The day-to-day importance of having a degree.

There have been many excellent responses critiquing the new proposal to open up teaching to non-graduates (for anyone who didn’t see eduTwitter blow up – see https://schoolsweek.co.uk/greening-teaching-will-cease-to-be-only-for-university-graduates/amp/) which both focused on the details of the policy as described and which made powerful cases for the importance of the subject knowledge having a degree gives you. While I have no original arguments to add, I do have the experience of teaching two subjects up to A Level, one in which I have an undergraduate and postgraduate degree, History, and one in which I have a long-held interest but no formal qualifications, Politics. (Yeah my Masters degree did include a study of political thought, but let’s just say, I’m no expert in electoral systems) In an average day, having a degree in one and not the other does make a huge difference to my teaching, in order to illustrate how, I’ll take you through last Tuesday, when, as usual, I taught both subjects in the course of the day.

7.45 am – A pile of Personal Statements.

The deadline for Oxbridge applications is closing in and as I am the go-to person in the department for this, I often come in the office in the morning to find a queue of slightly sheepish sixth-formers by my desk, bearing their personal statements. On Tuesday morning it’s Anna’s turn; she’s applying for HSPS at Cambridge and she wants me to check over the paragraphs I told her to revise at our last meeting. Anna has a keen interest in the politics of international aid and I check the paragraph that she has devoted to it to see whether she has followed my advice and foregrounded the reading she has done. She has, mentioning books that I have never read, but whose arguments she is able to summarise clearly and with enough confidence to take her own view on their validity. Having satisfied myself that she can explain her reading to this layman, we chat for a while longer, discussing how she can re-structure some other paragraphs so that they look less like a list of accomplishments and more like a sustained explanation of why she wants to study the subject. The crucial thing is, that while I can advise her on structuring her case, and while I have the general knowledge to be able to pick up any obvious missteps, the expertise in this case is hers. Rewind to this time last year, when I was advising a student who was applying for History and who had an interest in Golden Age Spain and its empire in the Americas. Even though it wasn’t an area I had specialised in, I had encountered aspects of the field while studying units on religious persecution and witch-hunting during my degree, as well as researching theories of empire for my dissertation. This meant that I was able not only to lend her my copy of Toby Green’s Inquisition and Pagden’s Lords of All the World, but I could also then discuss them with her in depth while helping her to craft her statement. This continued when it came to practice interviews, as I was sensible that the questions I directed at her were much more rigorous than those I will spring on the students applying for HSPS and PPE this year. My subject specialism grants me the knowledge of key debates within the discipline of History, which helps me to more effectively predict the kinds of questions that experts in the field might ask.

Periods 1 to 5 – Teaching Politics and History.

The differing levels of skill with which I approach personal statements might only seem relevant to a small group of students, however, as I carried on into the part of the day where I have the majority of my teaching load, the distinctions between how I operate as a History teacher and how I approach Politics continue. My first double lesson of the day is with my Upper Sixth Politics group and I had planned to focus on partisanship in the USA. To help me teach, I had the notes that I had made while teaching through the course last year, the research I had done while planning the lesson and the knowledge I have picked up from regular reading of the Washington Post and a serious addiction to the podcast ‘Pod Save America’. However, halfway through the lesson, a student asked me to explain the peculiarities of the party balance in New Hampshire and the success that libertarian politics has there, and, having no answer to hand, nor having the broad knowledge of political science to make an educated guess, I had to ask him to get back to me on it.

