A sneak peak at the book I’m writing (updated)

Here’s an updated introduction for the book I’m working on, which is entitled ‘Learning for Memory: the Middle Ages’. It should be available for purchase by end of May (hopefully). It has been a joy and a struggle to write, and it still needs plenty of revisions, but I’m pleased with where I’ve got to so far. Here’s the intro, to give a taste of what it will be like.

This book was born out of my experience working in state secondary schools and my need to put forward an alternative vision for how history is taught at Key Stage 3. Although broadly speaking it is aimed at Year 7s or Year 8s, I can see it being useful to older and possibly younger students too. It might also come in handy for those teachers needing to brush up on their subject knowledge for this period.

My most disturbing take away from my classroom experience was that I would absolutely have hated history as a subject if I were a student in school today. All the effort to make history relevant –  the role play, the activities to keep the students engaged, the card sorts and the unhealthy fixation on source analysis – are a big turn off for me. The focus on amateur sleuthing, on becoming mini-historians, take the students further and further away from the real meat of the subject: an understanding of the periods, characters and events being studied. Moreover, such approaches often end up diluting the amount of reading and writing expected of students, resulting in weaker knowledge and weaker literacy.

My initial strategy was to look back at my own school education over thirty years ago, to try to rescue the good aspects of it that had been lost. However, the more I worked on this project, the more I realised that looking backwards would not provide the answers. There is a reason why history teachers got together, most notably through the Schools History Project, to overhaul the pedagogy of their subject. I have heard enough from people who were educated in the sixties and seventies and put off by rote learning to understand their motives in wanting to make history more immersive and relevant for today’s students. However, I have had first-hand experience of the unforeseen consequences of such approaches. In the schools I worked in, they resulted in what I can only characterise as “knowledge-light” history education. I wouldn’t for a minute claim this is the case in all history classrooms around the country, yet I have seen enough through my interaction with the history teaching community to suspect that my experience was not all that unusual.

So how do we move forward? It seems to me firstly that we need to have a clear idea of what it is we are trying to achieve. What is it we want our students to know and be able to do by the time they leave school? Here I think is where I might have philosophical differences from others in the history teaching community. For I am not that concerned with students learning the skill of source analysis. I want them to understand how the world they live in came to be and to gain insights into the human condition. In other words, I want them to learn about the critical events and developments of the past that have laid the foundations for where we are standing now. Why are our countries and societies the way they are? The world we live in today did not emerge out of a vacuum. It is the ongoing culmination of decades, centuries and millennia of human development. Our political institutions and social philosophies were not born overnight. They developed over many years, shaped by events and characters in history. I want students to understand how people thought and lived in the past and how these changed over time, so that they are able to place themselves within the context of history.

Side by side with knowing, I want them to be able to communicate their knowledge coherently and be able to convincingly answer key questions in writing. To do this, they must develop their vocabulary, their sentence formation, their ability to plan and write paragraphs and essays. And of course, they need to have substance to their writing. I want them to think about why certain events happened and what consequences they may have had. At the same time, I want them to feel that thrill when they realise that someone living hundreds of years ago, in a very different society to ours, had emotions very similar to ours and acted in a way that we recognise. It’s that human thread that connects us to our past.

Finally, I want them to be aware that our judgement about the past is shaped and influenced by our modern ideas, and to try, if possible, to put these aside and view events of the past through contemporary eyes. Our aim is to understand, not pass judgement. I remember a lesson where students were asked to “advise” Elizabeth I on how to settle the religion question at the beginning of her reign. Several students were of the opinion she should just let the Catholics and Protestants live equally side by side. That is because they were looking at the problem through modern eyes. In the UK today, we have people of many faiths or no faith living together peaceably. So for many of the students, the answer was a simple one: just live and let live. Unfortunately, they failed to understand the mindset of people in Elizabethan times. They didn’t understand the context in which Elizabeth had to make these decisions. Through the circumstances of her birth, she had no choice but to be a Protestant and by the same token Catholics viewed her as illegitimate, with inevitable consequences for the security of her throne.

This is why I think it is so important to have a well planned curriculum that goes into enough depth to develop an understanding of the key issues, as well as allow students to make these connections. Religion, for instance, is a major thread that runs through the history of England from the Middle Ages, all the way to the Glorious Revolution (and maybe even beyond). It doesn’t make sense to me to approach it in a piecemeal fashion. For this reason I have put a great deal of focus on religion in this book, with three whole chapters devoted to monasticism, heresies, the 11th century papal reforms, crusades, and culminating in Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. These are the cumulative building blocks of knowledge that will allow students to better understand the Reformation when they come to study it further down the line.

I have entitled the book “Learning for Memory” because the content is devised specifically to help pupils to remember what they learn, rather than it being in through one ear and out through the other. Remembering what is taught is a challenge in most subjects at school, but particularly so in history. When I first started working in a secondary school, I observed a year 8 history lesson in which the teacher gave the pupils a quiz to see how much they remembered of what had been learned the previous year. There were simple and to my mind easy questions, such as ‘What happened in 1066?’, ‘What was the Black Death?’, ‘What was the Magna Carta?’ and ‘What were the crusades?’ Not a single pupil got any of these questions right. What was the point of all the work they did in year 7 if they couldn’t remember any of it a year later? There is much truth to the well known quote by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark which defines learning as “a change in long-term memory”. Can we say something has been truly learned if it is quickly forgotten? It seems clear to me that remembering is a crucial part of learning history, and that progression in the subject depends on cumulative knowledge. This is why my focus in writing this book has been to make the material as memorable as possible.

