Wednesday 2 October 2013

Not another essay: Still loving literacy but providing opportunities for creative assessment at KS3

Not another essay: Still loving literacy but providing opportunities for creative assessment at KS3

Literacy and providing ways for our students to communicate effectively through writing beautifully is imperative because of its transformability, indeed to quote inspirational colleague: @Renniesherrie) ‘it [literacy and language learning] is currency’.

We are not all English teachers, however we are all teachers of literacy. Perhaps in our context this is even more acute given the nature of our wonderful, multilingual students at Canons where ‘a high proportion of students speak English as an additional language, of whom a small number are at an early stage of learning English.’ (Ofsted, 2013) This ‘high proportion’ equates to around 80%. 

Supporting our students to write as academic historians and to acquire their particular tendencies and employ them within their own writing is absolutely imperative to us history teachers.  (See link – Language of historians, Historians and their language Common characteristics of historians (sixth From College, Farnborough version, Laffin, 2013) Similarly, developing students’ literacy skills, both generic and subject specific language is a strong personal passion. Indeed supporting writing, in a ‘scaffold, not a cage’ (Lee and Shelmit, 2003) way, for me is the bread and butter of my thinking about students’ learning.  Writing should therefore be preceded by ‘talk’ and facilitated by modelling and opportunities for redrafting.

In history at Canons, literacy is an important and explicit focus of every lesson and we do a fair amount of essay writing at KS3, however we also felt that having an essay as the outcome of each and every historical enquiry is neither necessary, nor conducive to inclusive, engaging and meaningful schemes of learning. Of course writing is crucial, witnessing students’ progress in their writing is very special and important. However, for those of us who have produced umpteen thousands of words by means of a dissertation, an A4 page may seem a walk in the park, yet do we as teachers always remember that writing can place severe demands on students? Indeed, the emotional demands of writing are just as challenging as the cognitive demands. It can lead to stress and feelings of intense anxiety for students.

Consequently, our first assessment for our Year 8s is creative: no essay required (although students are welcome to produce a written explanation if they wish and a significant majority do).

The scheme of learning itself, my first enquiry planned as a student teacher, is not perfect; it has developed over the past three years, continues to be slightly modified and there is still room for further refinement and improvement. Similarly, it is nothing radically new, in fact it is a common feature on many a Key Stage Three history course. The conceptual focus is change and continuity and the historical content is the English Reformation and the subsequent religious changes under the Tudors. The overarching enquiry question aims to force students to explicitly focus and wrestle with the nature of change and continuity: What sort of change was the English Reformation?

What it does do however, is provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of religious change and continuity under the Tudor monarchy in a creative and meaningful way as, in a nutshell, the outcome of this enquiry requires students to design or create a rollercoaster to really reflect and demonstrate what sort of change it was.

Assessment task handout:


We wanted to move on from the more simplistic Tudor religious roller coasters and instead to get students to design something that requires them to have thought critically and  meaningfully demonstrate their understanding of the complexity of change and continuity. A particular inspiration for this was Rachel Foster’s 2008 Teaching History article ‘Speed cameras, dead ends, drivers and diversions: Year 9 use a ‘road map’ to problematise change and continuity’ where her students used the metaphor of a car journey and designed a road map to demonstrate their understanding of the process of change in the American civil rights movement as one of her students explained: “...and now the NAACP is a dead end, so the Montgomery bus boycott has to begin on a new road...’ (Foster, 2008) For me this demonstrates wonderful thinking by the student enabled by Foster’s metaphor. I wanted to provide the same opportunity for thinking and qualifying for my students.

What did we want students to get hold of and demonstrate through their creative rollercoaster designs?

