WWII Convoy! The History Department & Interdisciplinary Learning

(From my History colleague, Derek Darkins)

Interdisciplinary CfE History & English Unit

The Battle of the Atlantic.

This is a three lesson mini unit, intended to be taught as part of an S2 course on WWII. Whilst the WWII course provides general background learning to support the U-Boat project taught in English, the Battle of the Atlantic mini unit provides an opportunity for direct interdisciplinary learning. What the pupils take from this can be directly used to support their work under the auspices of the U-boat project.

The mini unit consists of three lessons, incorporating a range of resources with mixed collaborative and individually orientated activities. As well as picking up the historical information, there is an emphasis on literacy and pupil motivation across the unit. Pupils are to learn about the enemy threats to Atlantic convoys in 1941, the convoy defences Britain had available to protect the convoys, before finally equipping and leading their own convoy across the deadly waters of the Atlantic.

Each lesson seeks to be as immersive as possible in an effort to fully engage the attention of the pupils. They initially take the role of trainee intelligence officer working at the Admiralty buildings in Spring 1941. At the outset pupils are told that how well they perform in each activity will directly relate to the ranks which they may achieve after each lesson. ‘Promotion’ is awarded on the basis of not only getting the required historical detail correct, but also in demonstrating their writing skills. At the very least, answers should be expressed in full sentences. By giving further explanation and expressing what they’ve learned through their writing, pupils will be awarded extra credit for their answers. The combined score from each lesson’s activities will determine the rank each pupil is awarded. This is written by the class teacher into the pupil’s marked jotter. A rank insignia badge is pasted into the pupil’s jotter as a visual representation of what they have achieved. A wall chart plotting each pupil’s progress through the promotion ladder can also be created, allowing the class to compete against each other from lesson to lesson and measure their success against their peers.

The outset of each of the three lessons is PowerPoint and teacher led. This is to put pupils into the mindset of young naval officers being ‘briefed’ at the Admiralty, lead them to put themselves in the shoes of someone fighting in the war, and from this to become real stakeholders in the final climactic lesson.

In lesson one the class are organized into groups of 4 – 6. Each group has a ‘secret dossier’ laid out on their desk. This must not be touched until the PowerPoint led briefing is over. Once the word is given they will open it to find several copies of four factsheets on German weapons used against the convoys. Purposefully, there will not be enough factsheets for everyone in the group. Inside the dossier there will also be a question sheet, although this time there will be one for everyone. The pupils in the group are given 20 minutes to answer 10 questions, using each of the factsheets. They may answer the questions in any order, indeed will have to as the nature of the activity is meant to force them all to share and exchange the factsheets amongst themselves as the move from question to question. Most pupils will be hard pushed to complete the activity in the set time. A large countdown clock on the board will let them keep tabs on their own progress. The race against time, the promise of rewarded effort and the publicity of success will motivate many. Several more will get the message by the end of the lesson or the start of the next when they are able to see how their classmates have done and measure the value of their own efforts.

Lesson one ends with a PowerPoint led quiz based on information from the factsheets and a ‘Jane’s Fighting Ships’ style recognition test. Pupils then swap jotters to peer assess the quiz answers. The combined score of the lesson’s activities determines pupil rank for lesson two.

For lesson two the format is repeated, with the twist that this time the groups will learn about British countermeasures. Instead of answering questions from the ‘dossier’, this time the pupils fill out a blank information grid to build up personal copies of the strengths and weaknesses of each convoy defence. Lesson 2 ends again with a KU quiz, with combined marks from the activities determining new ranks for the pupils.

The briefing / research / quiz format has proven successful as within the space of a single lesson pupils are learning and then seeing a practical application for what they have picked up. The ‘chunked’ nature of the lesson also keeps pupils motivated, attentive and on task.

In lesson three the teacher will reorganise the class into new groups based on the ranks earned by the pupils so far. The six top ranked pupils in the class are each appointed as ‘Convoy Commanders’ in charge of a group. The rest of the class are allocated to give a mixture of ranks (and abilities) to each group. There will follow a short PPt led briefing outlining the task – the training is now done and pupils will now be responsible for protecting their own Atlantic Convoy. An added element of moral decision making is incorporated, as the convoy includes a tanker, a troopship full of POWs, and a liner packed with evacuee children. When it comes down to the wire, which ships will the pupils save until last?

Each group will now put the last two lesson’s worth of learning into practice. They are given 100 ‘convoy points’ and a list of available escorts, each with its own price in ‘convoy points’. Each group will have 10 minutes to select their convoy’s escorts, trying in their own way to select the best possible defence for their vulnerable merchant ships. The chosen escort is noted down on each pupil’s individual ‘Convoy Roster’ which includes 24 merchant ships with a number of ‘damage points’ each.

