Tweets of the Week

This is my first attempt at putting together a post on the tweets that had my attention for at least long enough to ‘favourite’. The plan is that by doing this, I will go back and read them, and by posting here, can tag and find them later.

The tweet of the week was the video ‘trailer‘ of the recently released illustrated book of  ’I was only 19‘ by John Schumann:

Coincidentally, I saw it the day after my sister gave me a copy of ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry‘. As a song, it is ineligible for the poetry anthology but it’s always guaranteed to make me tear up – especially, ‘Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon [July 21]; God help me, he was going home in June.’ (ie he should’ve gone home three weeks ago)

A very good find for those studying World War I was

Podcasts (with transcripts) from the Imperial War Museum’s sound collection ‘to bring you the voices of those who lived through the First World War.’ Covers all sorts of aspects of the war:  the assassination, home front, Christmas Truce, Gallipoli, German Spring Offensive … Brilliant.

I got the spark to spend late Sunday night putting this together thanks to @teachertoolkit who tweeted the day following my initial ‘I should do a Tweets of the Week’ idea.

And, finally, one I found myself whilst trawling YouTube:

Well, I got it started. Now I know that I’m doing this, I’ll know to keep an eye out for more great education and history tweets.

Follow me @dphistorycom for History & Education tweets and my newly started account @tokbits for Theory of Knowledge.

Have a great week!


Australian Curriculum Review (again) – 21st century university entrance please

I note with joy the AHISA submission to the national curriculum review, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 18 March, calling for “an internationally recognised national credential for university entry.”

I am a History teacher of senior secondary students. For almost twenty years I have sat through university, professional development and TED talk experts telling me about 21st century skills and to update my teaching methods: I run multiple websites, a blog, twitter and like any good teacher vary the activities and tasks each day in my classroom. And yet none of these experts address the elephant in the room: everyone’s priority for secondary school is an ATAR. In Year 12, nothing else matters – ‘will this be on the exam and what do I write?’ It makes me want to scream from my seat at the expert/consultant, “Well, DO SOMETHING about it!”)

Here is our best chance.

Secondary schooling is distilled to the five or six external exams that rely on rote learnt answers handwritten under very tight time constraints. It is completely unfathomable to me that the current system rewards the exact methodology that experts abhor. And so, exam coaching replaces good teaching. But ‘good teachers’ have good exam results. Indeed, I have heard from past students the extent that teaching to the exam to maximise ATARs is prevalent in many schools and the disadvantage at which this places their students once they arrive at university: an inability to conduct research, take concise notes, reference, or be confident in constructing their own argument without being told the main points and the direction to take.

But what do schools care? “Year 12 is the most important year of your life” we tell the Year 12 cohort year after year. But I was struck recently that it is actually “For the school, Year 12 is the most important year of your life”. How are schools ultimately judged (and fixate their marketing around?): their Year 12/ATAR results. How many schools (even have the data to) say, “x% of last year’s cohort who are in tertiary study successfully completed their first year.”

Year 12 exams converted straight into an ATAR are bureaucratically brilliant. While marking them is still a very large undertaking, it is confined to only a few weeks of the year and a pretty small group of teacher/markers. I’m just surprised they haven’t all been made a series of multiple-choice questions so that the answer papers could all be fed through an electronic reader.

But, what of the “21st Century skills”? This curriculum review will probably set the tone for the next twenty to thirty years of Australian education. Please let us not condemn students in 2040 to the same system of testing as those with inkwells. It will certainly cost money and more work for university admissions systems. The last twenty years have proven that money has talked louder than universities’ own education experts when it comes to tertiary entry.

We need to ensure (finally!) that the reality fits the research and the rhetoric: developing a well-educated, well-rounded young adult ready for 21st century citizenship becomes the priority of schools, universities and governments, not the marketing an ATAR average based on 19th century testing.

What might this look like?

The International Baccalaureate is an already recognised world qualification and could offer some ideas, although it certainly has its flaws. It encourages its students to undertake a range of subjects across all key learning areas, as well as its ‘core’ of Creativity, Action, Service, Theory of Knowledge and the Extended Essay. I particularly like a phrase in its Mission Statement, which is something along the lines of ‘recognising that others, with their differences, might also be right’. On the down side, the IB is still also very examination focused.

An Australian Certificate of Education should encourage a broad range of subjects, while allowing some specialisation. This could be offered through semester units rather than two-year courses as are currently the case in many states. There should be mandatory units on Australian History, Australian literature and a current affairs / international relations unit which places Australia in the 21st century. There should be the opportunity for individual research and for some aspect of volunteering – ideally in an existing community organisation, rather than school-based ones, to encourage ongoing volunteering beyond school. It was pleasing to see Mr Pyne quoted in the SMH article looking for balance, free of partisan bias and real-world application.

