Making history curious: Using Initial Stimulus Material (ISM) to promote enquiry, thinking and literacy

Teaching History article

By Robert Phillips, published 1st December 2001

The idea of gaining pupils’ attention, interest and curiosity at the start of the lesson with an intriguing image, story, analogy or puzzle has long been used by our best history teachers. Michael Riley, through writing and inset, popularised the term ‘hook’ and emphasised its special role at the start of a new historical ‘enquiry’ or lesson sequence, as opposed to the single lesson. He used it as a springboard not only for staged questioning that began with pupils’ own knowledge, but also for taking pupils into the conceptual or governing ‘key element’-based issue that would underpin that enquiry. In this article, Rob Phillips theorises further. He builds a set of principles for the effective ‘hook’, which he elaborates here as ‘Initial Stimulus Material’ (ISM) - an aspect of his action research with his own postgraduate teacher trainees. Research, he argues, helps turn implicit ideas into explicit ones. This article could be said to throw a constructively critical light on the fashion for ‘starter activities’ and the emphasis on setting out lesson objectives to pupils, so beloved of the Key Stage 3 Strategy in England. In our best history classrooms, theorising about the start of lessons is more sophisticated and better integrated into subject practice than this. What struck the Teaching History editorial team as interesting about both Riley’s and Phillips’ approaches is (i) the emphasis on tight relationship (a content relationship and a conceptual relationship) between initial activity and the ensuing lesson, and especially the ensuing enquiry; (ii) the explicit view that an energising, absorbing and engaging lesson start is just as often calm, thoughtful, slow and reflective as it is fast pace; (iii) the imaginative and intriguing way of (or way into) setting out lesson objectives or wider enquiry purpose. The dry reeling off of objectives right at the start of a lesson is often anathema to the history teacher who sometimes wants to keep surprises up her sleeve and whose conception of setting out the direction and purpose of the lesson or lesson sequence is often linked to the unfolding reflection of the pupils on the nature of an historical question. Rob Phillips’ article is all about such ‘unfolding’. He explains why the ISM should be deliberately oblique. He makes an important contribution to the history education community’s thinking at a critical time. We are at a time when some history teachers urgently need to engage in debate with managers about what constitutes effective lesson starts, rather than being frogmarched into proxy devices – easy for a school to monitor, but poorly theorised in subject terms. See also Anna Pendry and Katharine Burn’s ‘Move Me On’ on lesson beginnings in the August edition of this year, Teaching History, 104, Teaching the Holocaust edition.

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