Obviously this wasn’t the end of the world, but it did mean that I missed the opportunity to turn his question to my advantage in building their knowledge. It was a different story with my sixth-form History class later that day, when a stray question from a student about why people felt the need to burn heretics led us off on an important diversion about the importance of the community over the individual in the Early Modern world, and the concomitant belief that the entire community could be judged by God for the actions of an errant member. This is not just a feature of sixth form lessons, in History I can fill in the places where the textbook is silent with my Year 8’s, by explaining that the protests against Charles I’s new Prayer Book in Edinburgh were not spontaneous, but were in fact carefully planned. I can also supplement the planned card-sort on the Battle of Hastings with my Year 7’s by having a discussion about why cavalry might be such a devastating military technology to deploy against an army relying on its shield-wall. The crucial point is, because I have undertaken a wide-ranging, rigorous course of study at university (as well as a PGCE that placed consistent emphasis on the importance of subject knowledge), I not only have detailed topic knowledge about certain key areas I also have secure period knowledge in general. This means that I can not only answer questions, but I know how to best utilise the answers to drive my students’ understanding further. My Politics students will find that I am able to answer most questions they put to me that are relevant to the topic of study, as well as some additional ones if I’ve encountered the subject in my wider reading. But I will not be able to open all of the doors to further knowledge for them as I could do in History, because I do not have the secure background in the subject that allows me to find the handles.

Tuesday PM – Planning.

Ok, so what if the teacher misses a few opportunities to drive the students’ knowledge on, they can still plan a lesson that ensures they essentially get the knowledge they need right? Well, yes, but not quite to the same standard, as can be seen by the planning I did during a free lesson in the afternoon. I scheduled this time to tackle a Year II lesson and a Politics lesson for Year 12. In both cases, I’m struggling a bit with the new courses so I was approaching this task with no great enthusiasm. In the case of the History lesson for Year 11, the new AQA ‘Power and the People’ course requires me to cover a lot of content in a short amount of time, leaving me with the conundrum of how to communicate pretty complex historical processes in a short amount of time. Luckily, I have that fund of period knowledge to back me up, so when faced with the task of planning a lesson that introduces the Chartist movement I can quickly think of a starter activity using an extract from Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy and a section from the 1715 Riot Act. I can also easily work out how to best construct the subsequent activities by hooking them in with the Peterloo Massacre, then exploring the conditions that produced it and its impact on the rise of the Chartist movement. While planning this lesson I use the textbook as a general guide and resource for the students, but I feel perfectly confident in moving elements of the story round and adding elements so that it suits my purposes.

Contrast this with my Politics planning, where I am dutifully following the order of topics outlined by the textbooks, supplemented with relevant newspaper articles and some resources I adapted from last year. The lesson plan I produce is perfectly functional, but it is qualitatively different to my planning for History, which is not always inspired (particularly if I’ve left it to Friday evening) but which normally comes from a place of secure substantive and disciplinary knowledge and which is therefore more effective at developing these things in the students. Again, my degree in History comes into its own, the topic, period and historical knowledge I gained during it gives me the secure foundation that is necessary for any creativity in lesson planning as well as making the whole process a lot faster as a lot of the knowledge I willed is at my fingertips, rather than buried in the textbook or at the other end of an internet search. This is important beyond the planning of next week’s lessons because it is the same process that I will be going through when I revise schemes of work during the summer term. The knowledge I gained during my degree frees me from being tied to textbooks and specifications, and allows me to work out what combination of the materials I am given to work with will make a coherent historical story.

Tuesday Evening – Marking

Fast forward to the evening, when I am trying to plough through marking some assorted essays before I go home. Now surely I will mainly be using a mark-scheme and, at a pinch, I can easily look things up, how exactly does my degree help me here? Well, not only is it a lot faster to be able to instantly recognise when a student has mixed up the Lincolnshire Rising and Kett’s Rebellion again, rather than laboriously looking it up, it also means that I can recognise what makes a good historical essay in ways the mark-scheme doesn’t always cover. That’s not because I’ve read some history teacher handbook which contains the golden rules, nor because I’ve spent some frustrating hours trying to work out what exactly the examiners are asking for. It’s because I’ve written an awful lot of historical essays myself; some bad, some indifferent, some good, at least one a week during term time for the three years of my degree. I know what it looks like when you’ve carefully planned and marshalled your evidence or hurriedly skimmed a couple of books for some seemingly relevant facts at the last minute, I can recognise the tell-tale signs of an analysis based on a misconception, or one based on good understanding because I have done all of these things myself. In the process I developed the disciplinary knowledge that allows me to assess a piece of historical writing for its strengths and flaws, and to do so rapidly. In Politics however, I must rely totally on the mark-scheme, not having had the experience of ever writing a paper that was purely about either political science or theory. A mark scheme can help me assess how well a student might do in an exam, and I have become reasonably adept at judging which of my Politics students will do so, but it can’t give me the full picture that I have of my History students, which allows me to judge whether they are becoming good historians.

