Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Category: History (page 1 of 3)

Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author

*This is the first in a series of posts examining some of the foundational assumptions/ideas/theories used to justify recent educational debates/policy directions and despite the appearance of respecting knowledge, there exists a form of anti-knowledge and anti-intellectualism propelling discussions and reform.

England, 1765. Inspired by a book on education which had, “all the power of novelty, as well as all the charms of eloquence”, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was determined to raise his young son based on what he understood as the truths within its pages. Freedom, the outdoors and practical learning were the order of the day: rules and learning by heart were to be rejected. The boy became fearless, free, generous and regarded as clever. The child also did not obey, showed little deference to others and disliked control. Edgeworth later wrote,

I must here acknowledge, with deep regret, not only the error of a theory, which I had adopted at a very early age, when older and wiser persons than myself had been dazzled by the eloquence of [the writer]; but I must also reproach myself with not [preventing] the formation of those habits, which could never afterwards be eradicated. I dwell on this painful subject to warn other parents against the errors, which I committed.” Memoirs, p.175

Edgeworth’s contemporary and friend, Thomas Day, was also mesmerised by what he took as the ‘extraordinary work’ on education. After a romantic disappointment, Day decided on a radical plan. He would take the ‘truths’ written in the book and raise two girls. Two twelve-year old girls, Lucretia and Sabrina, were adopted with the design that one of them would become his wife. Day, and the two girls, moved to Avignon in France, as it was reasoned that the lack of language would remove any possible corrupting influences from the wider society around them. Unable to converse with the people they met, bickering, sickness and a duel with a French officer eventually led to their return to England. Lucretia was apprenticed and Sabrina moved in with Day. In order to bring about Sabrina’s ‘Spartan’ qualities, a necessary feature in a Day’s wish list for a wife, he poured dripping hot wax on the neck and arms of the then thirteen-year-old. She reacted as you might expect. Eventually, Day gave up his educational plan and sent Sabrina off to boarding school. He did not end up marrying her.

The book that inspired these two men in their educational endeavours was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile and there was clear evidence, soon after the book was published, that using Emile as a guidebook on curriculum or pedagogy led to monumental failure. This should not be surprising, for Rousseau never intended it as such. Despite this, an orthodox view on Rousseau seems to have set in over time, and one that critics bought into too. Rousseau and Emile have made a comeback in framing educational discussions in England over the last decade and a recent speech by Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, represents the orthodox view, despite his criticism:

[D]espite the importance of education, over the past 60 years we have seen a steady but remorseless decline in standards in England and other parts of the West where education has been dominated by a progressive ideology: an ideology that rejects the importance of knowledge; that is hostile to didactic, teacher-led instruction; that’s against remembering facts and deeply opposed to testing and exams. While this approach took hold in the West, the international rankings have been dominated by countries from Asia, where the grip of this progressive educational doctrine has yet to gain a stranglehold.

The roots of educational progressivism lie with Jean Jacques Rousseau and his romantic treatise ‘Emile’. From its opening line, which declares that ‘everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man’, Rousseau rails against traditional methods of education, believing that education should focus more on a child’s interaction with the world.

The romanticism of this tale, with the child unencumbered by the supposed prejudices of his teacher, has appealed to the political left for over two centuries. And this view still persists among some today. For example, at the Wellington Festival earlier this year, detentions used to sanction poor behaviour were described as ‘violence’ done to pupils by teachers.

Over the last quarter of a millennium, ‘Emile’ has influenced and inspired progressives, social constructivists and leftists of all stripes as they seek to redesign society according to their will – to the detriment of children’s life chances.

The view of Rousseau and Emile in the speech and the common-sense understanding, can be summed up in three points:

  • Education should be child-centred with little need for discipline;
  • Teacher-led instruction is wrong;
  • Interactions with the world are the most important than learned knowledge.

