Seven ways my Master’s has improved my teaching

Written by: Dave Stephenson | Published:
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Head of year Dave Stephenson recently completed his Master’s in learning and teaching. In this article, he describes the seven positive effects the experience has had for his teaching practice


In September 2019, I took up a place at the University of Oxford to study for a part-time Master of Science Degree in Learning and Teaching.

I had just completed my second year as a qualified teacher of history and felt that there was still much to learn about my subject and the broader art of teaching.

It was my hope that undertaking the degree would make me a better educator. Now, four months after completing the degree, I have been reflecting on the impact my studies have had on my teaching and the lessons I have learnt. I can distil these reflections down to seven areas.


1, Embedding my research into the curriculum

My degree was partially funded by my school, and it was agreed that it would need to have a tangible benefit to my department’s teaching of history.

In the first year of the course, I chose to focus on the teaching of historical interpretations, writing a 10,000-word assignment which considered the way that differing viewpoints of past events are constructed, their role within the history curriculum, and the way pupils approach them in the classroom.

This informed the focus of my final research project – 20,000 words examining how narrative visual media depicting historical events (particularly films and graphic novels) can be used to improve pupil engagement, their understanding of interpretations, and their ability to think empathetically when studying history.

Historical interpretations are a crucial part of the history curriculum, yet in my first two years of teaching I noticed that many pupils had misconceptions regarding their role and how they should be analysed.

During my research, it became clear that a sound grasp of how interpretations are constructed through a rigorous examination of their provenance can have a broader impact on pupils’ ability to approach information critically, which is crucial in the post-digital age.

I concluded that, in order to effectively understand historical interpretations, a wide variety of resources must be used to encourage pupil engagement and that, once understanding has been achieved, teachers can then begin to encourage an empathetic approach to the study of historical events and people.

My departmental colleagues were kept up-to-date with my research and findings through regular CPD – still on-going – and we are in the process of embedding this into our curriculum design.


2, Research is both useful and enjoyable

Undertaking the Master’s exposed me to a plethora of research into various aspects of teaching, leading me to a deeper understanding of how pupils learn effectively and the teacher’s role in facilitating this. While much of my research was based on the teaching of history, a substantial amount of my reading focused on wider teaching practice.

At first, the amount of literature I was required to read was daunting, but I began to actively enjoy my research, taking pleasure in discovering theories and concepts. It was also fun meeting course mates to share ideas and debate findings during our regular seminars.

As my knowledge and understanding of both teaching and my subject grew, it started to change the way I taught.

For instance, a study by the Stanford History Education Group entitled Students’ civic reasoning online (Breakstone et al, 2019) alerted me to the difficulties that young people face judging the reliability of information freely available on the internet.

The study involved 3,466 American high school students, with more than 90% of the participants receiving no credits (marks) for four out of the six tasks they were given relating to the reliability of online information.

It highlighted the importance of equipping pupils with an understanding of how to safely navigate and analyse information and I have now made this an explicit part of my teaching of history.

Other research served to improve my own understanding of historical concepts. An early conversation with my tutor revealed that I harboured misconceptions about the nature of historical interpretations and their place in the history curriculum. This formed a large part of my initial research.

Following much reading, I concluded that historical interpretations are consciously and socially constructed viewpoints of past events that should be viewed and judged in the context of other interpretations (if you are interested, see Haydn et al, 2015; Cassedy et al, 2011; Lee & Schemilt, 2004).

Improving my own understanding of historical interpretations has meant that I am more able to effectively teach my pupils how to approach them in the classroom.

Furthermore, the use of film and graphic novels in my interventions led me to consider the worth and purpose of using such media in the history classroom. I found a wealth of academic literature related to this and concluded that filmic and graphic novel depictions of past events are, by their very nature, a form of historical interpretation and can be used to improve pupils’ understanding of how claims about the past are made using contextualisation, corroboration and sourcing (Donnelly, 2014; Hoey, 2015).

Narrative visual media can also serve to engage pupils who struggle with traditional literacies and can be used to develop an empathetic response from learners (Schwarz, 2006; Marcus & Stoddard, 2007).



THE SECED PODCAST

You can hear more from Dave Stephenson in two recent episodes of the SecEd Podcast. The first focuses on how to be an excellent middle leader, and the second looks at effective parental engagement:



3, Pupil voice is crucial

My final assignment was based on a research project where I showed a group of 14 year 9 pupils films and graphic novels depicting the same event (for instance, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Art Spiegelman’s Maus) before judging the impact using pupil questionnaires. These questionnaires provided qualitative data that measured the effect these sessions had on my pupils’ engagement, their understanding of historical interpretations, and their ability to think empathetically.