After this I went home and spent part of the evening reading, you guessed it, a history book, party because I wanted to and partly because I took a degree some years ago that got me into the habit. The case I have made here is one that applies specifically to History, but I make no special claims for my subject. From Physics to Theology, degree courses inculcate in those that take them, whether they like it or not, a fund of substantive and disciplinary knowledge. When some of those who graduate stumble into teaching, this gives them the intellectual confidence to not just deal with, but exploit the students’ curiosity to take their knowledge further, to recognise what excellence in their subject looks like and to take the curriculum and shape it into something that makes sense for their subject, and even to criticise it when it merits one.

And if that does not persuade you of the importance of having a degree in the subject, I invite you to come and observe me covering a Geography lesson – who knew that plate tectonics could be quite so complicated?

 

17th century climate change – A lesson evaluation for a bit of a damp squib

In a previous post I outlined some of the planning I did for a two-lesson enquiry on 17th century climate change. As is so often the case, what seemed elegant when planned out on paper at the height of the summer holiday, collided with classroom reality in a way that left the plan looking rather tattered around the edges. And I’ll be honest, slightly scuffed is an apt description of how I felt when I walked out of the second lesson of the enquiry. Fair enough, it was the end of period seven on a Friday, but part of the reason was that, having started well, the enquiry hadn’t quite achieved all I had thought it would when I was enjoying a pleasant mid-morning coffee in the middle of August.

In fact, had I done anything more than hurriedly writing down a few notes on the lesson immediately after the fact, I would probably be writing it up on here as a comprehensive failure. However, at the time I had a small pile of personal statements and assorted bits of marking to prioritise over the weekend, so I was given valuable space to reflect upon the enquiry and to view it in a more objective light.

So, as I frequently demand of my sixth formers, by what criteria was I judging the outcome of the enquiry sequence? As I’d planned to have the students read extracts from Parker’s ‘Global Crisis’ during the lessons, and as it was the work that inspired the enquiry in the first place, it makes sense to start by looking at with what makes Parker’s account so effective. Returning to the text, and particularly to the opening of Chapter Eleven, where Parker begins to discuss the Stuart monarchy, I noticed two key elements.

Firstly, Parker’s account is structured as a narrative, but one where the elements of the story are carefully positioned in order for them to have explanatory power.So, when Parker positions a paragraph describing the crisis in the Palatinate directly after one detailing religious tensions within James I’s kingdoms, as a reader, I can easily draw out the connections myself. This leaves Parker free to avoid all of the awkward ‘linking phrases’ with which our students are so often advised to spell it out. There is no slightly clunky repetition of ‘this led to’ here, Parker largely confining himself to constructions like ‘too’, ‘shortly after’ and ‘although’ to get his meaning across. Secondly, Parker’s account is concerned with a specific historical moment, His description of events is awash both with concrete historical detail; (e.g. references to Charles’ ill-fated trip to Madrid and the resulting ‘Happy Parliament’) and with knowledge of the period. Parker constantly moves between the specific register of names and dates to evoking broader trends of the period such as tension between different forms of Protestantism and the changing balance of power within the Holy Roman Empire. If you checked through Parker’s piece while referring to the diagram of types of substantive knowledge from Hammond’s wonderful article in TH 157, you’d be seeing evidence of topic, period and historical knowledge woven through the whole thing.