The common-sense nature of the orthodox view has certainly been helped by various quotes taken out of context and arguments made in influential books and blogs. However, if one was to actually read Emile and Rousseau’s other work, there are a number of problems with this orthodox view. In Emile, Rousseau’s exploration does not apply to all children; the education explored in Emile is not the kind to be offered to a girl, as many feminist scholars have pointed out, nor someone with darker skin or who has physical and mental needs. When outlining the ideal student, Rousseau posits that extremes of temperature within geographic regions have an effect on the mental development of people from that region. Therefore, the ideal student should come from a place that has a climate not unlike a few select countries in Western Europe. He explains,

Let the inhabitant of a temperate country visit the two extremes one after the other. His advantage is still evident, for although he is affected as much as the one who goes from one extreme to the other, he is nevertheless only half as far from his natural constitution. A Frenchman can live in Guinea and in Lapland; but a Negro will not live likewise in Torne [Sweden], nor a Sayomed in Benin. It appears, moreover, that the organisation of the brain is less perfect in the two extremes. Neither the Negroes nor the Laplanders have the sense of the Europeans. Emile, p.52

Rousseau also makes it clear that the child to be educated should be healthy in body and mind because if they rely on the medical profession for anything, they will ‘unlearn to die’ (p.57). He writes,

I would not take on a sickly and ill-constituted child…I want no pupil always useless to himself and others, involved uniquely with preserving himself, whose body does damage to the education of his soul…[l]et another in my stead take charge of this invalid. I consent to it and approve his charity. But that is not my talent. I am not able to teach living to one who thinks of nothing but how to keep himself alive. p.53

Far from being against discipline, Rousseau is very clear on what the tutor should expect in Emile:

It makes no difference whether he has his father and mother. Charged with their duties, I inherit all their rights. He ought to honor his parents, but he ought to obey only me. That is my first or, rather, my sole condition. p.52-53

With this golden rule in place, Rousseau also sets clear boundaries based on the necessities of life; force.

Treat your pupil according to his age. At the outset put him in his place, and hold him there so well that he no longer tries to leave it. Then, before knowing what wisdom is, he will practice its most important lesson. Command him nothing, whatever in the world it might be, absolutely nothing. Do not even allow him to imagine that you might pretend to have any authority over him. Let him know only that he is weak and you are strong, that by his condition and yours he is necessarily at your mercy. Let him know it, learn it, feel it. Let his haughty head at an early date feel the harsh yoke which nature imposes on man, the heavy yoke of necessity in things, never in the caprice of men. Let the bridle that restrains him be force and not authority. Do not forbid him to do that from which he should abstain; prevent him from doing it without explanations, without reasonings…let “no”, once pronounced, be a wall of bronze against which the child will have to exhaust his strength at most five of six times in order to abandon any further attempt to overturn it. [My emphasis in bold]. p.91

Educating Emile should be based on the use of force. Rousseau is not clear on exactly what he means here, but physical force would likely fall within the description. Contrary to the common-sense view, Rousseau had rather traditional views on managing behaviour.

It is important to say something about the curriculum here. Recent discussions have raised its importance on a national scale and Rousseau is seen, according to the orthodox view, as someone who did not believe in it. Once again, reading Emile provides a different version, as we learn that Emile’s education is not a matter of chance; it is a planned, orchestrated and responsive curriculum. When Emile sows and attempts to grow some beans, they are eventually removed by the gardener who had planted melons in the land in the first place. The tutor supports Emile in the planting of the beans to teach him what property means and to have respect for it. The tutor carries out his other lessons in a similar fashion. The curriculum may be hidden from Emile, but it is deliberately designed and manipulated to reach an identified end.

What is more mystifying in discussions of Emile and Rousseau is another limit in the text that has been ignored; Emile deals with a privileged situation where one boy is educated by a tutor, not a teacher in an institution educating many students. Rousseau did write specifically on state education, but these texts have been ignored. In his Discourse on Political Economy published in 1755, seven years before Emile, Rousseau wrote,

Public education, following rules prescribed by the government, and controlled by officers established by the sovereign, is therefore one of the fundamental principles of the popular or legitimate form of government. p.28

He did not go into detail about what this meant, but he returned to the same subject some years later in the Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772). Produced on request, the text was meant to provide direct guide on the construction of a political system and a form of education that was central to its function: “It is education that must give souls a national formation, and direct their opinions and tastes in such a way that they will be patriotic by inclination, by passion, be necessity.” He explains,

