#7 This week, in history… I’ve been checking ‘for’ understanding less. This is what I’ve been doing instead.

‘Do you think your pupils might have just remembered what you told them?’

For a moment I thought I’d misheard my Head of Department. But their follow up made clear there was no mistake. 

‘Or just remembered it from the booklet?’

I was confused.

We were discussing a recent diagnostic assessment our pupils had completed about the Black Death. A mixture of multiple choice and short answer questions. Reading through my pupils’ efforts, I’d been quite pleased. They had done well. Answered most of the questions correctly. 

They had clearly remembered a lot. 

But now my Head of Department seemed to be suggesting this might be a bad thing. I didn’t understand. I thought learning was a change in long-term memory. Surely if my pupils remembered what I had told them, or what we’d read in class, they had ‘learnt’ something. How could that be a bad thing?

‘Urrrm, is it a problem if they remember what I tell them?,’ I offered hesitantly. I wasn’t sure where this was going. 

‘No, of course not. I often wish my pupils would remember more of what I tell them! But let’s go back to the purpose of this diagnostic assessment. What did we say we wanted to achieve?’

Ok, I was back on surer ground here. Maybe all was fine. ‘We wanted to check our pupils’ understanding of the core knowledge. Our key takeaways. In a low-stakes way’

‘Right. So if a pupil has simply remembered what you told them, do they understand? Do you know whether they understand?’

‘Well, they’ve remembered it. So they must know it.’

‘True’, replied my Head of Department. ‘They know the words you told them. They’ve remembered them and have written them down. Or have spotted them in the MCQ and know to select it as the answer.’

This still all sounded fine to me. I didn’t have a clue where my Head of Department was going. And as they continued, I became even more confused. 

‘But do they know what those words mean? Do they know what sits behind the statement they’ve written or selected? Do they know what they are committing to, what they are really saying, when they simply recall what you told them?’

I had to come clean. ‘I’m sorry. I’m not sure I follow. Could we look at an example?’

We looked at the following short-answer questions from the diagnostic assessment:

5. What is a pilgrimage?

9. Give one way that life changed for villeins after the Black Death.

‘Let’s think about the pilgrimage question first. Have you got an example of a good answer to that question? One you thought showed the pupil had strong understanding of this substantive concept?’

I flicked through my pile of diagnostics. ‘So, it seems a lot of pupils have written a similar thing. I suppose this is a fairly typical example:

“A pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place.”

I think that shows they understand what a pilgrimage is, doesn’t it? At least, that’s the definition I gave them, so I hope it’s ok!’

‘It’s a good definition,’ my Head of Department replied. ‘And it’s great that lots of pupils have remembered it. But that’s all their answers tell us – they’ve remembered the definition and the words you told them. But let’s think about what their answers might not tell us.

Do the pupils know why people went on pilgrimage in medieval England? Do they know the typical features of the journey made by a pilgrim? Do pupils know the kind of holy places often visited by pilgrims? Do we know what pupils see in their mind as they think about a pilgrim on their journey? Can they hear pilgrims talking as they travel?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘I don’t know whether they know those things or not. They might do. But isn’t that a problem with the question?’

‘Exactly. The pupils might know these things. They might have a really developed schema for the idea of a pilgrimage, full of ideas about pilgrims’ typical motivations and journeys. But based on their answers to that question, we don’t know.’

I let out a little sigh of relief. So the issue wasn’t necessarily with my pupils’ knowledge or understanding. The issue was that I didn’t know. That we didn’t know. Now I got it. Pupils recalling a definition – however correct their definition – didn’t reveal their understanding of the concept as a whole.

I flicked through my pupils’ diagnostics again. But didn’t question 9, about the impact of the Black Death on villeins in England, manage this better?

‘Question 9 doesn’t have the same issue, though, does it? I know I taught my pupils that villeins’ wages went up after the Black Death. But surely they’ve got to understand that idea to be able to remember it? And also, isn’t that sufficient? That is the core idea we wanted to teach. There isn’t anything else we need to check, is there?’

‘Well, what do your pupils picture when they think about villeins in 14th century England? What do they seewhen they think about villeins being paid their wage? Who is paying them? And do pupils understand anything about how villeins were connected to a wider system of labour and exchange?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe they just see them being handed a £5 note! Now you ask, I wish I knew.’

‘Right. So maybe on reflection some of these assessment questions were too narrow. Maybe we were toofocused on checking for understanding of particular, specific ideas. Maybe we were only checking if some knowledge had landed.

Maybe we also needed to check what understanding pupils had built as a whole. About villeins. About pilgrimages.’

Finally, I felt like I’d got it. ‘So perhaps a little less checking for understanding, and a bit more checking what understanding?’

My Head of Department laughed. ‘Maybe!’

(NB: My previous post explains why it’s taken me 1,000 words to reach this point…)

Checking what understanding: The Why

The importance of checking what pupils have understood – what sense pupils are making of the content we’re teaching them – is something Sarah Cottingham emphasised in her brilliant thread this week. Cottingham was reminding us that pupils don’t learn exactly what we teach them. Because we make sense of new material using knowledge we already have, and because pupils all have slightly different prior knowledge, they will learn “their interpretation” of what we teach them.