If this was the standard towards which we were working, then how did my students’ work fare?The paragraphs pictured below were written by one of my students at the end of each lesson. I think they illustrate one of the key problems with the work the students produced, and that was the lack of topic knowledge.

Paragraphs produced by Student 1: 

Lesson 1:

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Lesson 2:

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The first paragraphs include a really nice link between the hardships caused in the 17th century and the rise in population caused by good conditions in the 16th. She also displays a general awareness the dependence of 17th century people on staple crops such as rice, as evidenced by her references to the fall in production caused by fall in temperature. However, alarm bells start to ring when you notice the slippage in tense from ‘was’ to ‘is’, combined with the anachronistic term ‘citizens’ (having spent a significant part of last year researching substantive concepts, I winced at this). The paragraph that the same student wrote at the end of the second lesson displays many of the same problems as it consists of a set of general propositions about climate change making people hungry and therefore more liable to engage in unrest. The student adds some explanation of the difficulties this might cause for foreign policy, but without any reference to fractious Scots, war with Spain or any of the details about the start of Charles’ reign that were contained in the Parker extract they had read during the lesson.

Paragraphs produced by Student 2: 

Lesson 1:

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Lesson 2:

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The paragraphs produced by the second student show that this is not a one-off. Again, the student explains the impact of climate on food production, and the implications that dearth might have for prosecuting warfare successfully. There is also some general period knowledge about the importance of religion, but the lack of topic knowledge is also clearly present here. This has an impact on the structure as well as the sense of both students’ work – without the ability to deploy historical detail specific to the era about which you are writing, producing a coherent narrative is impossible. In both cases therefore, the students have fallen back on explanation – an explanation that very effectively illustrates some of the problems that climate change did cause in the period, but which says very little about the impact on Charles specifically.

When I set this down in black and white, it becomes pretty clear that one of the major problems with this enquiry was that the students just didn’t know enough yet. While the bulk of each lesson involved engaging with extracts from Parker’s book, the topic knowledge they encountered there was not translated into their paragraphs. What is interesting is that, aside from a few terms that are out of place, the elements of period and historical knowledge are much stronger. In the case of period knowledge, most of the work produced by the class mentioned the importance of religion and the threat of religious conflict, both of which are key aspects of the era. Equally, the dependence of the population in this period upon staple crops was also a key part of the students’ reasoning. In most cases, this was also linked to an awareness of the historical force of hunger and the propensity for conflict to arise under adverse conditions, as well as the difficulties that assail rulers trying to keep civil order or pursue foreign policy objectives during times of want. As I observed earlier, it is in the specific topic knowledge that, in the main, the students’ responses are lacking.

So why might this be? I have two possible theories at the moment. The first is to do with circumstance: due to a mixture of time constraints and the decisions I made when planning the lessons, most of the class discussion focused on the general rather than the particular. In the first lesson, the students had ample time to discuss the resource I gave them on the causes of climate change in the 17th century and to read and talk about the first extract from Parker. In the second lesson, a mixture of the lassitude caused by Friday afternoon (and that’s just me), my own concern that we get something written down and the fact that I tried to do too many things at once by steering the discussion towards how Parker structured his account rather than its content meant that time was limited. Having insufficient time to really work through the extract from Parker in detail, the students fell back on what they already knew. So far, it seems pretty obvious.

