On world history and a more ambitious curriculum (a response to the Secret Teacher that got out of hand).

At high-stress points of the term, I tend to avoid the Secret Teacher columns. (Whoever said ‘misery loves company’ never experienced the convergence of mock-marking, GCSE clinics and Year 9 reports – under these circumstances I will only tolerate re-runs of the Great British Bake Off and the sweetest, most diaphanous music.) However, when I saw the subject matter of last week’s column being shared around Twitter I couldn’t resist reading it as it touched on discussions I had been having with other teachers as well as complaints I had been making to my long-suffering friends and family. After reading it, I decided to procrastinate by posting some of my thoughts on Twitter. Now, even with the character-limit being extended, I still don’t think I fully explored the points I wanted to make, so as It seems that people are still talking about the article,

I thought I’d have another go at explaining why I took issue with it.


(For reference, here it is: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/may/26/secret-teacher-history-bias-school-fear-student-future )

Why this is an important discussion to have.

I can understand some of the frustrations that this type of article can provoke – the type of picture it paints of History classrooms leaves out some of the brilliant work that is being done. A quick glance at the archives of Teaching History from the last six-months throws up at least 4 articles discussing work being done that is explicitly directed at bringing to the fore previously ignored subjects of historical study or complicating ones that are already prominent. However, any historian is going to pose the question, ‘just how typical is this?’

The most recent Historical Association survey reported that a quarter of schools that responded had reduced the length of their KS3 to two years (and I’d be willing to bet that the proportion has gone up in response to the demands of the new GCSE’s) and even for those that have kept a three-year key stage 3, curriculum time for History is still limited. If we look at the demands of the National Curriculum, (from which many school are theoretically exempt – though quite a few continue to follow it with minor adaptations) in that time students are expected to cover:

1) The development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509
2) The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745
3) Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901
4) Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day – this must include studying the Holocaust.
5) A local history study
6) The study of an aspect or theme in British history that consolidates and extends pupils’ chronological knowledge from before 1066

And finally,

7) At least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments.

Now call me cynical, but while the examples of possible areas of study for this last requirement include Mughal India and Qing China, I reckon that a lot of schools emulate both schools I have taught and try to tie it in with the topic of empire mentioned in requirement 4, In many cases, this involves a study of the slave-trade. While I think that this should definitely be included and should be taught in the balanced, critical and complicated way urged by the Secret Teacher column, I also think that it is a massive missed opportunity to have that as the extent of study of the history of the wider world.

What’s the issue with the article then?

So I agree with the secret teacher that our curriculum is unbalanced, but where we part company is that I don’t think they’re ambitious enough. They propose the inclusion of the more negative aspects of the British Empire and a study of its continuing impact in countries that were once part of or were in some way affected by it, which is fair enough. But the question I posed (rather mischievously) on reading the article last Saturday was ‘does this still not make Britain and its history the measure of all things?’ To go into a bit more depth; while I don’t think that this is the Secret Teacher’s intention, the changes they propose could still result in a strange one-sided curriculum in which the histories of other countries only come into view with the first, threatening glimpse of British ships on the horizon and then, even once independence is gained, their story is still seen through the lens of the country that once colonised them.

The crux of the problem I think is contained in the argument from ‘relevance’ that is contained in the article – our curriculum should be widened because it is inadequate for giving students understanding of contemporary political problems like the Windrush scandal or the situation of Palestine. Now, I think arguing from relevance is a really poor justification for the study of History in general (Who decides what is relevant and how do we know that things we deem relevant now will continue to be so?) but here I think it really leads us astray. By arguing that we should broaden our curriculum to include more of the history of the wider world on the grounds of relevance alone we ignore the broader and much more important argument that it’s pretty bad history not to!

If I look at the points outlined in the National Curriculum and many of the non-statutory examples given, I can find a good argument for the inclusion of all of them, until I stop and consider what is being left out because they were kept in. I think that the Becket Dispute, the Break with Rome, the Glorious Revolution and the Liberal Reforms are all interesting and historically significant things about British history that students would benefit from learning about. But at the expense of the Silk Road, the international climate crisis of the 17th century, the French, Haitian and Russian Revolutions? I’m not so sure.