And of course, we don’t know exactly what that interpretation will be!

As a result, it is vital for teachers to check, in Cottingham’s words, “what pupils have understood” (emphasis my own).

Cottingham went on to point out that we might be able to speed up this process by building shared knowledge of common misconceptions pupils might have. We can then go straight to checking whether pupils have these particular misconceptions, or not. In other words, we can check for understanding (of particular ideas or concepts) rather than what understanding (in a broader sense).

Speaking to colleagues in other subjects, particularly those who spend lots of time carefully designing MCQs to do exactly this, I can see how this approach might work.

However, in history (and perhaps some other subjects too) I’m not so sure. As the imagined discussion above tries to illustrate, focusing exclusively on checking for understanding might sometimes limit what we learn about our pupils’ learning. I wonder if sometimes we might be better sticking with Cottingham’s first approach – checking what pupils understand.

Here are some reasons why:

1. We don’t really have a comprehensive body of shared knowledge of possible misconceptions in history. And the nature of the subject – the vastness of the past and both its similarity and its difference to pupils’ lived experience – probably makes it impossible for us to ever achieve this, even if we wanted to. We might try to predict or anticipate pupils’ misconceptions, and then focus on checking for these. But I am constantly surprised by the misconceptions my pupils reveal, so it seems likely that any attempt to predict or codify misconceptions will result in us missing many. They will remain hidden, invisible inside pupils’ minds – and a barrier or hindrance to future learning. Much better to find ways to get pupils to reveal them to us. Much better to check what pupils understand, and what sense they are making, of the content they have been taught.

2. Of course, this is a particular issue the first time we teach a curriculum or a particular topic or enquiry. But given that curriculum is constantly being renewed and developed, I think that this might remain a constant issue. Even small changes to an enquiry – changing the second-order concept or the framing of the narrative or adding in an extra bit of story – will change what pupils learn. So we can’t simply resort to the bank of misconceptions we know pupils had in previous years. We need to keep our focus on what sense they are making, what understanding they are building, with these changes in play.

3. I continue to find it incredibly difficult to rigorously check for understanding of particular ideas in history. Looking back at assessments I’ve written in the past, where I thought I was achieving this, I think in reality I was often simply checking for recall. At some point I had told or explained the core idea to pupils. All my assessments were doing, then, was checking whether pupils had remembered what I’d told them. Whether they understood what lay behind the words they’d remembered was anyone’s guess!

4. Of course, there are lots of misconceptions we do know pupils commonly have in history. For example, that all historians are interested in is finding out the facts about exactly what happened. I’ve read about these misconceptions. Been told them. Discussed them with colleagues. And I always walk away thinking, ‘But my pupils will never think that!’ So I think there might be a risk in assuming that we can tell teachers what the likely misconceptions will be and think that is sufficient. I’ve always found seeing my own pupils have those misconceptions incredibly powerful. So I need to give them opportunities to reveal them to me. Narrow, checking for understanding tasks – which, in history, can often be solved by recall or repeated practice anyway – won’t achieve this. Perhaps this is the same for other subjects too.

In summary, we can’t fully predict what misconceptions pupils might have. And, in a subject like history, we can’t define or codify every single little thing we want pupils to understand, and how we intend for it to be understood. Even where we can predict and define misconceptions / understandings, there may still be value in teachers seeing these for themselves for their own pupils. So checking for understanding might be insufficient.

We might also need to keep checking what understanding pupils have.

All well and good. But how might we achieve this?

Checking what understanding: The How

Firstly, I must make clear that none of the above means I think that checking for understanding is redundant. It is important. Crucial. There is vital knowledge / understanding that we need to ensure that all pupils have. And we need to rigorously check for this.

But I also think there is a place for slightly less precise, or direct, checking of what understanding pupils are building. What sense pupils are making of new material we are teaching them.

I am still working out the best ways of doing this. But here are four approaches I have found useful so far:

1. Asking questions which pupils cannot answer simply by recalling, verbatim, something we have told them or that pupils have read. The imagined discussion at the beginning of the post included two examples of such questions and the problems they brought. Instead of the question about the changes villeins experienced, for example, we might ask ‘Who was a villein?’, where pupils have not been given a definition to learn. Or even ‘What mattered to a villein?’. Obviously pupils need to have been taught, directly, what a villein is through lots of specific, concrete, tangible examples of individual villeins in different contexts. These questions then become a way of gaining an insight into what sense pupils are making of these examples. What they mean to pupils.

To take another example. In a recent enquiry, pupils were learning about why barons rebelled against King John and King Henry III. Pupils weren’t given a direct definition of the word ‘rebellion’. Instead, they were introduced to the concept in the context of specific examples, which gave it meaning. When I then asked pupils, in a low-stakes diagnostic assessment, ‘What is a rebellion?’ I wasn’t checking for knowledge of a particular definition. I wasn’t checking for pupils’ recall. Instead, I was checking what meaning pupils were beginning to attach to the word as a result of the examples they had studied. I didn’t know exactly what this might or might not be, and so I needed to keep the exploration broad.