However, it is this question of knowledge that underlies my second theory, and I think it probably gets closer to the heart of the matter. Returning to the two extracts from Parker that I used, it strikes me that there is a clear difference between them. The first is a survey of general conditions in the 17th century and one tightly focused on the impact that climate change had on each region. The students, using pre-existing historical knowledge about pre-industrial societies and the forces that drove revolt drawn from their work on the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt, as well as the period knowledge set out in the piece, were able to reason with it relatively easily. The second extract however, concerns itself with the specific conditions present at the start of Charles I’s reign, and mentions the climate as one among a variety of other factors that made his situation difficult. Using that as a basis for their own explanation about how the climate posed challenges for Charles required them to make an extra jump in their reasoning, linking the various problems that afflicted the early years of Charles’ reign to the broader climate crisis. It is unsurprising then, that, without the knowledge basis and given insufficient time, that the students would resort to generalities.

So was it all a dead loss then? I don’t think so. The first thing I think I’m going to do is to continue returning to the question of climate as I teach the forthcoming enquiry on the causes of the Civil War. It will be interesting to see whether my theory about their knowledge is correct when I see if they include the question of climate change more successfully in the essay they will produce at the end of that enquiry. The second is that I think I also want to explore the question of historical narrative in a bit more detail. This is because I think this might also be connected to the problem in a way that I haven’t articulated yet, and also because I have been struggling mightily with the ‘write an account’ question that appears in the new AQA GCSE syllabus. Which just goes to show, even damp squibs of lessons can have their uses.

***

Below is the planning table I completed for the lessons, for anyone who is curious. If you would like to teach a similar enquiry and would like to use any of the resources – just email me or contact me on Twitter and I’ll be happy to send them over to you.

Lesson 1 Activities Commentary
Starter Discussion: What do the students understand about climate change?
Activity 1 Give them the diagram of the causes of climate change.

Students need to read through it and summarise why climate change made things difficult for people living in the 17th century in no more than three sentences.

(One thing I’m going to be very careful to do is to distinguish the climate change that occurred in the 17th century from that which is happening today as the latter has been caused by human activity and the former was not.

Following on from the principle of giving them the information and then working out it’s implications. These summarising activities are something I often do with the students – I got the idea from doing practice History Aptitude Tests with the sixth-formers and I think it’s a good historical skill.

Activity 2 Discussion: How might the impacts on everyday life seen in the diagram affect those in charge of ruling the country? Most of the students will have discussed the impact that the Black Death had on society and government in the 14th century, it will be interesting to see if they can make the same kind of links between natural phenomena and problems of government.
Activity 3 Give them a map of the world as it was organised in the 17th century – Pose the question: which of these countries would you want to rule?

Give them an abridged copy of a section from Parker’s introduction to his chapter introducing ‘The Little Ice Age’

Final question: Has anyone changed their minds about which country they might want to rule?

Dual purpose here – firstly making them aware of the different political division of territory in the 17th century and secondly making them think a little bit harder about what kind of regions/states might be easier to control.

When I say abridged, I don’t mean to adapt it too drastically, maybe just alter some of the more technical terms and remove references to historiographical debates that might prove distracting. We have been trying to introduce more moments were the students will engage directly with historical scholarship in the KS3 schemes of work so while this might be challenging, it should not be a task beyond the capabilities of the students in the class.

Lesson 2  Activities Commentary
Starter Recap on the timeline activity they did in the Year 8 introductory lesson – making sure they are secure in who James I and Charles I were and when they ruled. If time, ask them to recall last lesson and predict some of the problems they might have.
Activity 1 Give them the second extract from Parker. Get them to read through it for the first time, asking them to highlight or underline anything that they are not sure about. Then discuss anything that comes up. Again, minimal abridgement done here, I tried to leave in as many topic-specific terms as possible, putting up a glossary on the board.
Activity 2 Ask them to read through it again, this time getting the students to identify the key problems Charles has and if he links any of them to climate

Class discussion

This was the weakest activity, especially as we had minimal time for a proper class discussion that might have ironed out some of the problems.
Activity 3 Ask the students to write a paragraph answering the lesson question – Why did the climate make things hard for Charles? It’s possible I might have got better results if I had sacrificed this and extended the discussion – asking them to do it for homework. But I felt it was important that they rounded off the enquiry with some writing in class.