In an ideal world, this is the kind of argument that History departments would be having on a regular basis, with the relative significance of Anglo-Saxon England, the Seven Years War and the Ottoman Empire and which should therefore be included in the curriculum being fiercely debated. But I think that problem is that places that do this are probably the exception rather than the rule, not due to any lack on enthusiasm or commitment, but because of a mixture of statutory requirements, time pressures and department time (understandably) being focused on reacting to new exam specifications. The Key Stage 3 curriculum therefore, carries on being lopsided and the history taught within it is still explored through a primarily British lens, not out of conviction that this is the most significant and interesting type of history to teach in the time given, but through lack of any other options.

So what would I do? In the meantime, I agree with the Secret Teacher that the history of empire and its impact should be complicated (not fo the sake of relevance but because to do otherwise is to distort history). However, I would want to go further in striving to try and bring in international links in the other British topics and, more importantly, to make that ‘world history’ requirement count by exploring the potential options widely and teaching them on their own terms. Finally, I think that it is important for history teachers to continue critiquing the present curriculum and, for those not bound by it, planning alternatives that consider a wider geographical thematic and chronological approach, not on the grounds of ‘relevance’, but because there is a lot of interesting and significant history out there and while we can’t hope to include it all, we should certainly have a long and rigorous debate about what we do choose to teach.


A History Teacher’s Playlist


I have currently been struggling to post anything on this blog. in part this is due to a perfect storm of having three exam classes and two major administrative responsibilities coming to a head at once. Overall, I have not been dealing with having to spend my time chasing passport details and sending off event plans with very good grace, but one of the upsides is that I find admin work goes much more smoothly with a decent playlist in the background.

Music while working can be a vexed subject, I’ve known colleagues who regard their earphones as a necessary accessory while marking, whereas I require monastic silence otherwise the temptation to focus on anything but what is in front of me becomes too much. On the other hand, I’ve found that Cerys Williams’ show on 6 Music adds a lot to my enjoyment of any Sunday morning lesson planning I need to do. Finally, for any jobs that don’t require much mental engagement, such as form-filling, making displays or the Sisyphean task of getting my files in order, music is an absolute necessity.

So seeing as I don’t have much else of note to contribute at the moment and as it is currently Record Store Day (sorry if this is news, as I reckon most places will be closed now). I have put below my semi-organised, by no means comprehensive but guaranteed to make filing go faster ‘History Teacher’s Playlist’.

Queens, Witches, Cavaliers and Heretics:

The Elizabethan Session – The Shores of Hispaniola, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabeth Spells Death
The Tallest Man on Earth – King of Spain
Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament – Henrietta Maria
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – Three Witches
Sproatly Smith – The Mermaid of Marden
The Unthanks – Magpie
The Clash – English Civil War

Opening here with one of the albums I love the most, the product of eight folk musicians being locked in a house for seven days and given the brief of writing songs about the Elizabethan period. It remains one of my greatest regrets that I missed the premiere of the album at Hatfield House, but the album is good enough in any context . I found picking individual tracks difficult but I’d start with the searing opening indictment of the Elizabethan slave trade and then the spare and melancholy ballad of Christopher Marlowe, finishing with the fabulously dramatic evocation of the conviction of Mary Queen of Scots in ‘Elizabeth Spells Death’. The next two tracks on the playlist have much less historical pedigree as they relate to no particular kings of Spain or heretics that I can identify, but the beautiful guitar playing on ‘King of Spain’ more than makes up for a lack of historical specificity. ‘The Violence’ is another album I’d recommend in its entirety to all Civil War fans, but Henrietta Maria is the standout track in my opinion, even making this confirmed Parliamentarian a bit sympathetic towards its titular character. ‘Three Witches’ manages the trick of being a really affecting evocation of the feelings of accused witches as well as an excellent intro to the underlying economic causes of witchcraft accusations, which is quite an achievement. As to the final tracks, though ‘The Mermaid of Marden’ is a bit of a curio, dealing with a Herefordshire folk-tale about a bell made in honour of St Ethelbert and allegedly stolen by a mermaid, I like it too much not to include it here. As for bringing in The Clash’s ‘English Civil War’ to round this section off? I have absolutely no excuse beyond wanting to up the tempo a bit.