At twenty, a Pole ought not to be a man of any other sort; he ought to be a Pole. I wish that, when he learns to read, he reads about his own land; that at the age of ten he should be familiar with its products, at twelve with all its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen he should know its whole history; at sixteen all its laws; that all in Poland there should be no great action or famous man of which his heart and memory are not full, and of which he cannot give an account at a moment’s notice…the law ought to regulate the content, the order and the form of their studies. [my emphasis in bold] p.176-177

Rousseau explicitly writes about a defined curriculum, regulation by government, assessment points related to age, and content to be memorised/recalled at a ‘moment’s notice’. This is not dissimilar to the education system Nick Gibb would like to have. Yet to recognise this demands a desire to interrogate easily reached conclusions from surface level readings, blog posts and conference talks. It would mean becoming truly engaged with education and knowledge, rather than professing as such and borrowing lazily from others. We can point out, from our vantage point, the strangeness of Day and Edgeworth’s educational experiments, but it seems that we are set compounding their mistakes, not learning from them. In one sense, maybe it should not be a surprise. It was Rousseau, after all, who argued in a fashion, that everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author, but it degenerates in the hands of man. He may have had a point.

 

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I contain multitudes

Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

I’ve be reading and thinking a lot about of Rousseau of late and pondering the ongoing representation of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education. My original intention in reading Rousseau was to help me think about the definition of ‘traditional’ education and to suggest that the use of the term refers to a variety of different things and involves presentism. In other words, the term ‘traditionalism’ anachronistically applies current modern concepts and ideas to historical ideas, writings and events.

After wrestling with a series of blog/article drafts, I found this to be an unfulfilling use of time as it was becoming an exercise in negativity.

What really began to excite me was to think about what ‘progressivism’ meant and from my initial research, it became clear that women educators were often neglected in the debate about education (the Brontës and Hannah More for example). I found their stories and writing fascinating and not only because it counters the characterisation of the ‘romantic’ period often used in recent texts about education in England. The plan is that over the next few months I will be looking at these ‘progressive’ writers in a series of blog posts with the first in the series examining Rousseau’s work and legacy. Rather than just focusing on Émile, I will attempt to contextualise the often cited (but I’d wager little-read) text with Rousseau’s other work in The Social Contract and Considerations on the Government of Poland.  My main argument is that we have been subject to a very limiting appreciation of Rousseau’s ideas and we are all the poorer for it.

After dinner yesterday, I discussed with my wife the ideas for the blog post and the debate between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education. After I had finished, she said that it was strange that teachers would adopt such extreme positions when thinking about the training they receive.  Experiential learning, often portrayed as the preserve of ‘progressive’ education, plays an important part in teacher training as we apply ideas from tutors/research/CPD sessions to our work in schools. However, experiential learning is not sufficient as there needs to be subject/professional knowledge too if we hope to be successful trainees/teachers.

Her words neatly captured my growing unease but also reminded me of the problems involved in positioning and in that moment, Walt Whitman’s words from his poem, Song of Myself, crashed into my thoughts:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

We may want to declare that we are one position or the other because it gives us assurance. However, in doing so we seem to forget the formative experience of training and the work we do in improving ourselves through CPD/utilising research and writing. Maybe it is time to remember.

 

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Designing an Oxbridge programme

I recently took a group of students (mostly from my Form) to Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford so they could learn more about the application process and speak to current staff and students. It was a fantastic day and I have to thank Victoria Condie and current undergrads Alex and Holly for their warm welcome. The students really enjoyed the day and as we made our way back to Hertford, I began to think about an Oxbridge programme that  was effective, did not take up too much staff time and enabled the students to be prepared.

Part of the proposed programme below is based on my experience of working in the independent sector and the work that is done to support students in their application. It also draws on the work done by Lucy Helmsley and her research on Oxbridge preparation classes for history students (I highly recommend you read her research on the Oxford University Research Archive).

