that by then, students will have developed the requisite skills to practise that end-skill.


Teacher notes for ‘The Middle Ages’

Below are teacher notes to go with each booklet. They contain some suggested sentences for the sentence completion exercises, as well as various other bits and pieces. I suggest though that teachers attempt to complete the because, but and so stem sentences themselves first, before looking at these notes. It can be a bit challenging to come up with all three sentences (usually the because sentence is obvious, the but one less so), so I think it’s useful for teachers to put themselves in their students’ shoes and try completing the sentences themselves, and then comparing with the sentences I came up with in the teacher notes.

Please click on a link below to download the file as a Word document.

Teacher notes for Booklet 1 (Introduction to the Middle Ages)

Teacher notes for Booklet 2 (The Making of England)

Teacher notes for Booklet 3 (1066: Three Kings in One Year)

Teacher notes for Booklet 4 (Religion in the Middle Ages: Everyday Faith, Religious Orders and Heresies)

Teacher notes for Booklet 5 (Norman England)

Teacher notes for Booklet 6 (Religion in the Middle Ages: Church Reforms and Crusades)

Teacher notes for Booklet 7 (The Anarchy)

Teacher notes for Booklet 8 (Religion in the Middle Ages: Conflict Between Church and Crown)

Teacher notes for Booklet 9 (Medieval Kingship in England)

Teacher notes for Booklet 10 (King John and the Magna Carta)

Teacher notes for Booklet 11 (Social Change in the 14th Century)