Reflections on history teaching

As I near the end of my year working as a learning support assistant and approach the start of my Schools Direct teacher training, I am beginning to reflect in earnest on the kind of history teacher I would like to become. I have observed how history is taught at my school and read many history teachers’ blogs – the most influential for me being Michael Fordham, Toby French, Ben Newmark and Robert Peal. I’ve visited several schools and seen different styles of teaching. I also remember how I was taught at school and what it was that made me love history so much as a subject. All this will go into the mix of future teacher me.

The caveat to this is, of course, what kind of teacher my new school leadership will allow me to be. I still don’t know whether my approach will be in synch with theirs. In a way, my year on Edu-Twitter, as well as my fairly mature age, will make it harder for me than it might be for a total rookie. I have been used to much autonomy so far in my career and I suspect I will have to hold my own counsel on occasion and do as I’m told.  But it might not be so, I must keep an open mind.

Still, it is understandable to have qualms when it seems I am bucking the national trend and entering the teaching profession in the midst of a teachers’ exodus. There are valid reasons why so many teachers are leaving the profession. What makes me think it will be different for me? I’m not afraid of hard work – I’ve been there plenty of times before. That’s not to say I’m a masochist and look forward to piles and piles of marking. As far as I can tell, there are possibly two things that would make me consider quitting. The first one is the endemic poor behaviour I have encountered in schools (with some honourable exceptions). The second, and by far the most likely, is being micro-managed and having to cope with being in a hierarchical organisation, especially after having been used to so much autonomy thus far – I’ve been self-employed for the last 15 years or more.

Sounds like I’m talking myself out of teaching already! Note to self: must be more positive.

Back to history teaching. As I have explained, my ideal vision of the kind of teacher I want to be may not come to pass, at least not for a while. But let me set out my vision for you here.

Let them fall in love with history

Far too many times this year, I have heard pupils groan “oh yuk, history’s next”, or “history’s boring”, or “I hate history”. How can that be? I mean, our subject’s the best isn’t it? How on earth have we managed to make our pupils dislike it so much? Everyone loves stories. Everyone loves to hear about personalities and their great exploits. Isn’t that what we do when we go to the movies? And yet, I have noticed that, to so many of our young pupils, history has been reduced to a dry set of facts and bullet points. Card sorts (was this an economic, social or political cause of this or that war?), or having to answer questions from a boring, lifeless handout. Where’s the human element? The human story that can make us empathise and recognise something of ourselves in figures of the past. Where’s the drama, the pathos, the nerve tingling excitement? You think I’m talking in hyperbole? Perhaps I’m exaggerating a tad, but our history is dramatic and oftentimes exciting. The Norman Conquest, what an epic story that was! King John being brought to his knees by his nobles and signing the Magna Carta. What a tale of humiliation! Fast forward to the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Great Wars. So much drama there to mine and bring to life for our pupils. As we weave through the substantive and disciplinary knowledge we want to teach our pupils, let us not forget that first and foremost, we are passing on stories.

Subject knowledge is essential

Building on from my previous point about being able to tell the stories of our past and making them come alive for our pupils, it is quite clear to me that the only way this can be done is if you have inside out knowledge of your subject. How else will you be able to paint a convincing picture, or answer the many questions that might come your way? I have been dismayed by just how little background knowledge, save for the main headline facts, I have observed in some lessons I’ve been in. Why just today, as we started our Edexcel GSCE module on the Cold War, I heard a teacher tell the class that the last atomic bomb was dropped on Vietnam. We can’t afford not to thoroughly know the subject we are teaching. With this in mind, I’m spending much of my free time reading, reading, reading.

Be ambitious about vocabulary and writing

Being able to write well is so important, not just in history, but for so many other disciplines. I want to introduce my students to sophisticated vocabulary and help them develop their writing skills with ambitious syntax, modelling good writing for them so they know what it looks like. I do find it a bit dull when the writing frame invites students to write trite sentences such as: “One major cause of the Peasants’ Revolt was …. Another cause was ….. In my view, the most important cause was….” If possible, I want to introduce them to a more varied and rich writing style. So for example, I would model for them more interesting sentences such as “The raising of the Poll Tax was a factor that contributed to the Peasants’ Revolt. In addition, the peasants were protesting about landlords increasing the rents on their lands. The peasants were also unhappy with the Statute of Labourers which stated that they could not be paid more than their wage in 1346. On balance, I believe that the Poll Tax was the most significant factor that caused the Peasants’ Revolt.” As much as possible, and from as early an age as possible, I want pupils to get into the habit of writing like historians, not like pastiches of historians.

Spaced practice and regular testing

History is such a large domain, and there is so much information that needs to be retained in order to be proficient. With this in mind, we need to do everything we can to help our students retain the knowledge they learn. Too often, once a topic has been covered, we move on and go on to something else, not coming back until exam time. I’m a big fan of spaced practice, that is, revisiting topics after having first learned them and nearly forgotten them. Perhaps some different aspects of that topic can be explored in the second iteration, so that it is not all just simply a repeat exercise. In addition to this, regular low stakes quizzes are great for ingraining that knowledge more deeply.

Keep on top of behaviour

I have watched and observed teachers all year, looking to glean any titbits of information about how best to maintain a high standard of behaviour in class. I think this will be my greatest challenge as I’m not a natural authority figure. However, I have learned the following.

  • Be consistent
  • If you tolerate a student talking over you, or speaking defiantly to you, you are just setting yourself up for more of that further down the line. Start as you mean to go on.
  • Don’t let yourself get visibly flustered or angry. Be firm and have high expectations always.
  • Don’t reward students just for doing what they should be doing anyway.
  • Smile and be human, show that you are interested in them (I loved Ben Newmark’s blog about saying good afternoon when taking the register)

And that’s it folks, for now. More to come I’m sure in due course.

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