Sailors, Factory Workers and Scientists

Arbouretum – The Highwayman
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – Song for Caroline Herschel
Johnny Flynn – Barnacled Warship
The Transports – Us Poor Fellows, The Ballad of Norwich Gaol, I Once Lived in Service
Bellowhead – Rigs of the Time, Roll Alabama, New York Girls
Seth Lakeman – Race to be King, Solomon Browne
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – The Nailmaker’s Strike pt 2
The Unthanks – Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk
Lady Maisery – The Factory Girl, Palaces of Gold

I’ve grouped these songs together as they reflect more of an 18th-19th century world, though the opening track travels through time from highway robbery through to space travel in a way that only prog-folk can manage. Some of the standout tracks in this section come from an album called ‘The Transports’ which, with narrative interludes, effectively communicates the overview of early 19th century economic crisis and transportation to Australia through the depth of the story of a single family in a way that I can only envy. Bellowhead and Seth Lakeman are really good at describing the Atlantic world of the 19th century with songs about dissolute sailors, whalers and Liverpool merchants funding the Confederacy while also making you want to dance. As for the final three tracks, they brilliantly evoke the losers of the industrial revolution through songs about strike action, domestic violence and the widening gap between rich and poor (the purity of the singers’ voices on these tracks mean that they’re also really nice to listen to, for all their grim subject matter).

Protests, Revolution, War and Migration

The Young’Uns – Cable Street, Bob Cooney’s Miracle
The Destroyers – Rasputin’s Revenge
Gogol Bordello – 60 Revolutions per Minute
Seth Lakeman – Tiger
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – The Painter
The Young’Uns – These Hands, The Hartlepool Pedlar

The BBC Folk Awards and I were in complete sympathy in regarding ‘Strangers’ by the ‘Young’Uns’ as the best album of the year, the first two tracks I’ve taken from it are based on the individual stories of people who fought respectively at the Battle of Cable Street and in the Spanish Civil War. If I’m honest, the second two tracks have very little do with the Russian Revolution beyond a throwaway reference to overthrowing Tsars, but I can’t listen to them without drumming my fingers on the desk at the very least so they’re going in. Again, individual stories come to the fore in Seth Lakeman’s song about Exercise Tiger and the rehearsals for the D-Day landings (and there’s even an interview with the man who inspired the song on the album from which it comes) and Hannah Martin’s song inspired by her German grandfather’s experiences during WWII. This is carried on with two more tracks from the Young’Uns, the first of which is extremely topical considering recent headlines about the treatment of the Windrush Generation, while the latter manages to talk about Michael Marks in particular and migration in general all in one perfectly crafted song.

I said at the start of this post that I didn’t have much that was interesting to say, but through the process of writing this I have found that there is something more than a pleasant listen that can be taken from this. There is something in well-written songs, particularly those from the folk tradition, that manages that sharp focus on the narratives of individuals while also evoking the world in which they lived that we sometimes struggle with. So maybe next time I’m sitting down to plan with some music in the background, I might take some cues and see if I can’t craft a lesson that works like a song.

On the pleasures of historical thinking

It was late afternoon last Sunday and I was celebrating the start of the holiday by  Abraham_Bosse_Salon_de_damesstrolling happily around the Left Bank. In our excitement, we’d made our usual mistake of forgetting to stop for lunch earlier in the day and so we stopped to buy a baguette in a nearby boulangerie, tearing it into chunks and eating it as we walked. I was, as you might imagine, feeling rather satisfied with this turn of events, and my happiness was only increased because I had a fund of anecdotes the politics of bread in the Ancien Regime with which I could regale my poor companions.

I’m not starting with that particular anecdote in order to brag (and I extend a heartfelt apology to all those just finishing term), but because it ties in to something I’ve been thinking about recently, and that is how enjoyable historical thinking can be. The enjoyment of possessing historical knowledge and exercising it through the process of historical reasoning is a latent element to a lot of recent writing by history teachers (and I’m sure is present in other disciplines) but it is not usually made all that explicit. So, as a way of seeing out the year, I am going to write for a little while on the pleasures of historical thinking.

Let’s start back in Paris. Now one of the reasons why I frantically booked a weekend away in this city rather than any other in the dark days at the start of end of November was because it is my historical ‘turf’. Most history teachers reading this will have one, some will have more. It is that place where, due to historical knowledge acquired patiently over time, there is rarely a corner, street or wall that does not ‘resonate’ for you, that does not call up some anecdote or thread of reasoning from your memory. And it’s enjoyable, it is great fun to walk past the Louvre and have your mind call up the events of the Day of Dupes, through St Germain and the Marais while thinking about the socio-economic division of Ancien Regime Paris and to stand in the Palais Royal and to recall the events of the 12th July 1789. (It is especially pleasurable when you have a long-suffering captive audience who is forced to listen to every stray historical thought that occurs to you.) Now the subject matter might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve seen enough colleagues’ faces light up and suddenly reveal a fund of anecdotes at Ypres, Gettysburg, Hampton Court and numerous other places to know that the process is by no means unique.

