Sam’s Magic Triangle – What’s been so compelling about History teaching?
This is the first in a series of occasional blogs. Having realised I’ve been involved in teaching History for forty years I’ve been musing on what’s changed, what’s improved and what’s still puzzling me. Though it maybe seems a mite self-indulgent, these blogs will explore how aspects of History teaching have developed over those four decades and particularly what still seem to me to be the outstanding issues. Just thinking about this is very humbling – how can we have done all that work and still have all these issues to sort out?
If I have an audience in mind it’s those new to teaching but I hope this will be of interest to others too. In this first blog I’m going to be selfish and try to sort out just what I’ve found so compelling about History teaching, why it’s been rather more than just a way to pay the mortgage, why … well, if you’ve got this far I suspect you know what I mean. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin …
Why did I become a History teacher? Whatever I may have said in my PGCE interview I had no real idea back in 1973 and it took a year or two to be sure I’d made the right choice. With hindsight I chose History teaching simply because History was the subject that had felt like home since I’d been seven or eight. My sense of History as home has never changed but at some stage I discovered that the world of history teaching had become even more of a home – though I’ve wandered over the years from my original school classroom to teacher-training to degree-teaching to writing textbooks to running CPD courses here, there and pretty much everywhere.
The reasons why History teaching has remained so compelling are many-fold, hence I’m going, as so often, to use a diagram to help explain those reasons, a diagram I’ve christened Sam’s Magic Triangle because I was reading a Magic Key book to young Sam when the idea popped into my head.
Why is it magic? You’ll have to read on!
In the beginning – a Triangle with three unequal points
In the beginning it was the History itself that had pride of place at the top of my triangle. I didn’t know much history at the time or, rather, I knew a lot about very little but hardly any of what I knew figured in what I taught. I started teaching A level with only a nodding acquaintance with 19thC British politics (though I swiftly grew to love the issues, personalities, connections with today) but my mind was empty of 20thC history when I began teaching O level and CSE – we just hadn’t done any at school and I’d avoided it at university – I didn’t even know where events such as the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk fitted into World War Two despite or, more likely, because of them taking place just 10 years before I was born.
Fortunately the enjoyment of discovering new periods, events and people has stayed exciting – and there’s been a great sense of achievement in linking all the new knowledge I acquire into the patterns of knowledge already in my mind. Even more satisfying has been the realisation that what I find most rewarding and that I’m keenest to communicate is not ‘history’ in general terms but the experiences, complexity, humanity of individual people. As so often, Alan Plater summed up what I feel in his novel Oliver’s Travels. Its theme is homage – doing homage to those we love and admire and to all those generations and individuals who went before us. The last lines of the book are simply:
‘It’s all about paying homage,’ said Oliver. ‘Hearing what the ghosts are saying.’
‘What are they saying?’ said Diane.
‘They’re saying … please listen.’
Paying homage, helping students listen to the people of the past, became the driving idea behind much of what I’ve done in recent years – not creating resources about history but resources which try to reveal the human situations, choices, joys, the complex humanity of individuals from the past.
So the history was at the top of my triangle in my early classroom years. One of the lesser corners was a desire to communicate the excitement of studying History. Excitement? This may not be the word that comes to mind if you’ve been brought up on NC levels and infuriating decontextualized ‘reliability’ activities but back then, yes, the idea of helping children understand how we study the past was exciting. What drew me to SHP was its focus on helping students understand how we study the past as part of its bigger aim of helping them understand their world – uses of evidence, causation etc. gained in the history classroom could be transferred to the world beyond. To someone whose own school history had consisted of five years of dictated notes, two years of my teachers talking about a set of notes and not a glimpse of anything that might be called a historical source this came as a revelation.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I think the drive to help students understand how history is studied has gone off course. I remain convinced about the importance of introducing students of all ages to the process of studying the past, to the puzzle of how certain we can be about an issue, but too much attention has been paid to the individual tesserae of that process, with the resulting danger that students can’t see or aren’t aware of the bigger picture. But the fact that that 70s aim has not been achieved makes it all the more intriguing – how can this situation be resolved?
