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.

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