You might point out that it is hardly surprising that I would enjoy wandering around Paris during my time off. However, the pleasures of historical thinking can also be found in more mundane places. I’ve made a concerted effort to read more historical scholarship this year after a bit of a fallow period and the hour or so a day that I have spent with a book, acquiring new knowledge and engaging with historical argument, has become time that I have looked forward to. Discussing that reading with students and watching them become confident enough with the historical literature they’re reading to be able to argue and even joke about it has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job this year. And even in the more day-to-day aspects, many people reading this will know of the pleasure of planning and executing a lesson in just the right way to illustrate a particular concept or instil a particular piece of knowledge. Many of you will also look forward to the lesson in which you know you’re going to talk about that particular event or roll out that particular story that you think is amusing, interesting and important to the matter at hand. (I have never yet had a disappointing reaction to the story of Ralph Morice and the swimming bear.) These joys that come from historical knowledge and the ability to inhabit a discipline are not less keen than the pleasure a musician feels when they first nail a piece, or a writer when they perfect a sentence, even if they are not always discussed in the same terms.

So why is this important? Well personally, I find it important because I’ve had one of those terms which has led me to google the dread phrase ‘routes out of teaching’ and it has mainly been these small historical pleasures that have kept me from browsing through the search results too seriously. More broadly I think it is important because while we, quite rightly, talk about the importance of history, its value in itself and for a range of ancillary purposes, we perhaps don’t talk enough about the enjoyment that you can gain from it. By this I don’t mean ‘entertainment’, the study of history can contain humour and anecdote and surprise, but must also contain a good amount of wrestling with complex intellectual problems and the consideration of events that are puzzling, bizarre and occasionally horrifying. But in its totality, the work of acquiring knowledge, calling it up once it has been acquired and applying it to some interesting intellectual problem can and does involve a significant amount of enjoyment, it can make you see battle lines in an empty field, bread riots in a baguette and worlds of possibility in a pile of newly acquired books.

So on that rather upbeat note, I hope everyone enjoys their well-earned break. I’m going to pour myself a drink, resolutely refuse to check my school email and, at some point during the post-Christmas fug, I’m going to remind myself of the pleasures of historical thinking that can take place equally the streets of Paris and in my classroom on a gloomy Thursday afternoon.


Thinking about evidence on the train – what kinds of questions should we be asking?

For all the associated benefits of waking up slightly later and being able to snWorld-of-Dreamseak off to Daunt Books at the end of the day, spending Monday in a conference centre getting feedback from our exam board would not be my first choice for how to start a week. However, it turned out to be useful in ways beyond the obvious, because the whole process got me thinking about evidence again. This was important because, under the stress of teaching the new A Level and GCSE courses for the first time, I had played it pretty safe with evidence at key stages 4 and 5, sticking closely to the requirements of the examination, despite frequently wanting to roll my eyes at them. I had read some excellent blogs by Michael Fordham  that covered the big picture of how the use of evidence could be overhauled in the History curriculum, but it wasn’t until last Monday that I really did some critical thinking about the way that evidence was used at A level.

In part this happened because of my reluctance to get on with my marking. It just so happened that, along with the essays that I fully intended to review during the train journey, (yeah right), I had also packed a copy of the 2015 Oxford History Aptitude Test. I had planned to read it through in the hopes of cannibalising it for an activity aimed at some students in my reading group who had expressed interest in applying next year. So it was that on my way home, having abandoned my marking beyond all hope but still feeling a little guilty about diving straight into my bookshop haul, I decided to compromise by looking at the HAT instead. In doing so I was immediately struck by some of the differences in how the HAT handled sources as compared to the A Level exam papers that I had spent the day examining.

The first element of interest was the assumptions contained within the question. On the sample A level paper we had been looking at, the question ran thus:

‘With reference to these three sources and your understanding of the historical context, assess the value of these three sources to a historian studying the Kronstadt Rising of 1921’

But on the HAT paper, this is how the question was set out:

 ‘What can this source tell us about Ratramnus’s understanding of the world, and the means by which he acquired it?’