How, though, can we make the learning of history memorable? My answer to this question is to make use of narrative and not be afraid of telling a story. Narrative is important because the human element of history is in the telling of the story. Take the story away, and you are left with disconnected bits of information that do not have meaning to us as humans. We need to make history meaningful for our pupils to engage with it, and also to remember it. A story has pathos, actions and events, winners and losers. It tells us something about our shared humanity. I suspect part of the reason why many pupils I’ve encountered remember so little of the history they have been taught is that it was not presented to them within the framework of a story that could spark their interest and inspire them to want to learn more.

Of course, I have read much criticism of the use of narrative in the teaching of history. The main one seems to be that it ‘brainwashes’ students into one accepted (and probably elitist) view of history. It doesn’t teach them that all history is interpretation or to accept the validity of different viewpoints. I disagree. I think it is perfectly possible to teach history through narrative while at the same time making it clear that different interpretations may exist. In the course of this book, there are numerous occasions where multiple interpretations of an event are presented. For example, when writing about the Londoners rising against Matilda in 1141, I look at possible other interpretations, not just the commonly held view that this was due to Matilda’s arrogant behaviour.

But beyond that, if we agree that all history is interpretation, then I think it is inevitable that any textbook is going to be just that: an interpretation. Whether the information is presented as a narrative or otherwise is irrelevant; it is all still an interpretation. Perhaps there is more honesty in the narrative, as it doesn’t try to present itself under the misleading guise of neutrality. I have of course made an effort to put forward reasoned arguments backed up by evidence and to avoid extremes of bias. Wherever an issue is contentious, I have attempted to present the different viewpoints. Fundamentally, however, I am telling a story, and giving my take on what I think happened. I don’t think, though, that it is fair or correct to brand this as brainwashing.

There is another approach informed by cognitive psychology that may be helpful to learning for memory. This approach focuses on six strategies for effective learning: retrieval practice, spaced study, interleaving, dual coding, elaboration and concrete examples. There is a conscious effort in this book, and the accompanying digital resources (to be found on www.learningformemory.com), to follow some of these strategies as far as possible in order to facilitate learning for memory. For example, I have interleaved the three overlapping stories of Harold Hardrada, Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy when writing about the Norman Conquest. The battle of Stamford Bridge gets covered twice: once during Hardrada’s story and then during Harold Godwinson’s narrative. The same applies for the battle of Hastings, which gets covered twice, from each protagonist’s perspective; each time a new level of detail is added. I also have included recap questions throughout the book to help with retrieval practice.

A word of warning: this book is text rich. It is vital that pupils get into the habit of reading, and it is also the only way to introduce them to the richness and detail of the periods we study. There is plenty of source material interspersed within the narrative, but it is there to inform rather than to be specifically dissected and analysed. New historical vocabulary is highlighted in bold and explained in a box on each page. When summarising a complex series of events or a set of inter-related factors, the book contains dual coding of text and diagram to assist with comprehension and reduce cognitive load. In the tasks set at the end of each section, I often suggest pupils copy out a set of diagrams into their books. These are not mindless or pointless exercises. The process of carefully copying out a flow chart of events helps the pupils consolidate and organise the knowledge in their minds as well as providing a clear summary of the information for future revision.

The tasks also include exercises, inspired by Hochman and Wexler’s “The Writing Revolution”, to help pupils develop their historical writing. One such exercise involves a sentence stem that pupils need to complete using the conjunctions because, but and so. This allows them, particularly the less proficient writers, to develop their sentence writing skills. It also encourages pupils to extend their thinking about a topic or issue. For example, pupils given the sentence stem “King Harold was unlucky,” might write the following:

King Harold was unlucky, because his kingdom was attacked both in the north and the south.

King Harold was unlucky, but he also made some poor decisions.

King Harold was unlucky, so he lost his crown after less than a year as king.

These might seem like simple exercises to do, but they are actually quite challenging because they force pupils to think about contrasting factors. Here’s another example, using the sentence stem “King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as archbishop,”:

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as archbishop, because he had been his loyal chancellor for many years.

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as archbishop, but Becket did the opposite.

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket would do his bidding as archbishop, so he felt betrayed when Becket refused to obey him.

The task can be extended for the more advanced students by adding an appositive, for example as follows:

King Henry II thought Thomas Becket, the friend he had promoted to high office, would do his bidding as archbishop, because he had been his loyal chancellor for many years.

A lot of thinking goes into constructing these sentences, and since “memory is the residue of thought” (a quote from Daniel Willingham’s “Why don’t students like school?”), getting our pupils to really think about a topic will hopefully also help them to remember it.

I hope this book is useful both to teachers and pupils alike. The aim is to try to reduce teacher workload by having ready-to-go lessons. Each lesson sequence is indicated by an enquiry question set out in a bold blue heading. At the same time, I want pupils to find this book informative and interesting. I hope they enjoy the stories I tell in here.

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  1. Tempe

    Can’t wait to buy it. As a parent I want my kids to have a content-rich education, but sadly that is not to be. So I try to drill things into them and discuss things at home. History, to my mind, is probably the most important subject they will do at school so let’s get it right. Your book sounds fabulous.

    1. historylover

      Thanks, hope it meets your expectations!

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