And the third corner of my Magic Triangle? That, I slowly realised, was the most important corner –the one labelled ‘Becoming a teacher’. At some stage I stopped being a pseudo-historian standing at the front talking about History, asking questions, setting tasks and became a teacher. To do that I had to shed my focus on myself (would I remember the content? could I keep discipline?) and focus on my students. I have to thank C3/IGD for that. I can still tell you who sat in every seat in that class back in 1978, what their personalities seemed to be.
Thanks to C3/IGD and many like them I began to appreciate that much of the value of my work had nothing to do with History at all. I had to have time for individuals when I didn’t really have that time. I had to treat each student with respect, kindness, an awareness of their individuality, treat Y7 with as much respect as the Oxbridge-bound Y13, the cleaner with as much respect as the head-teacher. In essence I had to model for my students how to treat other people properly as human beings – the most important part of teaching of all. I didn’t always succeed – far from it – but this was a huge step forward. I realised that I wanted my students to remember me for that as much, maybe more than, for my enthusiasm for History. Of course, the two are interlinked – if you don’t have those teacherly human qualities then your students won’t listen as much, won’t learn as much, won’t respect you as much as a history teacher.
As I write this I can see a strong link between that last paragraph and how we think and teach about the people of the past – that we should treat people in both past and present with equal respect. I cannot convey to you how much I hate activities in textbooks or websites which mock or belittle people from the past or make them sound stupid – the past may be fascinating and enjoyable to study but we shouldn’t treat the people as mere entertainment.
Becoming a minstrel : the Magic Triangle becomes a Square
The most striking paragraph I read last summer was in Rosemary Sutcliff’s memoir Blue Remembered Hills (1983). As history teachers, you’ll know, maybe love, Rosemary Sutcliff’s work – The Eagle of the Ninth, The Lantern Bearers and many more. The passage that’s echoed round my head is where she describes how her mother read to her constantly and enthusiastically:
‘… my mother loved … history of any kind, though her view of it was always the minstrel’s rather than the historian’s.’
I suspect that it was the coming together of the historian and the teacher that gave me the ability to become a minstrel when needed. I stopped being earnest and pedantic and listened to my inner minstrel which was telling me that I was allowed to enthuse, to communicate my passion for history, even to seem a bit weird at times because of that passion! I think I can sum up this minstrel quality by repeating one of the nicest things said about my teaching – though it was said to my wife in a somewhat worried tone!
‘When he talks about people in the Wars of the Roses he sounds as if they’re his mates and he met them in the pub last week, not that he’s read about them in books.’
That may not be the most intellectual aspect of being a history teacher but I do wonder if it’s the most precious gift a history teacher can have?
The problems of balance – getting lost in the Magic Triangle
All of which sounds very neat and well-balanced but there was a time when I lost my historical balance completely – when I started to work for SHP in the 80s, in hindsight at far too young an age but how do you turn down what seems the dream job? That was definitely my arid and puritanical phase – I thought that history teaching was all about helping students to understand the process of studying history and to achieve this did my best to break down evidence, causation etc. into ever smaller levels of understanding.
Marooned in the ‘process’ corner of the Magic Triangle I lost sight of the other corners, my inner Minstrel, the History itself and particularly the centrality of being a teacher.
As you might imagine, I hadn’t cut an ear off a single teddy bear at that stage.
In my defence I was young then, the little teaching I was doing at college was chiefly on ‘method’ courses, I was too easily swayed by people who seemed very knowledgeable and authoritative and I was over-reacting against the total domination of ‘knowledge’ I’d experienced as a pupil. I suspect every generation tries to make good what it feels has been deficient in its own education – and therefore undervalues what we have experienced.
Fortunately somewhere in my 30s I re-harnessed my inner minstrel to my internal historian and remembered what being a teacher involved. And that’s when ….
… the Magic Triangle burst forth in all directions!