There are some really important differences in emphasis here, (beyond the fact that the second question is rather more elegant than the first). The first area of difference is that the question in the HAT paper assumes that the source can and will tell us something about the area under investigation; it is inherently useful. Contrast this with the use of the phrase ‘assess the value’ in the A Level question, which opens up the possibility that one or all of the sources may have little or no value at all. Now this may seem like a nice distinction, and it must be acknowledged that at the examiner meeting we were urged to push our students to meaningfully engage with the possibilities presented by the sources, and to avoid simplistic ‘utility’ and ‘reliability’ assessments, however the shape the question takes will necessarily shape the direction of thought.  It would be very hard not to find anything of value in Ratramnus’s account after being steered towards engaging seriously with the source by the question, you could not guarantee the same kind of response from the A Level question.

One of the things that makes the source questions more effective on the A level paper rather than vague ‘how useful’ or ‘how reliable’ ones is the insistence in the question that the students interrogate the value of the source for a specific purpose. This is an important step forward, but I would argue that this purpose could still be more carefully defined. For instance, though we were told that students should not ‘check off’ the contents of the source against everything they knew about the event or issue that it was linked to, the question could be interpreted as steering them in that direction. By focusing on the value of the sources for telling us about a particular event, in this case the Kronstadt Rising, the question naturally focuses on the ‘accuracy’ of the source’s account. The HAT question, conversely, avoids that ‘checking off’ process by asking what the source can tell us about Ratrmnus’s understanding of the world, not the ‘realities’ of medieval geography. By focusing on his understanding of the world it becomes meaningless to assess how accurate his account is because that is clearly not the area of concern indicated by the question.

The final, and in my view, most important, element that I drew from the question was the contrast between the location of the ‘historian’. In the A Level question, they are an abstract figure, held at second-hand, whose priorities must be considered but not personally felt when assessing the value of the sources. The HAT paper on the other hand, assumes that the historian is the reader, their focus is the one indicated in the question, and as such they will examine the source on their own behalf. This is not to argue that the students reading both questions are not novices in the discipline, but I would also make the case that, by treating them as taking a historian’s perspective in their own right, the HAT question is both more direct and invokes more seriousness of purpose.

If we look at the ways in which the answers are to be assessed, further differences can be identified. The guidelines for examiners set out in the HAT paper are clear that, rather than forming part of simplistic assessment of reliability, the ‘values that mediated his [Ratramnus’s] analysis’ must be taken seriously. The mark-scheme states that top candidates should demonstrate understanding that Ratramnus was a ‘rational, knowledgable and religious person’ who had ‘consistent organising principles’ that structured his view of the world. To do well in answering this question, it is made clear that those writing must seek evidence of Ratramnus’s preconceptions and values as much as they should determine the specific claims he makes about reality, the two being seen as interdependent. Allowances are however, made for some attempts to weld Ratramnus’s perspective onto a sense of ‘what things were really like’. When it comes to the deployment of evidence, the mark scheme specifies that ‘markers should give some latitude for off-beat or (more probably) prosaic attempts to establish the concrete basis of this discourse’. This allowance makes it even more clear that the aim of the exercise is not to ‘check off’ the claims made by the source against the student’s knowledge of the period, but to see the claims of Ratramnus as equally important historical evidence.

By contrast, when we look at the mark-scheme issued by the exam board to guide examiners in assessing student responses to the question on the Kronstadt revolt, it is made clear that the students are expected to engage in testing the claims of the source against ‘the facts’. This can be seen in the commentary on a source written by Trotsky, which while it is recommended that students engage with the ideas that might have shaped his interpretation, reference is still made to the fact that it is difficult to ‘substantiate’ a claim made by the source, and ‘the reality’ of the situation is mentioned. Likewise, in the advice we were given by the exam board, we were told to encourage students to use phrases like ‘adds’ or ‘detracts from value’ when talking about provenance in particular, the implication being that it was possible to rank the value of the sources, arguably letting questions of ‘utility’ and ‘reliability’ in through the back door.

Why is this important? 