A further approach I have found useful for achieving this is asking questions that flip the perspective. For instance, recently I have taught pupils about Edward I’s conquest of Wales. This is very much taught from the point of view of the English. Therefore, subsequently asking pupils about what the Welsh experienced seems to be a powerful way of gaining an insight into how pupils have understood this new content. They can’t rely on simple recall. Instead, I am beginning to learn about the meaning they have attached to the material.

2. Asking pupils to make predictions based on strong and secure knowledge. Once pupils are engaged in a narrative, we know that asking pupils to make predictions is an effective strategy for supporting pupils’ comprehension of subsequent parts of the story. I think making such predictions, though, can also provide an insight into the understandings, or misunderstandings, that pupils are developing. For instance, once pupils are immersed in 14th century Walsham, and have watched as the Black Death spreads indiscriminately through the village, I ask pupils to predict what impact they think the disease will have on the villagers of Walsham. Here, pupils cannot simply recall something I’ve already told them. They have to make use of the things I have taught them directly, of course. But in using this knowledge to make a prediction of what might happen next pupils reveal what meaning they have made of this knowledge. How have they begun to make sense of it?

3. Mining extended answers for what they reveal about pupils’ understandings and misunderstandings. When reading pupils’ extended answers, it is easy to remain focused on how many marks they should receive. On how well (or not) they have followed the structure we taught them to follow. On how much detail they have remembered and included. But in the long term, lots of this might be unnecessary. Irrelevant. More important might be what these answers reveal to us about how pupils see the particular topic or period they are writing about. Or how they see the discipline of history. So now, when I’m reading pupils’ extended answers, this is what I’m trying to pay more attention to. Digging deep to consider what might lie behind the words that pupils have written.

Last term, for example, we asked pupils to explain what caused the Industrial Revolution in Britain. As I read, and re-read, my pupils’ answers I realised they were revealing to me an unexpected misconception. Or at least a misconception had not expected. The way pupils explained the Industrial Revolution seemed to suggest they saw it as a deliberately and strategically planned phenomenon. This wasn’t something pupils said explicitly, but an idea that seemed to be implicitly informing what pupils wrote. As I reflected further, this seemed less surprising – pupils had previously learnt about two revolutions that were deliberately orchestrated. But I had not anticipated that they would use this understanding to interpret what I had taught them about the Industrial Revolution. It was only evident when I approached their extended answers on the hunt for the way they were understanding this event. Something that would have been missed if I had simply checked for understanding for a few specific ideas. (I should note that I have taught the Industrial Revolution for more than 10 years, and I am still learning about pupils’ misconceptions).

More recently, pupils have been explaining what historians have claimed about what the American Revolution was for. As I read and re-read pupil answers – this time alongside my colleagues – they again revealed something unexpected and unanticipated. As well as exploring the historical debate about what the American Revolution was for, we have linked this to the contested nature of 4th July today. Interestingly – and this was something a colleague spotted, rather than me, hence the importance of doing this collaboratively – some pupils’ responses suggested they saw no difference between the popular and academic debates. Again, this wasn’t explicit but was something we began to spot as we re-read answers and kept asking, ‘what do they reveal?’.

I now keep a notebook full of such findings.

4. Listen to pupil utterances in the classroom. Provide frequent opportunities for pupils to talk, beyond simply repeating what you have told them, and listen carefully to what they say. Perhaps asking similar questions to those suggested above. What understanding do they attach to a substantive concept they’ve met in concrete examples, but haven’t yet been given a definition of? What predictions do they make? Asking pupils to discuss such questions, and listening carefully to their responses, is an incredibly rapid way of gaining insight into the meaning they are building.

Perhaps more important than any of these individual strategies – and I know there will be many more – is the attitude and way of thinking that sits behind them. The desire to learn more about what pupils understand. What their schemata consist of. What meaning and sense they are making of new content.

Not only a quantitative ‘have pupils understood x, y and z?’ but also a qualitative ‘what have pupils understood about x, y and z?’.

Not only checking for understanding. But also checking what understanding.


One thought on “#7 This week, in history… I’ve been checking ‘for’ understanding less. This is what I’ve been doing instead.

  1. Good morning – thanks for sharing your experiences and thanks to @HistoryKss for sharing the post. Bravo to the HoD who had you thinking as hard as you have of the topic. Props to you, for your reflections.

    Checking what pupils understand:
    When should you check? Is the end of the unit the best place to start?

    With “what” do pupils think?
    I can answer “What is a pilgrimage?”
    I can not answer “Give one way that life changed for villeins after the Black Death.” I understand the question. I know a fair bit about the Black Death. But “villeins?” I can not even infer a guess. Life either improved or got worse. Your pupils, knowing and being about to recall what/who a villeing is/were – will score higher than I would have.

    Is this less a question of “checking for understanding” than it is “assessment design?”

    Thanks again for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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