The creativity of history teaching
Sometime in the 80s I discovered the endless possibilities of what’s sometimes called ‘active learning’, partly because of a somewhat accidental attendance at a Theatre-in-Education session. I began turning rooms into maps, created tabards galore (if only I’d taken out the patent!), collected and assaulted furry toys, pushed students to ‘think from the inside’ of situations by making decisions in role. All this was to bring out the complexity, depth, light and shade of the history. I remember a lad called Matthew, in role as the earl of Warwick, totally puzzled at which option to choose in 1470 because none of them were good ones – a little prodding led to him choosing the ‘least worst’ option and light bulbs went off in brains all around the room as we discussed his dilemma. It wouldn’t have happened if they’d been sat behind desks talking about a one-dimensional historical name.
So I discovered that history teaching is endlessly creative but the creativity’s not about having fun, it has to be linked to …
The importance of learning
What misconceptions do students have about topics? Why do they stumble over the same aspect of a topic year on year? Why do they struggle with essay structure?
What became fascinating was harnessing that creativity to construct activities that help students overcome learning problems. I realised that teaching history is only partly about the history. It’s about working with the students’ thinking and bringing the two together. In essence teaching is a problem-solving activity – we want x to learn y – how can we construct lessons to enable them to learn, having identified the likely learning problems they’ll have … and that of course means teaching is linked to …
Some of my happiest moments have been spent with a blank sheet of paper, a set of objectives in terms of content and process and a defined number of teaching sessions – how can I make it work? What do I have to allow for? What will they struggle with? How can I make each session enthusing and part of a logical, inter-connected sequence? Do I need to build in time to learn their names? Will there be space to wander down a byway? How can I ensure there’s space for a proper conclusion and debriefing? Of course the key to most planning is to plan backwards – in KS3 by starting with Y9 [if you have 3 years] and then working backwards – but that’s another blog.
Much of this was based on ideas I’d heard about at conferences, which links to …
Sense of community
Inspiring, refreshing, thought-provoking, exhausting, laughter-inducing – that’s the sense of community, most evident at SHP conferences, HA conferences and other good CPD events. That’s when you realise there’s lots of other history-teaching compulsives out there. I’ve lost count of the number of teachers who’ve commented at their first SHP conference that it’s been so wonderful to discover they’re not alone in their passion and creativity. And increasingly it’s fun and educational to listen in to the history teaching community via their websites, blogs and on twitter – the sharing of ideas via twitter is well-worth plugging into if you don’t do so already.
In conclusion – The Magic 8-sided Triangle
Having said all that, it’s important to maintain perspective. My, our, passion isn’t everyone’s and society will not grind to a halt if there are no history teachers – though it will if we have nobody to empty our bins or unblock our sewers. In 1349 people didn’t pass regulations to bring in more history teachers – but they did clean the streets. My Dad knew almost no history (he used to tell me he once got 3% in a history exam) but joined up on the first day of World War Two and was in every sense a ‘good man’. My wife knows little history (apart from the history of photography) but spent her professional life as a consultant engineer, work of much greater practical utility, benefitting many more people, than anything I have ever done. You don’t need to know or like history to be an exemplary citizen or person.
That point seems particularly relevant in relation to KS3. That’s when I think the minstrel and teacherly qualities in my Magic Triangle have to dominate because with that age-group it’s enthusiasm that counts most of all, however well-thought out the knowledge and process objectives may be. Maybe we should come up with some ‘assessment levels’ that reward children’s enthusiasm for history and the joy of finding out about the past?
And that’s as good a place to end as any – with an 8-sided triangle that explains why I’ve found history teaching so compelling across four decades.
I told you it was magic. Thanks, Sam.
This Episode 1 has maybe seemed a bit egocentric and backward-looking but it’s felt important to set out the fascinations and personal interpretations of history teaching as a springboard for what will follow. My main purpose will be to use the past to look forward – very SHP!
In future episodes I hope to discuss topics such as teaching about sources, planning at KS3, 2 year KS3 courses, enquiry, writing textbooks, maybe the new GCSEs, thematic/development studies, knowledge and assessment … whatever seems fun and worthwhile to write about!