October 2010


  • Academy answers
    Against the clock and thanks to a gargantuan effort by the leadership team, Northampton School for Boys converted to academy status at the beginning of September. Mike Griffiths explains why and how they dealt with the whirlwind of legal, financial and administrative hurdles. More
  • Taking a new direction
    While other quangos have been culled, the government shake-up of structures has handed the newly-formed YPLA a larger than expected role. Christine Tyler explains what its future relationship with schools, colleges and LAs is likely to be. More
  • Internet classrooms
    What will happen when learning online is more accessible, flexible and rewarding than traditional methods? Tim Nash looks at the cyber-school movement in the US and the challenges and opportunities for UK schools and colleges. More
  • A new combination
    Abbeyfield School has introduced an innovative cross-curricular approach to teaching at Key Stage 3 with the ‘Humanities Wheel’. David Nicholson explains. More
Bookmark and Share

Abbeyfield School has introduced an innovative cross-curricular approach to teaching at Key Stage 3 with the ‘Humanities Wheel’. David Nicholson explains.

A new combination

There are obvious links between history, geography and RE which often go unrecognised. At Abbeyfield, we wanted to exploit the connections between the three subjects. Our starting point was the introduction of the Key Stage 3 personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS).
In team planning meetings we concentrated on the key question: what do we want our curriculum to do? Clearly, we wanted it to provide interesting, stimulating and enjoyable learning experiences for students.

We also wanted to make the inter-relationship between the three subjects explicit and provide continuity so students are clear about where they have been and where they are going on their learning journey. And we wanted to be able to integrate PLTS into all of our lessons, rather than paying lip-service to them.

The Every Child Matters outcomes provided a good way in, enabling us to be clear about what we wanted the curriculum to achieve and the learning outcomes that were important. It also ensured that the new curriculum focused on skills as well as content.

Trivial Pursuit

The then head of humanities (now Wiltshire’s advanced skills teacher for humanities) presented the vision in the form of a Humanities Wheel, similar to a Trivial Pursuit ‘cheese’. It set out the structure for the skills that the students would develop and how they were linked to subject content.

For example, we want our students to be reflective learners, so what content can help deliver creativity? We identified themes such as ‘Dangerous World’ and ‘Changing World’ which could link the three subjects. We then discussed what current curriculum content might fit these themes and which of the existing units from the three subjects could be used to give the students stimulating, inter-linked and relevant lessons. 

For example, in the first term for year 9, the theme is Dangerous World and the PLT skill is ‘reflective learning’. Students learn about terrorism in the modern world, natural disasters and the concept of evil. These units could be seen as history, geography and philosophy but the lessons are designed to explore elements of man-made and natural dangers and disasters and to enable students to reflect upon how mankind might explain them. 

A new assessment system was developed to encourage students to show knowledge, understanding and application through a task linked to the theme each term. Each task is self-assessed, peer-assessed and finally moderated by the teacher. 

Students provide each other with targets for improvement to help them to address areas of weakness during the next assessment.

As a result they are clear about their strengths and weaknesses and about what they need to do to improve. It ensures progression and provides the teacher with assessment data which can then be used to provide personalised learning tasks and opportunities in future lessons. It also means that feedback to parents is more accurate. 

Extended learning

The Humanities Wheel also incorporates an Extended Learning Programme (ELP) in place of traditional homework. Students are given a project at the beginning of each term based on the topic and given up to five weeks to complete the task. It encourages them to develop independent enquiry skills and enables them to produce a meaningful piece of work over an extended period. 

The approach has proved extremely successful and resulted in some outstanding projects. 

Examples include DVDs about local environmental issues, presentations on a local planning issue, a report on local housing and an evacuation suitcase created for a history project. 

As a business and enterprise school, our students are encouraged to take on roles during group work activities. Each group in a classroom is run like a business with a chief executive, liaison officer, health and safety officer, objective manager and timekeeper. This is designed to help develop team-working skills, encourage students to become more independent and take more responsibility for their own learning. 

We continue this approach in humanities. For example, in one activity, students are given the task of creating a new sustainable housing estate. The chief executive of each group is in charge. 

This student ensures that all members of the group are on task, clear about their role and are ultimately responsible for the work completed by the group. 

The chief executive can also issue sanctions and rewards in accordance with the school code of conduct and the reward system. As a result, the role of the teacher is greatly reduced, while students revel in the responsibility and often complete work to an excellent standard.


Impact so far

Deeper and more persistent engagement with learning has been a key result so far. At the end of the first year, a student focus group gave feedback about the new curriculum.

All in the group said that they enjoyed humanities lessons, particularly the active learning. They liked the topic-based approach and the quick pace of the individual units. They preferred the ELP to traditional homework as it allowed them to investigate an issue in detail and use their imagination and initiative.

Teachers are also more willing to take risks, which, as a specialist enterprise college, is something we encourage. For example, we decided to collapse the curriculum for year 7 students in term 6, which is often an awkward one motivationally for students.

Creativity was the PLTS for the term. We traditionally took year 7 to the Roman Fortress at Caerleon in South Wales in term 1 but moved the trip to the beginning of term 6 (better weather), dropped explicit references to the three subjects and used the trip as a stimulus to focus on historical, geographical and religious issues in a creative way.

Students gathered information on the trip about Roman life, beliefs and the built environment and could choose a project to work on. For example, they could use geographical skills to create a 3D model of the Roman site and prepare a presentation explaining why, what and how they completed the project and what they learnt from it. 

Other effects have been a reduction in discipline issues and removals from lessons and an increase in the take-up of humanities subjects at KS4 and post-16. Meanwhile, Geography GCSE results, were an incredible 96 per cent A*-C for 2010.

For me, a significant aspect of this work is that students are now by far the hardest working people in the classrooms, not the teachers. As the focus groups show and as classroom observations bear out, the students are now ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’ humanities content, as opposed to being told it.

Where next?

The WJEC exam board has recommended the Abbeyfield humanities blog as a resource to help deliver its GCSE geography specification.

The Geography Association also rates ours as one of their ‘top blogs’.
We plan to develop a humanities applied curriculum, Hums+, in year 7 to aid vulnerable students in the transition from primary to secondary school, focusing on skills and active learning. It will be supported by the AST who will work with the feeder primary to aid transition and start early identification of students who may benefit from the Hums+ route when they arrive at Abbeyfield in year 7.

  • David Nicholson is deputy headteacher of Abbeyfield School in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

Further information

For further details of the Humanities Wheel visit http://abbeyfieldhumanities.blogspot.com or http://humanitiesastwiltshire.blogspot.com

Combination safe