This is a very long blog post. Executive summary: I had a great time, learned a lot and I can’t wait to get stuck into my new job!
Just after returning from the 2014 SHP conference I tweeted, a little breathlessly:
A week later, and I feel exactly the same. The week in between has helped me to reflect on why SHP is so important, and why it made such a big difference to me, the second time I have attended. I think that SHP re-affirms several things that I know about history teaching, but sometimes forget in the hurly burly of the average day, or in the quiet year off I’ve had doing an MSc.
In what follows I discuss what I learned from the workshops and plenaries I attended. Unfortunately I didn’t go to them all (though I wish i could have).
1. – History teachers make a fuss.
This was the phrase that many of the presenters used, mainly in connection with their love of the use of language, as we’ll see below. However, whilst I was thinking about this post I realised that history teachers make a fuss about a lot more things than language. History teachers like to get things right. That’s probably why so many of them turn up to events like SHP conferences and HA conferences – they want to make their teaching better and better.
Within the last couple of years we’ve seen history teachers make a very effective fuss about the KS2 and KS3 curricula – they were appalled at the cack-handed back of an envelope thinking that seem to have gone into the draft version. I have heard many other subject teachers talk with awe and envy at the disciplined responses that history teachers brought to bear, and the effective lobbying that the subject association used in order to encourage the DfE to make final requirements much more workable.
This making a fuss doesn’t stop at curricula structures. Time after time presenters and other teachers made a fuss about their own impact on their students. This is what it should really mean to be ‘child-centred’. Instead of allowing this tired cliche to be used as metaphor for the vacuous, weak and trendy teaching imagined by many newspaper commentators, we should trumpet the ‘child-centred’ approach that sees Diana Laffin and David Brown constantly assessing the impact of their lessons and ideas about independent learning, and being honest about those that work and those that don’t. These commentators should also see the deliberateness with which Dale Banham plans for and then celebrates the improvements he sees in the use of language by his students. Dale’s talk was typical of the attitude I saw in many teachers. Cool ideas were everywhere, but each lesson, object, source, worksheet, indeed every activity was presented as a way of helping children learn. This is child-centred learning – making a fuss about children’s progress.
2. – History teachers reject the labels ‘progressive’ and ‘traditionalist’, but they don’t just do ‘what works’ either.
Donald Cumming’s first talk mentioned the artificial debate in the media about ‘progressive’ v ‘traditional’ teaching, and his description was evidenced in the sessions that I attended. There were activities that might be labelled as ‘progressive’, such as card sorts, living timelines, source-work and role-play. There was co-construction, group work, hot seating and post-it notes galore! However, all of these activities were aimed squarely at increasing the historical knowledge and capacities of our students.
For instance, A telegraph columnist peering through the door of Neil Bates and Paul Sheridan’s workshop on ‘music and songs as a vehicle for history enquiry’ might have mistaken it for a sing-along. If they’d opened the door and listened only to the great music they might well have been horrified at the ‘left-wing’ anthem ‘the Ghosts of Cable Street’ being played. This would have been to miss the point however. We used a timeline, the song and some inspired guidance from Neil to learn how the battle of Cable Street has a reputation that it probably doesn’t deserve as the turning point at which British Fascism was defeated.
Similarly, Diana Laffin and David Brown’s ‘fascist pizza recipes’ are just the sort of thing that would go down well at a political party conference, perhaps as an appetiser for delegates hungry to hear about how the ‘Mr Men’ school of history teaching is holding students back. In reality these pizzas were constructed as part of A level course which emphasises students reading widely around their topics answering questions to help them to see the important parts of their texts, focusing on solid second order concepts like causation and learning to become great historical writers. The pizzas are used here as a metaphor which helps students to broaden their concept of how causes work, how factors link and mix together. I’ve seen others use different metaphors such as weather, or geographical features and events in order to help students acquire the kinds of language that support growing understanding of historical concepts.
Several workshop leaders made reference to our autonomy, in one way or another. Donald Cumming’s history is internationalist in perspective, because that’s the best way to understand events like the Norman conquest of England, and he questions the national approach to history that underlies much of the discussion and construction of school curricula as well as the recent calls by Liz Truss to return to a textbook culture. Neil Bates and Dale Banham both offered techniques and insights to be applied to our own situations and classes, not to be ‘implemented’ or ‘delivered’ but to be adapted by us.
Andrew Payne and Ben Walsh made this responsibility the most explicit – they suggested approaches to working with video and sources from the National Archive, but also asked us how we wanted to use them and change them in our own classrooms.
3. – History teachers want their students to do history but…
At the heart of the SHP approach is the enquiry question, and the desire that students are active historians – that they are learning history by answering questions about it. Donald Cumming’s opening plenary urged us to give our students the tools of history, so that they would not become the passive victims of demagogues, spin-doctors or conspiracy theorists. I wrote about this a long time ago and, looking back at the blog-post in which I pondered this ‘transformative’ power of history, I still think that this is one of the most important reasons to teach history – to equip students with historical skills and the trained healthy scepticism that a historical perspective brings.
4. …they also want them to know it.
However, Michael Fordham urged us, in the context of teaching interpretations, not to rush to the profound too quickly in our lessons. He was keen to set his lessons on Tudor interpretations of medieval history on a firm foundation of narrative knowledge, and to emphasis the importance of dates as well as a broad chronological framework. Interestingly though, Michael’s activity didn’t do this by presenting students with one narrative. Michael’s pupils were given a card sort, which they put in chronological order, and which they then selected information from in order to create different narratives. As far as I understood these cards were used over and over again, and different narratives were constructed from the same facts in different lessons.
