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e-help Seminar 37
Beyond Multiple Choice
Stockholm 6-7 October 2006

Beyond multiple choice
A Historical Association project which is investigating the uses of voting handset technologies in school generally and in history in particular.

• Context
• Approaches
• The HA Project
• Progress so far


There are three main contexts for the Historical Association setting up this project on the use of voting handsets in the history classroom. The first is the phenomenal spread of these technologies in secondary schools in England and Wales. At present there are 12 different systems in use across the UK as a whole. That alone is an indicator of the size and value of the market to manufacturers. They range in price from around £800 for second hand systems to £4500 for a class set. One of the reasons for their spread is that distributors of whiteboards usually have an interest in these systems as well and package them together. Clearly with such large investment going in to these systems it seemed appropriate to consider what use was being made and whether there were differences in different subject areas and between platforms.

This brings us to the second context, which is the current evidence on how these systems are used. Having spoken to many students and teachers it is very clear that they are used predominantly for factual recall quizzes in a range of formats. In some subject areas this is well and good. However, it leaves many history teachers feeling a little uncomfortable on two counts. The first is the danger of trivialising our subject into simplistic yes/no answers or multiple choice tasks. Users of this forum have been at the forefront of harnessing technology so that it does not do this but the general use of Fling The Teacher and its ilk is often far from what its creators had in mind. The problem is arguably greater with voting handsets, and a flavour of the concerns was raised in a thread on the Schoolhistory forum June 2006 (http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/forum/index.php?showtopic=7079&hl=qwizdom) – here is an extract

Our Science department has just invested in a set of these and are raving about them. They showcased them in a cross departmental meeting and I raised the point about them being good for pub quizzes and recall of knowledge (which is all the Scientist cares about!) but not what we were trying to draw out from our kids in History. These things do not really test the skills we teach in History, although the Science department did not let on that you could do ranking exercises, as independent thought is not their forte! This does sound like a more positive use although perhaps not worth the grand plus that they cost to purchase

The third context element is the perception of History. This is worrying, in England at least. We know that in England and Wales a large proportion of students give up History at 14. Research commissioned by QCA has shown that they do this not because they do not rate History highly. They generally see it as interesting and well taught. However, they do not see it as relevant to their later lives. One factor among many in this is that the use of handsets and other technology in other subjects creates an impression in student minds of these subjects as modern and relevant. The challenge for History teachers is therefore to embrace this technology without compromising the essential method of the subject. Again, this is familiar ground for users of this forum but it is a message which needs spreading. It seemed to the HA that a constructive use of voting handsets could be one small part of the wider solution to this issue of how students perceive History.


The direction taken with regard to the project was to try and explore voting handsets as tools for student feedback rather than for testing student knowledge. The basic principle was to ask students not ‘What do you know?’ but rather ‘What do you think?’. Thus typical questions might look at issues and focus on sampling opinion, or even helping to form opinion.

One example question was whether or not the Treaty of Versailles was fair. The options given to students were
1. Yes
2. No
3. Yes if you were on the Allied side
4. No if you were German
The real function of this was to open up discussion, but the initial stimulus question encouraged all students to think about the question and to take part in forming the class’s opinion. The discussion was not dominated by one or two keen and articulate individuals.

From this basic pedagogical platform plenty of other possible approaches were explored.
• Counter factual history – or holding / recreating inquests, trials etc
• Students deciding the direction of a story by advising an historical character at certain points in time
• Decision making – if X happened, would you … or …
• Instant ad hoc reactions to sources / stimuli (modelling thinking by suggesting which is the most appropriate reaction to a source eg acceptance, scepticism, value for a particular puprpose but not for another)
• Video clips – what happened next?
• Source analysis – does this source suggest, imply, prove …
• Categorising events, causes etc
• Relative importance of causes
• Relative significance of events

The Historical Association Project

Taking these principles, the HA Project has enlisted a range of schools and colleges from across England but mainly in the North West and North East regions. The premise is simple. They will explore the ways in which they can use voting handsets to create resources and learning experiences which take students beyond the multiple choice quiz. The teachers have met once, and will meet again in March 2007. From that point they will then write up their experiences and publish the resources they created on the HA web site. The work will be free to all Historical Association members.

Perhaps the most exciting prospect is the opportunity for a wide ranging participation. BBC History Magazine and BBC History Today have made their past online poll results available and are interested in holding polls which students and the general public to share in. The potential for students to vote in their own classroom, then compare their votes with votes of other classes, and other user groups in the general public should open up fascinating possibilities for debate and discussion abut the historical issue in question but also about how and why the opinions of different groups differ.

Progress so far

So far we have seen some interesting and stimulating ideas. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the project is seeing teachers enthused about using technology to good effect, as shown below …
Period 7 Year 9 managed to vote twice on why slavery was abolished!!
It needed the Maths voting set, two techies and the Head of Maths to sort me out but it was dead easy once it was set up and the kids loved it. I need another lesson to try it further. Does it store the graphs??
Triumph of the will!
Teacher in Newcastle upon Tyne

We have also seen examples in which the voting system has built student confidence. In an investigation into representations of Archbishop Becket we asked students to comment on how Becket was portrayed in a series of film clips and gave them some options …
1. Very badly
2. Badly
3. Average bloke
4. Well
5. Very well
6. I can think of a better way to say this
The last option was taken up by only 7% of the sample, but those who voted this way were asked if they were prepared to explain their choice. Interestingly, in the next slide students were asked to comment on how Henry II was represented, and they were given the same option. In this case 33% of the sample chose the final option and offered up a better summary of the representations than those made available.

Finally, in a very different context older students were asked to grapple with the thorny issue of whether justice was done at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials in 1946. One of the difficulties with an issue such as this is disentangling emotion from rational analysis. In order to help with this students were given information about three figures associated with the Nazi regime – Heinrich Hoffman, Leni Riefenstahl and Julius Streicher. In each case they were asked :

What would you do with him/her –
1. Let him go free?
2. Short prison sentence?
3. Long prison sentence?
4. Execution?

What do you think happened to him / her?

Students were then presented with what actually happened to each individual. The final follow up task was to write a judicial review analysing whether all were treated fairly. The follow up was, of course, a final vote on whether justice was done at Nuremburg.

We can only scratch the surface in a forum such as this, so anyone who would like to know more about the project or would like to contribute to the bank of resources which is developing please feel free to do so.

Contribute further to the seminar at



Spartacus Learning Online MacGregor is History Historia Siglo 20 Historical Association International School History Sintermeertencollege InnovativeICT.net

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