Forget about PISA (etc.) comparisons. Australia already has one of the best education systems in the world. Any PISA comparison of Maths or Science should also be used in conjunction with Olympic medals, Academy Awards and Nobel laureates to take a complete picture of Australian achievement and the opportunities we provide our children across all aspects of being a child and a well-rounded person.

It is time we take note of the overwhelming voices for change. It is time that our assessment and university entrance instruments catch up with the classrooms they profess to reflect (and in reality judge) and become relevant for twenty-first century learners, educators and Australian society.

Taking notes from long articles

(How to be a nerd and still leave yourself enough time for more important stuff)

What is your purpose for reading this? It is probably an essay title – but also: is this for background, it is on the ‘required reading’ list, you are looking for a different viewpoint, or you are looking for just a couple of supporting points / examples / quotes to back up what you already have?

  • write it at the top of your page
  • now write the FULL bibliographic details for this source
  • Note the heading.
  • Note sub-headings.
  • Read Intro.
  • Read Conclusion.

(Any ideas on your topic yet? Can you work out a basic premise of the whole article? Is it worth still reading?)

  • Skim each section.
  • Read the first paragraph or so.
  • Skim the rest of the section, but paying special attention to topic sentences.
  • In the headings or the topic sentences does it suggest any quotable phrases?

(Can you get enough for what you need from this? Try to write a sentence or two which summarises each section)

  • Does it give a list?
  • What examples does it suggest?
  • Does it quote others? (Are they worth YOU quoting?)

You have probably got the gist of the article and enough to use in your essay without having actually read every word.


  • is it interesting enough that you want to read every word? Go ahead!
  • is it important enough that you need to read every word? Get on with it!

Leadership by chocolate

When I started my first leadership role (Pastoral Care Coordinator) my Principal told me that ‘time is never wasted if you’re talking with someone.’ She went on to tell me that as a leader in the school, I had a responsibility for both staff and students. It was great advice – while my job description talked mostly about my interactions with students, it was obviously impossible to provide pastoral care for 1000 students on my own. I had to have the staff with me. It was a great learning for me on how to balance being a leader of staff, students, captains and also continuing my role in the classroom.

Fast forward a few years and I hit upon the ideal way to unobtrusively provide pastoral care to my team, this time as the Head of Humanities: chocolate! On Friday afternoons, during report writing or just days when the wheels were getting squeaky, out would come the trusty party packs of Mars bars or Cadburys (nut-free, of course… um, even the nut-free Toblerones or Ferrero Rochers!). Those teaching period 6 on Friday? There’s no way they miss out! Most of us taught with an open door, so it was easy to wander in to their classroom with a bag of chocolates, with one for the teacher and a few for whichever students most deserved one at the end of the lesson.

For those in the department who I didn’t share an office with it was also effective. Walking in and saying, ‘Hey, need a chocolate?’ is a very low-key way of saying ‘I know things are hectic, and I appreciate it. But it’s ok – tell me.’ Invariably, these members of the department had positions of responsibility and were near a secretary or two – and every teacher knows who really runs the school! Teachers get one chocolate, secretaries get two is the general rule (‘You’ll need one later’). And if a POR in an office gets the chocolate treatment, then the others who are around also get offered one. There are also often a couple of teachers who have a History/English load and are seated with their English colleagues. English teachers (or their helpers!) make the best cakes, so it was well worth reciprocating with the occasional chocolate!

What’s all this mean?

It is relationship building without forcing it. I’ve often felt it fake or forced when leaders do the rounds of the troops – I’m here, and I’m being seen to be around. (Yeah, I’m terrifically cynical…). But who isn’t bought off by chocolate at stressful times – especially when you work out people’s favourites and dig a dark Toblerone out of a Mars packet? You have remembered what they like, and that means you are listening. But it is even more important to be around during times of high stress.

Perhaps more importantly, when bad news needs to be given, or a quiet word, or a complaint raised, we have a relationship. Which actually has nothing to do with chocolate. We’ve talked. We’ve shared what is going on in our classes. We’ve talked about our kids or football or given each other abuse based on whatever point of difference. But it means the pointed fingers stay curled in our hands, our voices stay (mostly) jokey, or we can express frustration and the other knows the depth of our feeling. And we work out an amicable compromise. We apologise. We buy each other a drink on Friday afternoon. And we continue as effective colleagues. There is no us and them.

Did I set out to be a chocolate leader? Of course not – I’m just a generous sweet-tooth who figured if I was going to get fat I was going to take everyone with me!

The author has no current affiliation to any brands indicated in this post. He is more than willing to accept offers of sponsorship, however!