The results were enlightening, with pupils eloquently explaining how their understanding had progressed as a result of my interventions and providing a wealth of material to consider.

A side-effect has been to emphasise to me how important it is to listen to our pupils and actively involve them in discussions not only about what they are learning but why they are learning it. This is something I have discussed with my head of department and plan to build upon in the future.


4, Using data in a meaningful way

Having studied history for my undergraduate degree, my experience of using data in academia was limited. The Master’s required me to gather and analyse a large amount of quantitative and qualitative data and I struggled initially.

However, it eventually became one of the most satisfying aspects of my studies. This has had an unforeseen impact on my teaching practice as I am now seeking practical ways to put these skills to use.

For instance, as part of my role as head of year 10, I am currently undertaking a research project into the behaviour and engagement of pupils in my year group, and the impact that this has on their academic outcomes.

This involves collaborating with colleagues from different departments to produce data which maps out the year group’s behaviour and engagement across different subjects, allowing us to identify issues and propose ways to tackle them.


5, Time management is crucial

In my early years as a teacher, I had fallen into the habit of completing school work at weekends. But with my Master’s this was untenable as weekends were now dedicated to research and writing. This meant that I had to be stricter with myself about completing work at school, which has had a positive impact on my overall practice and my ability to limit the amount of work that I take home with me.

Since completing my studies, I have tried to keep this disciplined approach and have found that I now work weekends less frequently, which has done wonders for my wellbeing and productivity.


6, The value of meeting teachers from different educational settings

Perhaps the greatest joy of undertaking my Master’s was meeting and befriending practitioners from schools very different to my own. My tutor group on the course was made up of other history teachers and, though we all shared a passion for our subject, it became clear that our experiences of being educators were very different due to the nature of the schools in which we taught. Sharing stories about our different schools was eye-opening and made me realise how different teachers’ experiences can be.


7, It is important for teachers to keep learning

When I was first accepted onto the course, I was often asked by friends and colleagues why I was taking a Master’s. Put simply, I believe that it is imperative that teachers continue to learn throughout their careers in order to constantly improve their practice and avoid stagnation.

My research created opportunities for me to discuss my own educational journey with my pupils and I hope that this actively promoted the value of continued study.

I am keen to continue learning and honing my skills as an educator. As a result, I have recently begun my National Professional Qualification in Senior Leadership, despite telling myself last year that I would take some time away from studying!

The truth is that I adore education in all forms and, if I expect my pupils to be learning, then I believe that I should be too. I will hopefully have another 30 years working in education and by pushing myself to undertake new learning challenges I hope that I will always approach my job with excitement, passion and innovation.

  • Dave Stephenson is a teacher of history and head of year 10 at Honley High School in Yorkshire. Read his previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/seced-stephenson


Further information & references

  • Breakstone et al: Students’ civic reasoning online, Stanford History Education Group, November 2019: https://sheg.stanford.edu/students-civic-online-reasoning
  • Cassedy, Flaherty & Fordham: Seeing the historical world: exploring how students perceive the relationship between historical interpretations, Teaching History 142, Historical Association, March 2011: https://bit.ly/3GNZ0qY
  • Donnelly: Using feature film in the teaching of History: The practitioner decision-making dynamic, Journal of International Social Studies, 2014: https://bit.ly/3JksdeW
  • Haydn, Arthur & Hunt: Learning to Teach History in the Secondary School (fourth edition), Routledge, 2015.
  • Hoey: Imagination and Interpretation: An empirical study of graphic novels in the high school social studies classroom, Scholarly Undergraduate Research Journal at Clark (1,4): 2015: https://bit.ly/3GUfu1a
  • Lee & Schemilt: I just wish we could go back in the past and find out what really happened': progression in understanding about historical accounts, Historical Association, December 2004: https://bit.ly/3uHQsjg
  • Marcus & Stoddard: Tinsel Town as teacher: Hollywood film in the high school classroom, The History Teacher (40,3), 2007: https://bit.ly/3rIItk2
  • Schwarz: Expanding Literacies through Graphic Novels, The English Journal, 2006: https://bit.ly/36cajwN


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