As a class they begin the convoy. The teacher sees them set off with the PPt on the board. Each group then turns to its own version of the PPt loaded onto a laptop. From this point on, the groups work through it at their own pace. Each slide has several action buttons which allow the group to make its own decisions based upon their chosen convoy escorts.  There will be several different outcomes possible depending on what the group choose to do. Each enemy threat they encounter will (depending on the suitability of the convoy escort) inflict varying levels of damage on the convoy. As the damage mounts, pupils in the group will have to strike off merchant ships as ‘sunk’ making their own decisions on which ships to sink first. What will they decide is more valuable, the tanker, or the ships carrying evacuees or POWs? Eventually, the convoy will reach its goal, and pupils tally up the damage they took. Their success may result in promotion (or perhaps even a court-martial and a demotion!)

This intensive and in depth series of lessons planning for and experiencing a convoy will provide the pupils with an extra dimension of learning to bring to their work in the U-boat unit. Now they will be able to apply their knowledge of allied convoy protection to colour their written accounts in English with extra detail and depth. It will also give pupils a valuable awareness of the experiences of those on the other side of the periscope.


Triangulation.  A term I have encountered as part of my Educational Research Methods module at UWS, and relating to cross-examination of data assisted by a ‘critical friend’; a cross-examination by two or more individuals of data collected/collated by one or both parties.

Formative Assessment.  Peer assessment often involves two pupils marking each others work, providing each other with a positive comment and identifying at least one area for requires improvement.  This is mediated by the classroom teacher as each  learner demonstrates her/his understanding through the exemplification of skills and knowledge in teaching others.  But – and to my knowledge – this invariably involves pairs.

Is there a case for moving from pairs to triads?

Typically, this third role is undertaken by the classroom teacher.  But pupil ability is often spread – low, mid and upper – exhibiting what is suggested as Multiple Zones of Proxmial Development (Brown and Campione, 1994).

Each piece of work can generate discussion between three individuals, whereupon one individual is able to receive written feedback, feedback that has resulted in a discussion between two of his/her peers (and may include their own submissions).  This produces a ‘discourse’ about both strengths and the weaknesses of a piece of work, and the individual whose work is the point of focus has the opportunity to engage.

So: a lower-ability (Pupil A) can work on improvements with someone whose ability does not far exceed their competency (Pupil B), but whereupon (B) can work with a more advanced pupil (Pupil C) in assessing their own personal learning, but to use a mediation of the evaluation of ‘Pupil A’.

An able pupil (Pupil C) has the opportunity to assist two different pupils’ work, but also assumes a ‘mediation’ role in the ‘activity system’ that is created when he/she engages with ‘Pupil B’.  The triad approach provides the ‘mediation’ activity traditionally assumed by the classroom teacher.

The second presentation of (last year was a ‘test run’) a CfE ‘U-boat’ interdisciplinary task is underway, and already I have exceptional classroom engagement, and near-100% response for a piece of imaginative writing deliberately set between a non-contact day in order to allow pupils to undertake their own research on the actual U-96 crew member they had ‘drawn’.  (All of this after a single period of mediation, collaboration, a source text – and lots of freedom!)

The ‘triad’ approach to formative assessment is something I am currently employing, creating triads beyond the pupils’ physical working groups (4).  It also links with my research activities into the use of Activity Theory as a theoretical lens that allows me to analyse and evaluate classroom collaboration.


  • Pupils may already feel over-awed and have low self-esteem about their work without the additional burden of another ‘critical friend’


  • Discourse on learning is encouraged and made explicit
  • Facilitates a continuum approach to ability ranges
  • Cross-examination of a ‘third-party’ text may be undertaken more objectively
  • Multiple Zones of Proximal Development present a continuum of ability ; mediation includes highly-able pupil, but without the ‘ability gulf’ that could exist
  • More self-regulated learning, less teacher-intervention
  • Mid-ability are able to place themselves better, translating feedback from more able into personal targets, whilst  securing this understanding through the assistance of the lower-ability pupil
Much food for thought.  But with the grounding the UWS Chartered Teacher Programme has given me, I feel well-equipped and confident in the theory and practice, and the necessary teaching and research tools to begin an investigation…and to expect the unexpected!


Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1994). Guided Discovery in a Community of Learners.  In K. McGilly, Ed. Classroom Lessons: Integrating Cognitive Theory and Classroom Practice.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 229-270.