Some principles for running a reading group.

However well-prepared I think I am, it’s always a bit of a shock coming back to school after the summer holidays.

In my case, my voice went on strike on Thursday afternoon and my feet are making mutters of protest that are becoming progressively harder to ignore. It therefore served as a significant boost to my spirits yesterday when, while I was standing in the bleary-eyed queue at the coffee machine in the canteen, I was accosted by a couple of my sixth form politics students who both wanted to know whether I would be carrying on with the reading group this year.

I was able to reassure them that we would be meeting as usual, and it prompted me to write a little about it here as it has been one of the most reliably enjoyable things that I have done while at my current school. I started it last year, initially as a result of my unease about how little independent reading the would-be Oxbridge candidates that I had been mentoring in the previous year group had done, but it has become one of those rare undertakings that become more ambitious in their aims and scope as time goes on rather than less.

So below are a few key principles that I have developed over the course of last year, and which will inform my running of the group as we start this one. They probably won’t cover any and all of the possibilities and pitfalls involved, so I’ll have to cover them this time next year, if my ability to type doesn’t go the same way as my voice.

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1. Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised about who will come.

As I said previously, this was initially conceived and presented as, if not intended solely for Oxbridge applicants, then primarily for those who were seriously considering studying History, Politics or related subjects at university. Certainly, many of the students who come are interested in these things, but as the year progressed some of the most consistent attenders and enthusiastic members of the group were a sixth-form student who dropped Politics entirely to focus on her science courses, but who not only continued to turn up to my Politics lessons, but who was also one of the students asking about whether the club will continue this year. Another was the Year 11 boy who wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do A Level wise, but was quite clear in his wish to turn up on a weekly basis and read about the history of the Middle East. As evidence of love of the subjects involved for their own sakes, it hardly gets better than this, and it has made me much more ambitious in my thinking about who the group is for.

2. Let them choose individual books, their enthusiasm for them will often be contagious.

One of the first things I decided was that I didn’t want everyone to read the same text simultaneously, in the manner of a traditional book group. This was because one of my primary aims for the group was for the students to develop their individual historical or political interests; or explore existing ones, beyond the curriculum. Reading along with a prescribed set-text would seriously get in the way of this, as well as eroding the distinction, which I was hell-bent on maintaining, between the club and some kind of additional study session. Therefore, it is normal practice for each student to take a different book home and we start each session by going round the table, every student submitting something interesting that they have read in the previous week. While not having everyone on the same page, so to speak, has involved a trade-off in that we can’t collectively discuss a single issue in depth, I think there is also merit in a conversation that can pinball between the causes of the American Revolution, the consequences of the Arab Spring and what exactly Early Modern people wore as underwear. One of the key developments that has given me confidence in this policy is seeing how one student’s contributions about their book will often see it snatched up by another as soon as they have finished reading it.

3. Go for the weird, wonderful, controversial and wide-ranging works that they wouldn’t normally get to cover in the classroom.

Anyone who has had the dubious privilege of shadowing me around a bookshop that does a three-for-two offer on new history books will be aware that I am powerless to resist the lure of a shiny new paperback promising a different take on an old historical question or to uncover a previously un-mined stream of historical enquiry. It was not solely this magpie tendency that led me to focus on comparatively new historical works, it was also because I wanted the students to be excited by the variety and ambition of current scholarship.

This was also a consideration in my refusal to be constrained by perceived difficulty and certainly not by the length of the works chosen, I was confident that the students could tackle the kinds of books laid out temptingly in Waterstones for the interested lay reader and they have proved me right by tackling Chernow’s brilliant but sizeable biography of Alexander Hamilton, Frankopan’s ‘Silk Roads’ and other equally ambitious projects with every evidence of enjoyment. One of the things that allows this to happen is that, unlike in their classrooms there is no looming deadline after which they must have completed a set amount of reading. The student reading Chernow’s ‘Hamilton’ has taken most of the year to do so, but I would argue that she has got as much out of the experience as those who have rattled through a good selection of my bookshelf in quick succession.

