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Common Mistakes

The following is a list of mistakes which trainee history teachers sometimes make in the early stages of their teaching. They are not things to worry about; it is inevitable that you will make mistakes as you develop, and (hopefully) learn from them. It is part of good 'reflective practice' that you can look back on how you have taught at the end of the week, month, or term, and think about whether any of these weaknesses or errors of judgement have occurred in your teaching).

  • Failure to ensure that pupils have sufficient background knowledge or support materials to undertake a task successfully. Look out for how they react when you've finished giving them the instructions for the task, and look at the quality of the finished task- if they are all poor, it might be a result of poor 'setting up' for the activity.
  • Not giving sufficient thought to how to approach the topic in a way that makes some sense to the pupils, so that they can see the why it might be worthwhile studying it. (One student teaching a fairly esoteric area of content wrote in his evaluation, 'I have no idea why I am teaching the kids this stuff.') If you think carefully about it, there are often opportunities to connect topics to issues that have contemporary resonance and relevance.
  • Not getting sufficient 'mileage' out of prepared materials; spending a lot of time and effort preparing an excellent visual aid or resource, and then not thinking through the range of questions and activities which might derive from the resources. (For example, bringing in a World War 2 gas mask, and just showing it to pupils). This can discourage you from using your initiative over teaching resources.
  • Losing sight of the full breadth of things which pupils might learn from studying the past. This often takes the form of 'overdosing' on area 2, 'knowledge and understanding of the past'. There is nothing wrong with developing pupils' knowledge and understanding of the past; it is probably the area of knowledge, skills and understanding that should be prevalent in your teaching, but check your file at the end of the month, and see if you have at any point addressed some of the other five areas of k,s, and u. of the National Curriculum- chronology, interpretations, enquiry- and what about opportunities to address key skills, political literacy, moral and spiritual education? There should be more to learning history than just accumulating a body of knowledge about the past.
  • Overdoing insufficiently thought through 'empathy' exercises. These are quite hard to set up properly, and setting 'Imagine you are...' exercises often has limited success in promoting real gains in pupil knowledge and understanding.
  • Lack of initiative with resources; if you keep an eye out on what is in the papers, on the television, the internet etc, rather than simply using what is already in the department, it can make it much easier to make lessons interesting.
  • Lack of pace; the need to set interim targets and break down tasks into work perceived as manageable by pupils. You might set them first 3 questions of a work sheet, and then interject with some teacher exposition, before asking them to do further questions. If you give them an hour to do the whole thing, they will often lose impetus part of the way through, and work in a rather desultory fashion. There is also a tendency for trainee teachers to overuse worksheets.
  • Reluctance to use the board and other visual aids. (Perhaps through fear of turning your back on the pupils?): keep in mind alternatives such as OHPs or powerpoint introductions to lessons if you have access to a data projector.All these can be aids to support your exposition and instructions, in terms of maps, spider diagrams, bullet points etc.
  • Not stopping the whole class when you are explaining things: having set the work, you realise that you have something further important to say. It is usually worth asking the whole class to look at you, put their pens down, and listen while you quickly add to your instructions, rather than talking over the activities of the class, so that some pupils get the extra information and others remain oblivious to them.
  • Overuse of the text book; dangerous if this is the only source of your knowledge (cardinal sin). You will almost without exception need far more knowledge of the topic than is in even the best of text books. They are best used in conjunction withstimulating and well judged teacher exposition, deriving from good subject knowledge of the topic in question. You also need to think carefully about the value and effectiveness of 'reading around the class', with pupils reading extracts from the text book, one after another, even if they are willing to do so. If you do it, look carefully at the overall effect- is it producing a vibrant and productive learning atmosphere? Or are many of the pupils bored and inattentive, is it just passing the time until the bell goes?
  • Not providing clear and detailed instructions. Many beginning teachers do not anticipate the difficulties involved in giving comprehensive and unambiguous guidance on how to carry out the task which the teacher has in mind. It can be helpful to think through in advance what you want the final product to look like, and take steps to explain this fully, with support materials for pupils to refer to, or 'model' the activity, by showing a completed exercise from another class.
  • Making assumptions about pupils' knowledge. Sometimes pupils haven't a clue what is going on in the lesson and lack the confidence to ask for guidance. Look at your materials and exposition carefully to check for this. This can include a lack of understanding of any sense of why this morsel of the past has any relevance to their lives. Don't assume that because they have completed an activity, it means that they understand everything, and how it connects to contingent areas of the syllabus- they may still have only a limited grasp of the topic, and how it links to other things. Try and think of assessment tasks that check for basic understanding.
  • Writing vague objectives, e.g. 'To develop source skills', without specifying exactly what precise skill and associated understanding is being addressed, or 'To look at a Roman town', with no indication as to the purpose of such an enquiry. (For further guidance on formulating precise learning objectives, see the section on Planning).
  • Failure to 'punch home' the key teaching points of the lesson. Sometimes this can be related to limited clarity about what key learning outcomes are intended, but even when this is clear, many teachers give insufficient time and emphasis to summarising what has been learned, both within, and at the end of lessons. Lesson endings cn be problematic for trainee teachers and need time and thought. This issue also includes 'recap' at the start of the next lesson, but be careful to balance this against issues of 'pace'. Don't let recap be tedious and formulaic.
  • Over-questioning. Again, there is a 'pace' issue here.This may come about by not thinking sufficiently about the key questions needed in a lesson, or because the sequence has not been considered, so that questioning has no clear direction or focus, and the lesson loses impetus as a result. Try to look at the pupils as you do questioning; are they eager and engaged, or is their attention and commitment drifting away?
  • Not taking opportunities to make connections and 'overviews' of historical issues and topics, across time, including to the present. Whether it is 'The Church', modes of warfare, ideas about chivlary, the power of the monarchy, the extent and nature of democracy, it is often by making comparisons over time that we help to develop pupil understanding.
  • From time to time, reflect on whether any of these lesson characteristics 'ring a bell', or ask your mentor whether any of these, or other common difficulties, feature in your lessons.

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