‘The greatest Australian you [Year 9] have never heard of’

I had a great lesson today as part of our unit on Australian identity. After looking at Aussie stereotypes I wanted them to go home and find 3-5 amazing Australians they had never heard of. I was impressed with the range of people they came up with and the depth of detail they had written down, so I found a fillable knockout tournament sheet and we proceeded to judge who we thought was the greatest Australian from our list.

Initially in groups of four, two presented their great Australian while the other two decided who they thought was the greater. Any ties was initially sorted by ‘surrender’ (your person deserves to win) or else decided by the classroom’s Final Arbiter (who did not need to be consulted).

The winners of each group found their next opponent and took with them their vanquished first round opponent. This continued through to the semi-final stage, when the last four presented in front of the whole class.

The final was between William Lawrence Bragg (x-ray analysis of crystals, DNA) and Fred Hollows (eye care/surgery, especially in indigenous communities). Representing Bragg was a tall, eloquent, Australian member of the school debating team versus a shy and quiet Indonesian girl who was so excited that ‘she’ won. This was an unexpected bonus out of the activity!

Below are the top 16 (there were a few preliminary knockouts to get it down to sixteen).

Year 9 Australian History

‘The Greatest Australian You’ve Never Heard Of’ – Year 9 History

(How typical is Hollows as a ‘great Aussie’? He was actually born in NZ…)

Effective formative essays – without marking every word

We know it is excellent practice for students to write formatively. The down side of course is the huge amount of marking that it creates if every week you have to mark every essay for every student for every class. Say goodbye to your weekend!

For senior classes who need to practise handwriting essays under time constraints in preparation for exams, I get them to write formative essays quite regularly but tell them that I am only going to focus on one or two of the following aspects – and they are absolutely NOT going to be getting ‘a mark’ – they will get comments.

  • Introduction
  • Topic sentences
  • Plan (and adherence to it)
  • Specific historical information / examples
  • Historiography
  • Highlight each place where you used key words from the question
  • Highlight / comment where you tried to improve based on comments from last week
  • Referencing
  • Bibliography – format, academic, used in text etc.

The other way of marking essays is peer marking. Using the criteria used in the exam, get students in groups of 3-4 to mark and comment on each others’, then give feedback. This one is best done with prior warning: it is a great incentive for a little bit more attention if they know their peers will be seeing it. And they are often far more critical on things like handwriting than we ever are! Only after they have had some experience in marking work they are not emotionally invested in do I get them to mark and comment on their own.

As far as questions go, again I structure it from me giving the specific question, to ‘come up with an appropriate question on …’ until towards the end of the course it is even less structured ‘These are the syllabus requirements: you give me a plan of what and when you will be writing essays and what aspect you want me to look at.’

What I am aiming for is a self-sufficiency that will see them able to construct a study plan for when they are at university and the ability to be self-critical. Of course, the last few revision weeks before exams I will mark and comment on everything that they submit.

I hope this gets your students working, and gives you some spare time!

History topics that are ‘overdone’ by students each year

This is my (edited) response to a question on the IBO’s ‘Online Curriculum Centre’ History Forum, asking if the question ‘To what extent was the dropping of the atomic bombs necessary for a U.S. victory in the Pacific War?’ was ‘overdone’.

I understand teachers’/examiners’ complaints about certain topics being ‘overdone’, but I think it misses the fundamental aspect of teaching: each year a new cohort is introduced to content that is new to them. And so what to us is the same old boring questions about WWII or Nazis or Cold War are for each new cohort of students the fundamental questions that they want to get their heads around. Perhaps it is time we started offering other aspects of history beyond military/political – or choose to offer topics that we have not taught for the last twenty years. It seems to me that we still offer a very (western European) Cold War-centric understanding of twentieth century history. Is it because it is the most important (as defined how/when?), it is what most of us were initially trained in or have taught for years, or it makes sense of the present?

Of the OP’s question (and most ‘overdone’ questions) I think that it can be answered simply by a younger years student or in can be answered in a great deal of depth with research, drawing connections between events and decisions and the use of primary documents which provide the rationale for the decisions: which should be the difference between a 10 or a 22 for the IA, not whether the examiner has seen the question before.

I struggle with the concept that students need to come up with something original – they are final year high school students doing 6 subjects, plus TOK & EE, not PhD students dedicating four years to one tiny subset of one area of one subject area.

I also think that we mark far too hard – surely someone else out there thinks 67% for a 7 is a joke – and we expect too much from teenagers to produce in a forty-five minute exam essay. I am absolutely for academic rigour, but not to the point where the IB cannot give exemplars of what a 25 for an IA looks like or examiners at subject workshops have only ever seen 16/20 for essays.

