Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: Oxford

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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The Blind Men and the Elephant – the role of research in the history classroom

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

 

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a WALL!”

 

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, “Ho, what have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a SPEAR!”

 

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a SNAKE!”

 

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he:

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a TREE!”

 

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a FAN!”

 

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a ROPE!”

 

Moral:

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

As teachers, we have a tendency to be on a ‘Grail Quest’. One approach or activity that will make such a difference that it everyone else will think, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ when they see it (or hear about it). A new spin on analysing sources. A novel approach to significance. Technology as the saviour. The forces pushing and prompting us to go searching are immense, and the appeal is great, yet in our pursuit of teaching and learning salvation we can forget what caused us to start the search in the first place – our students and our context – and focus instead on the quest itself.

The latest ‘Grail Quest’ in education is the role of research and how it can guide us to the most efficient and effective practises. John Hattie’s analysis of educational research has gathered a lot of attention in part due to the emphasis on feedback in lessons and also because of his advocacy of ‘visible learning’. Psychologists such Carol Dweck on ‘Growth Mindsets’ and Cognitive Psychologists such as Robert Bjork on ‘Desirable Difficulties’ have indicated new ways to think about learning and student motivation. Other educators are focusing on the role of knowledge and using the work of E D Hirsch to justify a particular style of teaching (and sometimes to show that other forms are really damaging to our students).

Using these authors and the wealth of research is undoubtedly useful. It makes you reflect carefully on your own assumptions and what you are doing with your Y9 lesson on the Corn Laws on a Thursday morning. The danger however, with drawing upon these sources is that many of us appear to become nothing more than advocates for a particular approach. Armed with this new knowledge and the courage of our convictions, there is a danger of falling into the trap that the particular adopted approach is now the answer for all historical learning and educational problems. We seem to forget that it was a particular contextual problem that led us to wondering (and wandering).

One way to avoid the practise of groping around, seizing what is in front of you and using it as the basis for claims about teaching and learning is to do some research yourself. The academic Stuart Hall talks about comprehending the complexity of a situation so that you can make an effective change, and it is this desire for wisdom, rather than knowledge, that has made me by become a MSc student again (part-time). The desire for wisdom is practical (phronesis); comprehending the issue at stake will allow me to make an effective change for my students and the school. This is rather different to the argument that knowledge by itself can make a difference because as we can see from the blind men, poor choices can be made when based on (limited) knowledge.

Aside from all the reading, the best part of this process is getting to really think about Learning and Teaching with a group of other History teachers. The fact that we all come from different types of school and face unique challenges is fascinating and humbling at the same time. It offers a clear reminder that a particular approach is just that and does not speak truth to all contexts.

This post in its original form was on the ThinkingHistory site in January but commitments over the year meant that the following posts I hoped to write did not materialise. However, I’ll be picking up issues of research sporadically over the next academic year as I complete my fieldwork. I hope you’ll join me as I study my elephant carefully and deliberately.

The MSc in Learning and Teaching at the University of Oxford is designed for currently serving teachers. For more information about the course and how you can apply, please click the link:  http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/courses/msc-learning-teaching/

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Scholarship

After a long period of gestation, we have released details of the revamped ‘gifted and talented’ programme.

We already have extensive provision for sports, music, drama and academic scholarship students yet we felt we could do more to support our students. The first element is our Fry Scholars’ Programme (named after Dr Thomas Fry)  and seeks to promote the following values:

  • An attitude of scholarship;
  • Curiosity;
  • Independent study;
  • Humility;
  • Working hard by doing hard work;
  • Developing a love of learning.

Selection for the programme will be limited to three students in each year group on each our campuses. Identification is grounded in baseline data and teacher recommendations. Students are then invited to partake in the additional challenge this programme provides. We will also invite a small number of students outside the selected group to participate in additional activities (denoted by the asterisk in the tables below) by signing up on a first come, first served basis.

 

Year 1 Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Year 7 & 8 Introduction Maths/Science Visit*
Year 9 & 10 Introduction Philosophy* Engineering
Year 2 Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Year 7 & 8 Literature/Poetry Debating Visit*
Year 9 & 10 Fiction* Leadership Training Mindset and learning plenary

 

For students in Y10, there will be a further opportunity for stretch and challenge by entering the Academic Competition.  Inspired by the selection process for Fellows at All Souls College, Oxford, it is open to all students in Year 10 who achieve at least 8 A grades in their summer exams. Students meeting the criteria will sit three papers of an hour each from the selection below:

  • Classics
  • English
  • Geography
  • History
  • Philosophy and Ethics
  • General paper (sat by all candidates).

After sitting these papers, the students will have a viva voce exam based on their papers lasting no more than 20 minutes. One winner will be named for each campus and they will hold the  honorary title of Nicholls’ Scholar for Year 11. We will post further information on the exam questions, viva process and the prize (trophy) on the Berkhamsted School website after the Easter holiday.

It is worth reiterating that we have high expectations for all our students. We believe our curriculum already provides stretch and challenge in all areas (record GCSE results last year are only part of the story) yet we believe we can do more. The Fry Scholars’ programme and the Nicholls Academic Competition are just the start of our exciting plans to refine the work we do.

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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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