The final consideration that influenced my choice of reading materials was that I wanted it to be as wide-ranging as possible in its subject matter, particularly avoiding subjects covered in exam rubrics or recommended reading lists for the courses they were covering. This was mainly because I was keen to avoid the trap of the reading group becoming a supplementary history lesson, but also because I wanted the students to get an idea of the vast fields of fascinating historical enquiry that we could never hope to cover in the short time we are given with them. So I decided to populate the bookshelves with medieval queens, Sogdian merchants, 1950’s housewives and 17th century witch-hunters, rather than more familiar fare. While initially some of the students played it safe, though I’m sure reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘The Romanovs’ did none of them any harm (and having only a single copy allowed those who didn’t get it first to read outside of their comfort zone while they were waiting for it). But as noted earlier, the enthusiasm displayed by students who sampled less familiar themes was communicable, a result achieved with little effort on my part beyond presenting them with a range of interesting books and giving them an entirely free choice.

4. Do your own reading as well, both because they will accept few excuses and because you’ll enjoy it.

In the interests of setting an example, I knew from the start that I would also have to take part in the process of reading and discussing at the start of each session. This wasn’t exactly a hardship, but it did mean that I had to do something about my awful habit of keeping several books on the go at once, so if nothing else, organising this club served to reduce the teetering pile of intermittently neglected books on my bedside table! Having to sit down on a weekly basis and discuss my reading with the students served as a spur to resurrect my reading habits, that had fallen off slightly under the pressures of marking, reading for the courses I teach and minor issues like keeping my flat in a habitable condition.

5. Make sure you have a back-up

It happens, the majority of the group are either in the sixth form or Year 11, so inevitably a coursework deadline or a mock exam occasionally got in the way and the student in question hadn’t had the opportunity to pick up their book in the course of the week. The result of this was that the discussion of the reading could be curtailed, or had to be carried by those happy few students who hadn’t chosen three coursework subjects. To deal with this, I took to bringing in an article each session for everyone to read if conversation flagged. This proved so effective that I made a habit of it for its own sake. While I was determined that the focus should not shift to a system of weekly ‘required reading’ that would leave less room for the students to pursue their own interests, having an article to hand did provide an important safety valve and a prod to flagging conversation. (It also meant that I was able to uncover some gems from the archive of the London Review of Books – notable for the hilarity it provoked was this article about the history of menageries, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n24/mary-wellesley/no-looking-at-my-elephant )

6. Persist through the awkwardness of being a conversational umpire

While none of the students who are the regular attendees of the club can be described as shy about expressing their views, I did initially have the problem, common to class discussions, of having every observation directed at me rather than at the other students, which did mean that there was a certain amount of awkward redirection of the conversation on my part. I have heard many solutions proposed for this problem, but I have yet to find anything that works quite so well as persistence and time. In this case, as the students became progressively more comfortable with each other, and as their reading gave them increased confidence in their expertise, I ended up acting much more frequently as a participant in the discussion, rather than its director. I imagine that there may be some steps back on this front as I recruit some members from the new lower sixth, though if, as seems likely, some of the upper sixth will return, I will be able to delegate some of the conversational heavy lifting to them as well.

7. Always make sure that tea and biscuits are available. 

It’s possible that there is quite a bit of self-interest behind this one, and it certainly has a bolstering effect on my blood-sugar levels at the end of along day. It does however, have a larger point, turns out that there is little that can convince students that what they are taking part in something altogether more rarefied than the supplementary study clinics or revision sessions that they are used to, than buying a set of mugs from Ikea, allowing access to the staff room kettle and making sure that there is a plate of HobNobs available. (I wouldn’t recommend bringing in fig-rolls though, that really didn’t go down well.)