It is true that fewer students from non-selective state schools study at Oxbridge than independent/selective state school peers. The suggested programme is designed specifically to support students from non-selective state schools. It is also true that A-Level courses by themselves do not provide adequate preparation for Oxbridge applications; imagination, flexibility and independent thought are not necessarily rewarded. The programme tries to build this in and and also support for students and parents. This is one feature that is normally undervalued when it should be of equal importance. As a parent, my child is the most precious thing to me in the world. A school that understands this and provides support to me and my child is invaluable. After all, it takes a village to raise a child and prepare them for the challenges they face.

Ideally, there should be two societies for prospective Oxbridge candidates in Year 12. One  should be a departmental society and the other a school-wide academic society. Both societies should be coordinated by staff (session titles, timings) but actually led by the students who every week or every two weeks, give presentations on topics and invite comments/challenge from their peers. If students have no experience of giving presentations, taking them to events such as the Battle of Ideas, debating competitions and even watching TED talks will provide pointers on preparation. The student presentations should be on issues that they are passionate about in their subject or wider studies.

Running the programme after Christmas in Year 12 gives students time to settle in and allows staff to help Year 13 students prepare for the interview process and the entrance tests.

Alongside the societies, in the Summer term of Year 12 and the start of Autumn term in Year 13, HoDs or nominated teachers should plan a series of seminars that cover the ‘big’ ideas in the subject and that are not necessarily covered in the syllabus at A-Level/IB/Pre-U.  These sessions are not lessons but tutorials where students are asked engage with set material through discussion. This will help them understand that a different type of learning and teaching is expected and that it is intellectual in character with no set answers/grades.  Additional reading/viewing material should be provided and ideally link to the following sessions. Lucy Helmsley’s research above provides an outline for a historical based seminar series but it could be adopted for any other subject.

Working with Parents and students in Year 12.

As mentioned above, this is important. Students and parents should be made aware of the programme, the commitment required from the students, what can be expected from the School and managing expectations from the outset regarding possible disappointment.  Ideally, parents and interested students should be invited to a meeting in January of Year 12 where the above is explained. There are two reasons for doing this as early as possible. The first is that it outlines to everyone the communal work and support needed to provide a competitive application. The second reason is that breaks down the challenge into manageable pieces for all involved and that review points/discussions can be agreed over the course over the coming months. During the meeting parents/students are encouraged to visit the colleges and details of an admissions visit organised by the School should be shared (should be rotated between Oxford and Cambridge).

The other suggestion I would make for the end of Year 12 is that personal statements should be in before the end of term. Doing so allows the teachers and students to make tweaks over the school holidays and at the beginning of Year 13. The October deadline for submission should not be taken as a brief to work on the statement until then. Teacher references and checks have to be completed well in advance. In schools where students have left their personal statements until the last minute, the process becomes fraught and the possibility of everyone doing their best work is diminished.

Before students leave in July, they should also be given a number of past papers for the entrance tests to work through. I strongly believe that the break should be used for recharging the batteries. It should also be used for steady preparation too. Leaving it all until September causes unnecessary pressure for students and can harm their prep for the interview.

Year 13

Once the application is submitted, preparation should focus on the completion of the seminar programme and working through as many test papers as possible (which may form part of the seminar programme). It should be used to discuss with a teacher the type of written work that should be submitted (if required). Discussion about the piece means that the demands are clearly understood (alternatively, a piece of work from an EPQ or Extended Project can be submitted). Finally, time should be spent on preparing for interview. I would suggest an internal interview for candidates to be organised in late September/early October to give them a sense of the task. Once students have been shortlisted by the colleges, I suggest arranging an interview exchange with another school (set up in the academic year when the students are in Year 12) with experience of the Oxbridge process. This is incredibly useful as the students are placed in an unfamiliar context and asked questions by someone they do not know. Feedback should be provided and any areas for development should be tested again just before students attend the final interview. This may appear to be too much but in my experience interview rehearsal, feedback and additional performances allow students to feel relaxed and ready for the real thing. It also mirrors what happens in the independent sector and the figures of independent school acceptance to Oxbridge should provide enough justification. One non-selective state school that I worked in only gave students an interview the week before the actual interview which made them feel slightly nervous and unprepared as they did not have the chance to correct any errors. The purpose of the interview preparation is not to hot-house students by giving them the ‘right’ answer (this will fail because the admissions tutors will see through this if stock answers are used).  Rather, it is suggested as the best way to provide the opportunity for students to show what they can do in a setting they feel comfortable in

Once students return from interview, ask them to note down the interview questions they have been asked and anything else they experienced. All of this should be noted and fed into the process for the following year/build up institutional knowledge. It is important to reiterate to them that regardless of the outcome, they have demonstrated the commitment and dedication to do well wherever they end up.