For all the rhetoric of creating inquirers, risk takers and problem solvers, we do not encourage it (in either teachers or students) when it comes to putting university entrance on the line.

A good IA should be able to stand on its own, whether the question appears every year or not: it is this student’s first foray into the topic even if the examiner has seen it 1000 times.

Niall Ferguson: Britain should have stayed out of WWI in 1914

A Facebook friend tagged me to a link of the preview and asked my thoughts. I had too many to thumb out on my phone, and I’ve been meaning to get this blog going for a little while, and it’s Chinese New Year here in Singapore, so I had some time. The perfect storm for Blog Post No 1:

Harvard Uni’s British historian Niall Ferguson has claimed in an interview with BBC History Magazine that Britain should have stayed out of World War I in 1914 until it could do so “on its own terms”.

Of course, the headlines have it shortened to, “Britain should have stayed out of First World War” (BBC History Magazine, The Independent etc.) although to be fair others have highlighted the much less contentious “biggest error in modern/its history” (eg The Guardian, The Australian).  I have refrained from reading other responses so that I can express my own views first, then I’ll link a few at the end.

I don’t have a subscription to BBC History Magazine or its online so I haven’t read the full article but the free preview’s first seven paragraphs should give the general gist of Ferguson’s thesis:

  • Britain could have lived with an initial German victory
  • It was in its interests to not get sucked into the war until it was ready
  • It should have played to its strengths (ie Navy) until it was ready to fight a land war
  • You can pay too high a price for honour (ie honouring the Treaty of London to defend Belgian neutrality).

I know I am a no one publishing his first blog article versus a Harvard professor, but what the hell: Ferguson is giving a simplistic, naïve, anachronistic view that has rarely been raised in a near-century of analysis because it is so obviously a case of imperfect hindsight. (It is giving him some publicity though…)

I don’t think there is any question of any British government not honouring its obligations, especially at the height of Empire. This is the country that spawned the term “It’s not cricket” to explain why the laws of the game and gentlemanly conduct are more important than winning and this applies to statecraft as well, old chap. At the same time, however, Britain was keen to ensure the status quo in European power. It is certain that the UK paid a much higher price than they expected, given the war was not “over by Christmas” but what is impossible to ascertain is the cost had Germany been able to establish a hegemony in Europe. Despite the headlines, Ferguson is not suggesting that Britain stay out of this for ever, but just not send the underprepared British Expeditionary Force in 1914.

It would be interesting to read the full explanation but I doubt the use of the Royal Navy, as dominant as it was, would have been much of a factor at all if Germany was allowed to run rampant through western Europe. Indeed, with the French countryside under German rule, the impact of the naval blockade that contributed so successfully to limiting the German food supply could well have been neutralised. With a belligerent Germany ruling western Europe, there would have been no exports to the UK nor friendly suppliers once they decided to eventually send in the army. And as the United States have found out multiple times since, you will not win without boots on the ground no matter how good your technological dominance.

Could Britain have launched D-Day almost thirty years earlier than it did – probably without the support of the United States? If Britain had stayed out of the war, then US shipping to the UK would not have been attacked without risking bringing both powers into the conflict. So Britain would have needed to launch a sea-borne invasion that in August 1914 it was absolutely not prepared for. How long would it have taken to design and build a landing fleet big enough to land enough troops to establish a beachhead against an established force? Could this have ever been successful? There is a big difference between ferrying hundreds of thousands of troops to functioning ports versus launching an invasion.

What was not mentioned in the opening paragraphs of the article (and perhaps crucial to Ferguson’s premise – but surely would have been mentioned if Ferguson raised it) was the impact of the loss of World War I – and the hated Treaty of Versailles – on German politics post-war. Could Britain have established a diplomatic relationship with a ‘Greater Germany’? The monarchs of both were cousins and in the real politik of international relations it is not unfeasible that the Germans would have been quickly forgiven and trade reestablished. In this scenario, it is difficult to see not only the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party’s popularity, but probably even Hitler’s membership in it.

So, with the benefit of one hundred years of hindsight, we can come up with whatever conclusion we like. At the time, however, the British Government was concerned with not allowing a seismic change in European power and was diplomatically obligated, but knew 1914 was their best chance to limit German aggression.

Other opinions:

The other side of the debate in BBC History Magazine, Gary Sheffield argues that Britain realised that worse than war was a German victory, borne out in its treatment of occupied territory in Belgium and France.

The Australian offers a range of reactions, including 75% of British food imports would have been lost and that British foreign policy for centuries had been to ensure no one nation created a European empire.

Most of the other pieces I found seem to be mostly a rehash of the free preview of the original article.