Now all this might be seen as me engaging in a bit of nit-picking, but I do think that the difference between the approaches of the HAT paper and the A Level question demonstrate that work still needs to be done on setting rigorous evidential questions. While I don’t think that A-Level students will behave in exactly the same ways that fully trained historians engaging in research will do, it makes little sense to me to teach them an approach to evidence that actively militates against many of the approaches used by historical researchers. Here’s where I fess up to the ‘provenance’ of my attitude in this matter, as someone who once did some research in the highly fashionable sub-field of intellectual history represented by the study of absolutism in New France (I can hear you yawning at the back), the approach in the HAT paper aligns much more closely with my experiences of using evidence. Of the two elements that I have isolated here – the relationship with historical ‘reality’ and the questions of the ‘reliability’ of provenance, the HAT question tacks much more closely towards the kind of questions I would have had in mind when approaching evidence. If, for example, I had encountered a piece of evidence that contradicted the accounts of events contained in the historical literature and in other pieces of evidence, this would not have been a reason to discount it as less valuable, in fact I would have paid it more attention in an effort to find out what the roots of the contradiction were. Likewise, when I was doing my MPhil research, the competing perspectives of Count Frontenac and the Intendant of New France, influenced by their competing political and philosophical perspectives, were crucial to my study of their dispute. Evidence somehow cleansed of these ‘biases’ or discounted on that basis would have provided thin gruel indeed for someone researching intellectual history, and to be honest, almost anything else.

That’s fair enough, but what bearing does it have on my A Level class? My observation would be that the HAT paper demonstrates that it is possible to set rigorous evidential questions that avoid some of the pitfalls that afflict the questions they are set in the exams. It seems a shame that some of the good evidential work that is being done at KS3 is interrupted once students hit key stages 4 and 5. Though we’re no longer in the frustrating position of having to coach students through assessing how ‘reliable’ a David Low cartoon is, there is still work to be done.

In the meantime, I’ll be preferring HAT papers along with the KitKats at the next meeting of my reading group.

A trip to America and two conversations about interpretations: objects not extracts.


While I could do without the jet-lag, one of the things I like best about my school’s trip to Washington and New York for our A Level students of History and Politics is that it often opens up opportunities for conversations we might not otherwise have the time to have. Sometimes these conversations can be a little bit controversial, especially when they take place in the Gettysburg gift shop.

To put this in context, most of the 30 sixth formers who were along for the ride were studying both US Politics at A Level, and were in the process of completing a piece of coursework that focused on the American Civil Rights Movement. They had also just come from a fantastic session on that history at the Washington headquarters of the NAACP. Therefore, they all had varying levels of understanding of the bitterly contested legacy of the US Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed, and, prompted by recent events in Charlottesville, most had been in lessons where the ‘confederate’ flag had been discussed and, in my lessons at least, the historical narrative of it being purely a symbol of southern pride had been challenged. It was therefore unsurprising that, while killing time waiting for our guide in Gettysburg, (a town not notable for its restraint in matters of Civil War memorabilia) alerted by the sound of furious whispering, I came upon a group of students standing in horrified fascination before a display of t-shirts bearing the Confederate flag and the legend ‘heritage not hate’.

Here was an opportunity to have a chat with my students about interpretations, but one that would be best seized after I had ushered them out of the shop and away from the beady eye of its proprietor. (Who had not only chosen to stock an awful lot of Confederate flag memorabilia, but who had also decided to cash in on the controversy within the NFL by displaying several t-shirts proclaiming ‘we stand for the flag’.)

The reason I was so keen to talk to my students was because I’ve been thinking a lot about interpretations recently. Part of this is due to the challenges of the A Level coursework, which requires the students to include a discussion of ‘interpretations’. Now like most examples of this element in the A level course, this would have been termed ‘historiography’ when I was at sixth form, as it involves researching and comparing the views of historians about the importance of different presidents or turning points in the movement.

This approach is also present in the part of the course which involves a breadth study of Russia (which I do not teach them) where they are required to answer questions focused on extracts from historical works. I was conscious that, as we have only recently overhauled our KS3 curriculum, weaving in more enquiries that involve an element of interpretations, these sixth-formers probably had a rather narrow idea of what a historical interpretation was. Having these objects in front of us, from the the statues in the Capitol building, to the Lincoln Memorial, to the troubling confederate flag t-shirt, was a really good opportunity to reinforce the idea of cheap t-shirts and stone monuments as being part of the fabric of historical interpretation, reflecting and even influencing the arguments advanced in historical scholarship. So we stood for a while on the grass outside the gift shop and I started a discussion about what the students had seen in there.