The National Curriculum in England (2008) requires us as teachers to provide opportunities for our students to  ‘.... analyse the nature and extent of .... change and continuity within and across different periods’. This enquiry meets the first criterion, the question with its focus on ‘what sort of change’ requires students to consider the nature of change: was it sudden, bumpy or scary? Was it actually fairly ‘uneven’ as it did not affect everyone, everywhere in the same way? Such questions I would ask students and hoped students would ask themselves and each other.
 Christine Counsell’s guidance on ‘Teaching about Historical Change and Continuity, 2008’ Link to SHP website and Christine Counsell's guidance,  was particularly pertinent for this enquiry especially points 5, 6 and 7 of Counsell’s ‘Twenty strategies for helping pupils to get better at discussing and analysing change and continuity’:
5. Give them different ways of analysing or characterising change . ‘I want you to focus on type of change, not speed of change’. ‘I want you to focus on extent of change’.
6. Model the thinking involved in reflecting on change and continuity. Think out loud to pupils as you do your own reflecting on whether change did or didn’t occur, how much changed and for whom. Find the right language to characterise the change as precisely as possible, showing them by example that you mean change in ‘states of affairs’ and that you are not treating ‘event’ as a proxy for ‘change’.
7. Teach them to qualify and modify statements for thinking, talking and writing about change . ‘Was the change steady, gradual, gentle?’ ‘Was it swift, sudden, seismic?’ ‘Was it uneven, bumpy, jumpy?’
In light of this, the enquiry requires students to focus on the type, kind or sort of change; would model the thinking and support the development of students language to characterise the sort of change as precisely as possible and encourage them to use statements about the kind of change through language. Critically, this would hopefully lead to students being able to qualify their statements drawing upon their historical knowledge therefore bringing skills and content into their natural unison.
For this particular enquiry it is important for students to have the opportunity to wrestle with:
  • Specific examples of changes that occurred under each Tudor monarch. 
  • Grasp the concept of continuity: some things e.g. beliefs, attitudes stay the same as well as changed.
  • The experience of change for those living through it and the kind of change that it was
  • Experiment with words to describe what kind of change it was.
  • Challenging prior conceptions about change, i.e. Change is not the same for everyone, everywhere.
Throughout the enquiry, students used a learning log to record their understanding of specific changes. The learning log was designed to support students in meeting the objectives of the enquiry in addition to being something for them to use when preparing for the creative assessment.

How were students prepared for the assessment?

The learning log was used, sometimes as a homework and other times as the consolidation phase of the lesson in order to keep the conceptual focus tight and to provide several opportunities for students to consider and practice using language to describe the sort of change the English Reformation was.

Although students were aware from the outset about the enquiry’s outcome, (the joy on some faces when they are told they will not be writing an essay!) it was the final lesson that most explicitly provided students with the opportunity to reflect and discuss how they would create their rollercoasters.

In the final lesson consolidating their understanding and preparing for the assessment, I began by showing a YouTube clip of a rollercoaster link to clip and getting students to discuss words and feeling associated with the ride to reintroduce the kind of vocabulary I wanted to see in their final outcomes: ‘bumpy’ ‘sudden’ jerky’ ‘scary’, ’shocking’, in their discussions and responses students were using the exact language necessary to characterise and describe change.  

Once the final outcome was reiterated and the SOLO marking criteria was explained, in groups students then discussed and mind mapped ideas about how they could really demonstrate what they knew about the nature of the English Reformation prompted by a series of questions some of which are below:
  • How could you demonstrate a rapid change on your rollercoaster?
  • How could show a gradual or steady change?
  • How could you demonstrate a violent or confusing change?
  • How could you show the people who were experiencing the religious changes?
  • How could you show those people who refused to change their religion and became martyrs?

Students became even more creative than I’d expected, engaging in thoughtful discussion with one another:

‘For Mary there could be a sudden drop going back to Catholic and ending in a fire tunnel to represent what happened to the Protestant martyrs’,

‘But what about that she gave them a final chance to change their minds the night before they were to be burnt? Would there be two tracks- an option for the Protestants?’

‘There could be a colourful track for Henry and Mary to show the Catholic beliefs in decorations and a plain track for Edward’

After these vibrant group discussions students were given time to plan their rollercoaster, it was great at this stage to question the choices students were making in order to gauge their understanding. I intend to build in some further time at this stage in future for some Berger style critique between students during the planning stage.

Please find some examples of students' work below:

 This enquiry is far from perfect however it does prove challenging, enjoyable and genuinely provides students with the opportunity to analyse the nature of change and continuity. I hope it has has embedded skills they can draw upon in future questions about historical change for example the change in relations between the Soviet Union and the USA, changes in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, continuity of practice between the old and new Poor Law. In terms of impact, it is difficult to judge, however the enquiry has certainly helped to embed a sense of the period, for example when we begin the next enquiry on interpretations of Cromwell we start by looking at the famous image ‘World turned upside down’  image (below) to question whether the world really went mad in the 1640s? Last year students discussed and were questioned on all the strange things they could see and why this image may have been made. After this there was evidence of students drawing upon their previous learning: ‘perhaps it was made to show how confused people were by the religious changes at the time because the church is upside down’ which indicates the enquiry had a lasting impact on students sense of period.

The next step is to enrich and illuminate the enquiry with the historical literature of Eamon Duffy, either The Stripping of the Altars or The Voices of Morbath. 


  1. I tried something similar to this last year with my Year 8 class - we have since incorporated it into our SOW - thanks for the idea

    1. That's great. How did it go and how did your students find it?