When applicants are informed in January, I would recommend that schools ask for feedback on the unsuccessful applications. This information will help to refine the support for the students in Y12 and provide any further support to unsuccessful students and their parents.

If you feel that anything is missing, please let me know. Feedback is very welcome!

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Is Rousseau a traditional educator?

As an undergrad student, I was not that impressed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The phrase, ‘man is born free but everywhere else he is in chains’ seemed too simple a rationalisation for thinking about society. I became less impressed when I learned about his notion of the ‘state of nature’ where humans were uncorrupted and this construction was a  way to think about  how political states should interact in international politics.  I did not enjoy reading his work yet I recognised that he was a complex thinker. Years later (and I completed my teacher training in a university and did not come across his name), Rousseau appears again as a mover in E.D. Hirsch’s thought about what is wrong about education in the USA and as a example of ‘progressive’ educational thought. Rousseau’s work Émile, or On Education, is identified as a key driver in creating a poor intellectual climate for thinking about education, especially in relation to the importance of factual knowledge. Rousseau writes:

No, if nature has given the child this plasticity of brain which fits him to receive every kind of impression, it was not that you should imprint on it the names and dates of kings, the jargon of heraldry, the globe and geography, all those words without present meaning or future use for the child, which flood of words overwhelms his sad and barren childhood.

It seems pretty conclusive that facts (especially the kind I am interested in as a history teacher) are not meaningful to Rousseau. However, accepting this view means ignoring Rousseau’s work that was produced ten years later and published after his death. Considerations on the Government of Poland was Rousseau’s opportunity to put into action his thought as he was asked to provide suggestions as how Poland should be governed. Regarding education, Rousseau had this to say:

I wish that, when he learns to read, he should read about his own land; that at the age of ten he should be familiar with all its products, at twelve with all its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen he should know its whole history, at sixteen all its laws; that in all Poland there should be no great action or famous man of which his heart and memory are not full, and of which he cannot give an account at a moment’s notice. From this you can see that it is not studies of the usual sort, directed by foreigners and priests, that I would like to have children pursue. The law ought to regulate the content, the order and the form of their studies. My emphasis added.

Dates, names, and facts, it seems, are important.

The above highlights the problem with using  Rousseau to represent contemporary ‘progressive’ educational thought because he could also been seen as an advocate of contemporary ‘traditional’ educational thought.

Categorisations that seem clear and coherent in the present are complex and can fall apart when we add history to them.

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Beyond the modern obsession of ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ education

One puzzling aspect of the debate surrounding education on Social Media is starting with the ‘Romantic’ period and blaming Rousseau and his work Emile for the problems in our modern age. The creation of binary opposites from this ‘Romantic’ point has fuelled a wide range of discussions about teachers belonging to one group or another.

I would like to present an anterior history that helps us see beyond the limits imposed by the terms used in the debate by briefly exploring the work of Quintilian. Writing around 95 CE,  Quintilian in the Institutio Oratoria suggested that an effective education should pay attention to the needs of the child:

Yet I am not so unacquainted with differences of age as to think that we should urge those of tender years severely or exact a full complement of work from them. For it will be necessary, above all things, to take care lest the child should conceive a dislike to the application which he cannot yet love, and continue to dread the bitterness which he has once tasted, even beyond the years of infancy. Let his instruction be an amusement to him; let him be questioned and praised; let him never feel pleased that he does not know a thing; and sometimes, if he is unwilling to learn, let another be taught before him, of whom he may be envious. Let him strive for victory now and then, and generally suppose that he gains it; and let his powers be called forth by rewards such as that age prizes.

