Sharpening Up: Thinking carefully about substantive knowledge and the possibilities of successive relearning.
As some of you are aware, I’ve been doing some work with my namesake Kristian Still on the RememberMore App which you can have a look at via the hyperlink. This has been valuable CPD in terms of sharpening my thinking around exactly what students need to know about a specific GCSE unit (in this case, the Paper 3 unit on the Edexcel course covering Weimar and Nazi Germany 1918–1939). It’s forced me to define the content that students need to know very clearly with very specific definitions for a host of key terms, events and individuals. It’s also helped me to think closely about the questions I’m asking within this topic.
It’s a process I’d highly recommend going through — I’m already starting to think about the American West topic that many of us struggle with and the different ways I’d organise that content vs the Germany one. Indeed, I managed to do the Germany unit in 196 cards — I’ve already done 21 for the American West and that’s only for the first part of Key Topic 1! There’s a much greater level of geographic knowledge in particular that needs to be established early on. Feel free to DM myself on twitter, or Kristian Still, if you’re interested in setting something similar up for a unit you teach.
So I thought it might be enlightening to try and walk through this process for a very small and specific aspect of content on the third key topic of this unit, looking at the Gestapo as part of the wider topic of the nature of the police state in Nazi Germany.
What do students of this topic need to know about the Gestapo?
At the surface level, they need to know very precisely what it is, and what it does. So, when I did my Remember More card for this, I put the following:
· Gestapo: ‘secret police’ — established in 1933.
On reflection, this isn’t very satisfactory for two reasons.
First of all, can a regular student understand the distinction between a ‘secret’ police and the regular police.
Secondly, do I really need them to know it was established in 1933 as one of my two key bits of information identified here? Arguably, the following information is more immediately important:
o It was controlled by the Nazis.
o Its jobs involved snooping on the population, opening people’s mail, listening in to phone conversations, and so on.
o It was controlled by the Nazis — more specifically by Himmler and the SS.
So, at the absolute basic level, I think I would change that initial, surface-level definition to this:
· Gestapo: ‘secret police’ force — controlled by the Nazis.
I probably also need to include something that helps students to remember what a ‘secret police’ force does as well. The term ‘police state’ probably also needs to be defined although that sits across a number of aspects of this topic, such as the role of the SS, concentration camps and the court system.
But clearly, that isn’t sufficient. That isn’t all they need to know about the Gestapo. But this leads on to my second issue.
How do I apportion the time I have to teach about the Gestapo?
When my students learn about this, I think (and this is my fault) that they spend too much time essentially circling the wagons of that definition. If you look at any GCSE textbook for this unit they basically define the Gestapo as above, but just in a wordier way, maybe with a few stats thrown in that students then basically make up when they write about them in an assessment. Then I’ll get the student to fill in a table to show the person doing the book scrutiny that, hey, look, they’ve learned about the Gestapo, they’ve written all this stuff and everything! But probably they got what they needed within the first two minutes of doing that work (and of course some students may already know what the Gestapo is before entering the lesson even though I’ve not taught it yet) and I think one area where I can improve as a teacher is being more confident to sack off the textbook verbiage and crack on with the deeper learning.
Why do I make this mistake? Yes, the school accountability regime is probably partly to blame in terms of me wanting to cover myself. Also anxiety around having a mixed attaining class and concerns that some of my struggling students just might get left in the dust by the stronger ones is an issue as well — leading me to play it safe in the lesson. I think there’s a whole separate blog to be written about how we deal with the enormous disparities in prior knowledge that students within the same mixed-attaining GCSE History class that many of us teach bring to the lesson. I certainly haven’t figured out the answer to that problem (yet — I’m going to keep trying though).
So what I need to do instead is now get into the deeper learning on this. What does that look like for this topic? Well, having taught this period at A-level before for quite a few years, and having read some of the scholarship around it, I know that there some really interesting questions we can discuss about the Gestapo:
· Was the Gestapo really the all-seeing, all-knowing agency of the Nazi state?
· What do denunciations (such as the infamous Resi Kraus one made famous by Episode 2 of The Nazis: A Warning from History) made by ordinary citizens against their neighbours and co-workers reveal both about the Gestapo’s effectiveness and more broadly the level of popular support for the regime?
This is where you can really start to immerse the students in the details of how understaffed the Gestapo were, and about the significance of them relying on those denunciations by members of the public. That opens big questions about whether ‘fear’ was really all that important in controlling the German people, given the apparent willingness of many Germans to grass up their neighbours, as raised by historians like Robert Gellately. Of course, there are counter-arguments to that view as people like Richard Evans have written about. This of course then better prepares them for the interpretations section of Paper 3 where they have to engage with different positions around an area of historical debate. If you look at the core textbook for this unit, produced by the publishing company that runs the exam board, these issues get a short paragraph at the end and a short extract from an interpretation that I bet gets bypassed by a lot of teachers and students as they work through the material.
What I need to be doing is focusing more of my teaching time on this, and trying to be much more efficient in how I build in that core foundational knowledge, such as the definition and brief description of the Gestapo. This is part of trying to deal with the challenge of content coverage as raised by Mary Myatt’s recent excellent blog.
I do think the RememberMore App might have some possibilities here, and it’s opened up to me the idea of ‘successive re-learning’ which I didn’t know too much about within that broader domain of retrieval practice before. Using strategies such as those outlined in Dunlosky’s epic ‘student toolbox’ paper clearly offers a way forward here, and those principles sit behind a lot of what this App is trying to do. Being more systematic in using the starts and ends of my lessons to shore up that surface knowledge for this tricky content I think can have some real gains in terms of deeper learning and better historical understanding. I also think there’s significant scope for me to improve my own teaching practice in terms of establishing stronger routines at the starts and ends of lessons, which will enable the core of the lesson to be more focussed and richer in student thinking. It’ll hopefully allow students to start exploring the connections between the different aspects of the content and make them more flexible in their own thinking.
I look forward to experimenting with this properly when we do eventually return to school!