This repetition of narrative helped the students learn the story. However, for me this was not a dry ‘facts first’ approach. Very cleverly Michael seemed to be asking his students to construct narratives from the very beginning, and in this construction to enrich their understanding of the Wars of the Roses.
Michael’s also emphasised the importance of growing teacher knowledge. Take this scene of the deposition of Richard II, which Michael had asked students to watch as part of a enquiry into Tudor interpretations of medieval monarchs, as an example.
Michael discovered during the conference, from one of the delegates, that the scene was banned during the reign of Elizabeth I, when even discussion of succession was an illegal act. A performance that included that scene was commissioned by the Earl of Essex just before his unsuccessful rebellion in 1601.
Ian Dawson’s final Saturday night plenary (next year he’s planning on doing a workshop I think) also focused on the importance of knowledge, and the role of the historian in challenging the dominant interpretations of an event. What looked at first like a kick-about role play on the topic of the importance of the Battle of Bannockburn morphed into a deeply interesting dissection of the process that Ian went through to go from a small tupperware box which contained everything he knew about the battle, to a large bin full of knowledge. Ian explained the process, with the help of tabards, by which he went from thinking that Bannockburn effectively ended an English attempt to take over Scotland to a realisation that in the period before Bannockburn relations were far better than they were for a long time afterwards.
5 – History teachers like books
Last time I went to the conference I was struck by the way that so many of the great ideas for a history lesson seemed to have been inspired, informed or enriched by a book, and often a history book. This time I found the same, but this time the scope of these books was wider: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall, Normans and Empire by David Bates, The War that Ended Peace by Margaret Macmillan, The Memory Hole by Fritz Fischer, River of Dark Dreams by Walter Johnson, The Code of the Woosters by P G Wodehouse, Red or Dead by David Peace, Untold History of the United States by Oliver Stone, Our Native Englan, by J G Cuckow, Shakespeare’s History Plays Manglish, by Lisa Jane Ashes, Arrangement in Black and White by Dorothy Parker, Love Letters of the Great War by Mandy Kirkby, and An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger. These were just those whose names I managed to jot down, countless others were mentioned.
6 – History teachers love language, and
Christine Counsel’s clarion call to ‘make a fuss of language’ reverberated around the conference, and echoed in all of the workshops that I attended, but the focus was not just on praising and encouraging the use of inventive, descriptive, precise, historical terminology and phrases. The attending teachers were full of designs, of devious ways of supporting and developing their students’ use of language.
Philip McTigue’s (not @siggi’s as I first thought) traffic lit vocabulary sheet for encouraging more nuanced words for describing change and continuity (I don’t have a picture, but if anyone else does I’d be very grateful ).
Diana Laffin and David Brown’s strategies for encouraging students to read more, and then using their reading to inform the way they described and explained causation. Dale Banham piled one pragmatic suggestion onto another to help students expand their vocabularies and spot how writers use words to effect. Christine Counsel herself gave us careless, clumsy, cheerful and reverent pall bearers (in an activity that should be on a Christine Counsel greatest hits album, if there ever is one) to show us how carefully C V Wedgwood chose her words when writing about Charles I’s execution.
7 – History teachers are child-centred-magpie-collector-bricoleur-engineers and jewel-polishing-artisans.
As history teachers we have a uniquely privileged position which also carries a unique responsibility. We are not guardians of a culture, but we are gateways to all human culture. I know that sounds pretentious, but bear with me.
We have the responsibility to show our students that human life and thought has been infinitely varied, and to help them appreciate that because something is different from our own experience, that it is not therefore lesser, dumb, primitive or stupid.
We have to make the distant past more approachable, more understandable. I learned long ago that I cannot just present something interesting to students and know that they will pick it up, read to it or listen to it and engage with it as I do. History teachers have an amazing skill of turning a source into an interesting point of departure, or seeing a link to their students’ ideas, experiences and perceptions that will help them begin to understand why people lived or thought in the way they did in the past.
Our subject transcends all others. We share with English and Language teachers the written and spoken word, with music teachers the emotive power of song and music, with art teachers the extraordinary potential of shape, colour and form to connect, move and inspire. We have the whole of human culture past and present as a resource, and amazing colleagues that can help us do just that.
However, as Christine Counsel and Donald Cumming urged us, we also have a tradition to pass on. This tradition is not a great narrative of history, an Island Story. Instead it is a commitment to the best-possible explanation given the evidence available, it is knowledge that enables students to understand how the past is constructed and used by themselves and by others and a culture of curiosity and exploration that sees every story open to re-examination and every position worthy of historical, analytical consideration.
I was just reading a journal article that described teachers as ‘devious’ ‘bricoleurs’. These are sub-craftsmen forced by circumstances – by pressure from above and lack of resources – to cast around and take what’s at hand to fashion materials that we can use merely to defend our positions, to make our lives bearable. You’ll gather that I disagree. The article contrasts bricoleurs, who have basic knowledge of a many techniques, with engineers who have precise uses for a small number of techniques.
What I learned at #shp2014 was that we are expert-magpies, devious engineers, adept at spotting opportunities and connections and precisely turning these to the advantage of our students.