Institutio Oratoria, Book 1, Chapter 1, 20

In other words, learning should be made pleasurable to the student and that rewards should be given to entice interest. However, this does not mean that there is a lack of rigour:

Some have thought memory to be a mere gift of nature, and to nature, doubtless, it is chiefly owing. But it is strengthened, like all our other faculties, by exercise, and all the study of the orator of which we have been speaking is ineffectual unless the other departments of it be held together by memory as by an animating principle. All knowledge depends on memory, and we shall be taught to no purpose if whatever we hear escapes from us. It is the power of memory that brings before us those multitudes of precedents, laws, judgments, sayings, and facts of which an orator should always have an abundance and which he should always be ready to produce. Accordingly, memory is called, not without reason, the treasury of eloquence.

Institutio Oratoria, Book 11, Chapter 2, 1

The training of memory and the ability to retain facts (through devices such as a ‘Memory Palace’) is an essential part of a good education.

For Quintilian, it was not a case of choice between being child-centred or retaining information through training. Both were needed to provide a good education.

It seems strange that we consistently forget or ignore this fluid thinking about education because of the allure of Enlightenment binaries and the certainty they apparently supply.

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How not to ‘whitewash’

The #RhodesMustFall campaign has been interesting because the main goal to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, imperialist and benefactor, has failed. Equally interesting has been the opposition, which has centred around the seemingly simple argument that one should not ‘whitewash’ history (an interesting choice of words considering the reasoning behind the campaign).

This argument in particular assumes that the history behind monuments and buildings is apparent to everyone. It is not. I have no doubt that many people had no idea who Cecil Rhodes was and what he did when they walked past Oriel College. Without context, the statue presented a limited narrative. The campaigners have called for Oxford to ‘acknowledge and confront its role in the ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire’, and there is a simple way to do this.

Making the complex history of statues/monuments/street names available to all can be done through the technology of iBeacons or QR codes that direct the public to a mobile website/app that offers two interpretations in audio or text format. These can be written by professional historians or by using the network of history teachers across the country. After engaging in the content, listeners/readers can then offer their own interpretation as oral testimony. Rather than ‘whitewashing’ history, it allows people to interact with the past and add their own voices.

Imagine what places like Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Liverpool and London would be like where the history of buildings, streets, monuments and public art speak to you as you walk around. What horrors of the Slave Trade would be revealed? What celebrated achievements would they boast of? What tales of fundamental British values would they make complex? The overlapping and intertwining stories would, for the first time, be available to all as they stood in the physical space. Education, something we seem to agree on as a progressive force in society, would be available to all and at the point of interest.

The costs of such a project would be minimal and it could be done quickly. The public benefit would be enormous and it would allow our society to confront, in a very real way, our history. So rather than threatening to withdraw donations, belittling the students for raising questions and prioritising a single story, let us be open to the voices/spectres of the past and confront the issues. If we don’t, we will simply create a safe space for dissatisfaction and anger.

Interested in the above proposal or think it is unworkable? Get in touch (especially if you are in the heritage sector or Oriel College).

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When writing about history teaching goes very, very wrong.

The Daily Mail’s article, ‘GCSE pupils to be taught that the nation’s earliest inhabitants were Africans who were in Britain before the English‘ marshals an impressive array of commentators apparently condemning the new course as a beacon of all that is wrong with political correctness in education.

The article suggests that the course is attempting to rewrite history, yet the scrupulous appeal for what is ‘right’ does not stretch to their research methods. As they are not trained teachers, they have little understanding of what a specification does or comprehend the role of historical interpretation in reading lists. These lists are put together to stimulate debate and offer an insight into the richness of historical debate surrounding any subject. Reading lists are also useful to teach students that different conclusions can be drawn from the same source material. It is also clear that they have not read the book, because in citing Peter Fryer’s ‘Staying Power’, they suggest that it argues that the Africans stationed by Hadrian’s Wall in the third century AD ‘settled’ in the country. Fryer says no such thing.

 

 

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Quoting VS Naipaul is meant to support their case but as usual in these matters, Naipaul goes too far comparing the supposed rewriting of history to the work of IS.

The press has a right to question what goes on in schools but not when it is based on deliberate misdirection, a desire to create moral panic and – particularly galling from a history teacher’s point of view – a lack of carefully researched homework.

