Pakuranga College: Inquiry story

Martyn Davidson, one of the history teachers at Pakuranga college, talks about his inquiry into making history more engaging for students.



I was noticing poor results as the students were trying to do essays in the history classroom. This struck me as an important thing to look at because they very much valued those essays. They were the route to exam success. Also I think the essay has a sort of place in historical understanding. It's valued by our community as something that you'd like to be able to do well.

So I (sort of) puzzled over this. It was quite a tough question to confront, the idea that actually the students weren't being terribly successful, or was I not being terribly successful at this. So, here's that kind of fragile feeling of turning the gaze on something that's not going so well.


One of the things I noticed was that the students really didn't take their books home at the end of the day. That was very (sort of) worrying to me – about why they were not doing that. I felt this was a worthwhile focus to dig a bit deeper into.

Developing a hunch

So I used that notion of “inside outside”. And, on the inside, I think it was really useful to talk to colleagues about how history essays were going in their classrooms. I teach a group of students in their (sort of) final year of schooling but history is taught lower down the school as well. And, I mean, one of the things I noticed was that colleagues were having success.

So what was it about that that was different? One of the things that we came up with was that students in other classes were looking at questions which had really great moral meaning. They were about social justice, they were about the civil rights movement, they were around questions of fairness. And, students were highly engaged in those and the essays they were writing about those issues were really strong and getting good results.

The other thing I (sort of) wanted to try and (sort of) explore a little bit was what the students were saying. And, the students were voicing, I think, the idea that they were struggling with some of the concepts that we were looking at in these essays. Their interest wasn't really sustained, so the essay writing was something which we were perhaps not enjoying.

New learning

Then at the same time it's quite an exciting time to be teaching history. And, I think of the work of Peter Sachs in Vancouver, who is just this amazing, historical-thinking, generous soul; who has, I think, informed the history community enormously with these (sort of) big six key ideas of how to teach history. Here in New Zealand, I felt that the work that the University of Auckland was doing in the social science best evidence synthesis was also really useful.

So, this gave me some structure as to how to approach what was happening at Pakuranga College. I really (sort of) tried to think quite deeply about these ideas that Claire and Graham Aitkin have talked about, [about] when we were successful in social studies: connection, community, making alignments and student interest.

Well, if you can get the history to connect to students’ lives and to students’ sense of what's important in their life, that's a good thing. If you can talk with elders and go home and talk about history, and tap into the wonderful (sort of) knowledge base that our students have, surely that's a good thing too – to have a community that's talking about what you're doing.

I also began to realise that it was important to write together.

Taking action and checking

So I moved away from, perhaps, some of the other things I was doing there, to be more inclusive. I also began planning a lot more purposefully around this goal of improving essays.

And so, some of the things that came out of that was that the essay writing improved – it went up enormously.

I think when I reflect back I was using a lot more strategies in the classroom.

And, the student books started going home which was a sure sign that things were working well. 

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