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Frameworks and narratives

In our first history department meeting last week, we discussed the school’s new approach to ‘Building Learning Power’ and how we could create resources to use the language and ideas to structure planning and work for the students. As we went over key ideas, I recalled some work I had done in 2009 with a Year 9 class and presented to the PGCE students at the University of Cambridge which would fit into the ‘Building Learning Power’ language. I managed to dig the resources up and thought I would share them too. I must stress that the lessons were not designed with ‘Building Learning Power’ in mind but by a focus on subject pedagogy and subject knowledge (from reading Carr’s book again).

At the time, I was struggling to get my students to think about the second-order concept of ‘change and continuity’ and felt that the work I was doing with them at the time really was a ‘march through history’.  After re-reading some work from Ian Dawson, Alan Kelly and Christine Counsell, I went back to Denis Shemilt’s four narrative frameworks for use in history teaching in his chapter ‘The Caliph’s Coin’ from the book ‘Knowing, Teaching & Learning History’:

  1. A chronologically ordered past – events are told in sequence via timelines and with varying degrees of sophistication;
  2. Coherent historical narratives –  where history is presented as a story and historical events have meaning attached to them;
  3. Multidimensional narratives – history is taught through three ‘interlocking and interpreting dimensions; means of production and population history, forms of social organisation, and cultural and intellectual history;
  4. Polythetic narratives – teachers teach history in a way that allows students to understand that truth is constructed and there is no one narrative of the past.

I felt pretty sure that I was good at getting them to think about the first two levels but wanted to stretch them on the last two. An opportunity presented itself when we reached the end of the First World War topic. I had also finished reading E H Carr’s book ‘The Twenty Years’ Crisis’ again, a classic in the field of International Relations. In it, Carr suggest the following:

The main feature of the crisis of the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 was the move from hope in the first ten years to grim despair in the second. E H Carr,

With only two lessons to work with, I wanted the students to challenge Carr’s argument and gain a deeper understanding of how historical narrative is constructed (following Shemilt’s ideas).

Drawing on Ian Dawson’s work on ‘living timelines’, I created three sets of cards representing three European powers at the time. Each card had a ‘crisis rating’ on them and the students were asked to place them chronologically on their own graphs first and then arrange the cards according to the ‘crisis rating’.

Twenty Years' Crisis overview

When placed along the main classroom timeline, students were asked if Carr’s idea of a ‘Twenty Years’ Crisis’ was a valid one. The students were able to see, through the use of the coloured country cards, that Carr’s assertion stemmed from a particular view and the move from ‘hope to despair’ was more aligned with Britain than with Germany.  Students began to grasp that the historical narrative employed by Carr was a indeed a constructed one and could be challenged by examining other countries. This was a major achievement but I wanted to push them a little further in their thinking. Each card had an image which represented a different historical factor such as the Treaty of Versailles (picture of the actual treaty and represented a political factor), the Wall Street Crash and its effects (economic factor represented by a picture of money) and the role of the individual (represented by the green figure).  A close up can be found below.Twenty Years' Crisis card

By tracing these themes on the diagram by focusing on the images on the cards, they were asked to compare their graph of factors against Carr’s assertion. The hope was that by doing so, pupils would gain a  ‘multidimensional narrative’ of International Relations and also an overview of the period. To round it off, a written piece was generated when they wrote to Carr and explained that he needed to take a wider view of the period between 1919 and 1939.

The resources for the lessons can be found here and a video of the events (used as a prompt in the second lesson) can be seen below.

I plan to use the lesson framework with my Year 8 students as we study the Tudors. Any ideas would be very welcome.

 

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The problem of a single story

Robert Peal’s article in the TES on Friday ‘History’s an adventure – don’t cut it short’ left me feeling slightly bemused. In the piece, Peal argues that current history textbooks lack an extended narrative that is detrimental to exciting students about the stories of our past.

You would be hard pushed to find a stretch of more than 200 words that is not broken by a cartoon, a snippet of “source material” or a “funny fact”. The layout often resembles a magazine, not a book, with short chunks of boxed text designed to cater to the supposedly minimal attention spans of today’s pupils.

Moreover, the apparent attempt to link the past to the experience of the students breaks up the power of the narrative. The downfall is due to the changes in post-Imperial Britain, the move towards encompassing historical skills and the growth of ‘irreverent humour’ in the Horrible Histories series. I don’t doubt that there are KS3 textbooks which are poor having seen/used a number of them myself, yet Peal’s argument resides on two assumptions that are troubling. The first is that textbooks are the best way to tell a story and the second is that a particular narrative should be privileged.

I think Peal expects too much from textbooks or does not comprehend their place in the toolkit of a history teacher. They are a resource which the well-trained teacher can use as a basic standard from which they can innovate (teach). There is a form a recognition at the end of the article when he suggests that he uses them to aid planning yet the thrust is that they are the main teaching tool for conveying a story. Due to the National Curriculum (schools who do not have to follow it choose to do so anyway) and the chronological span and flexibility within a single school year, no KS3 book can adequately cover the variety of topics or narratives available even if there is a series like the Counsell, Byrom and Riley books.

The article then uses the work of RJ Unstead at Primary level to showcase how good a textbook can be when there is a focus on stories rather than sources. What is interesting to note is that Unstead’s books were produced at a time when there were no mandated topics to cover (see David Cannadine’s The Right Kind of History for examples of the very  general guidance given to history teachers at Primary level). In the absence of useful material, Unstead’s books helped to fulfil a need for a ‘good story’. KS3 books operate in a slightly different atmosphere and I question the suggestion that a series of books, located in a particular time and for a particular purpose, can be the panacea for the complex conditions of KS3 history. This is an anachronism that seems to slip by in the critique of the inexact use of culturally and temporally fixed reference points.

The most worrying aspect of the article comes in the section ‘Back to the old school’. Here, Peal explains why Unstead’s book fell from favour:

From the 1970s, Unstead became a figure of fun, mocked for his earnest stories of derring-do and insufficiently critical take on British history. In 1962 he defended his brand of scholarship: “Whereas England has often acted foolishly or badly, her history shows the persistence of ideals which good men have lived by since Alfred’s day.” This was not a fashionable view in post-Imperial Britain.

The crude linkage between an unbroken narrative of high-minded ideals and the disruptive ‘post-Imperial’ condition seems to suggest that the ‘best’ narrative of collective memory in the public sphere has been lost due to the post-colonial condition.  This mourning of a single, linear and progressive narrative in this passage reveals a belief that we (English? British? Western?) learn from our mistakes. I am not so sure of this view when considering the Middle Passage, the treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya or the racism in society that fuelled Imperial Britain and continues in various guises today.  I am not suggesting that these examples, a ‘post-Imperial’ narrative, should replace Unstead’s as the ‘right’ one because the collective memory that we deal with in school classrooms is not a competitive history but a connected one.  Examples of the persistence of great ideals are part of our history but there is also the unsavoury and the unspeakably cruel. No textbook can ever capture this depth and this is where the expertise of the teacher, versed in what Michael Rothberg terms as ‘Multidirectional Memory‘, is vital. To deny these parts of our collective memory for the sake of scoring points against a ‘progressive turn’ in ‘post-Imperial Britain’ shows, at best, a naivety about the multicultural society that we live and teach in.

Stories are important for history teaching. They help us to reveal that even though the past is a different place, the human ‘qualities’ of love, desire, greed, hate, hospitality, vulnerability and altruism can be found and this can be used to create a link between the present and the past for our students.  Yet we should not forget that in a desire to support a particular story, we miss the complexity of our history and the world around us.

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Research notes

I mentioned earlier this year that I was slightly frustrated by talk about educational research in schools. So I decided to do something about it and applied to do a Masters at the University of Oxford. My original plan was to write about the research once it was completed, yet  a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the issues in relation to History teaching specifically has changed my mind. From November, I will be posting a monthly blog on the Schools History Project website based on the readings/tasks I have been set alongside questions about how the generic/specific educational research used throughout the course might be applicable to a History classroom.  The purpose is not to tell you how to use the research but to engage in a conversation about what it might mean.

If you have any topics you would like to suggest in terms of discussion, please add them in the comments section below.

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