Interestingly, the students were not resistant, as I half suspected they might be, to the idea that a slogan on a t-shirt might contain a crude expression of a particular interpretation of history. The sticking point, with the confederate flag t-shirt was whether it could be classed as the interpretation because it represented a historical narrative that was contradicted by most available evidence and moreover, one that was used with harmful social and political effects. Agreeing with them on both points, I was nevertheless interested in asking them the following question:

‘Haven’t you come across interpretations that aren’t valid before?’

This was one of those irritating teacher questions where I already knew the answer, aware that a lot of their work on the Russia side of the course involves judging the validity of interpretations against their knowledge of the period. Many of these interpretations were also regularly challenged by the students on the grounds that their intent was to produce a narrative of history that suited a particular political perspective. (Needless to say, I’ve heard a lot of grumblings from colleagues marking these essays about the students’ persistent affection for that dreadful word ‘biased’.) Maybe is was because they had not encountered this interpretation in an extract set out in a textbook, but it took my prompting for them to see this t-shirt in a similar light, as historically inaccurate, politically harmful, but still a historical interpretation for all that. I would have liked to continue the conversation but unfortunately I was called in to assist with talking one of the students out of buying a large plastic rifle. This achieved, our guide turned up and we started our tour of the battlefield; which had its own competing layers of interpretations, so I’ll have to revisit the issue with them after half-term.

The second conversation occurred after we had left Gettysburg behind and were spending the final two days in New York. One of the most interesting and affecting parts of this section of the trip was a visit to the 9/11 museum. Obviously, it was a sobering experience, but from the perspective of my preoccupation with interpretations, one of the most interesting aspects of it was the conversation I had with some of my students afterwards.

For those reading who haven’t been (if you do get the chance to, I would recommend it) the structure of the museum is such that it opens with a series of recordings and artefacts that primarily serve as a memorial, the intent being to provide a space for remembrance and to provoke an emotional response. As you move into the centre of the museum, the events of the day are then told through a timeline, with artefacts and video to illustrate the events as they happened. As I walked around, I found this latter part of the museum more intensely affecting than the former, mainly because the act of reading over the sequence of events and particularly watching the clips from the news provoked my own memories of sitting in horrified silence in front of the television on the day, watching many of the events unfold in real time. This made me wonder whether my students, none of whom remembered the events personally, would have different reactions to me.

As we walked back from the museum I fell into conversation with some of them. As I suspected, our reactions to the initial recordings and objects were similar, the students mentioned the voice recordings from the day and from people talking about their experiences in the aftermath as particularly affecting. Our experiences diverged however, when it came to the timeline section of the museum. one of the students made the interesting remark that ‘the main bit seemed more objective, just telling the story,’ an impression with which the other students concurred.

This was really interesting to me in what it revealed about their perceptions of objectivity and also how it demonstrated the importance of the presence or absence of personal memory in affecting our differing interpretations of what we saw. Because the timeline set out in the museum intersected in part with my own timeline of that day, its effect was primarily to provoke my own memories of coming home from school and watching events play out on the news. For the students however, with no personal recollection of the events, the artefacts included provoked emotion, but the information about the events of the day was perceived as more informative, with less personal impact.

It was a privilege to have the time and space to have these conversations with the students, and its made me think about how we might take some of the careful thinking we’ve done about interpretations as part of the KS3 curriculum and apply it more systematically to the A Level course. As valuable as these conversations have been, opening up some of these ideas about what objects might be part of historical interpretations, their validity and differences in response to historical interpretation might be too important to happen by chance, even if the context of the classroom is a little less inspiring than gazing over at the Washington Monument and its mirror in the water below.

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:


Lesson 2:


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:


Lesson 2:


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.


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.)

17th Century Climate Change and Cold Coffee – Getting to an Enquiry Question

STC 25949, title page

The branch of Cafe Nero on the high street is always a bit of a risky proposition, as it happens to be a favourite meeting point for my students. There is always at least a 40% chance of having to encounter a large group of sixth formers hogging the sofas, who all then freeze in unison as I appear at the top of the stairs with my Americano. Nonetheless I decided to brave it last week because I wanted to think about how I could incorporate some of the wider context that I had read about in Parker’s Global Crisis into the enquiry we do on the English Civil War with our Year 8’s. I also wanted to do so in a place where I could access a steady supply of coffee.

I wrote rather enthusiastically about Parker’s Global Crisis in a previous post, both because it’s a fascinating and engaging piece of historical scholarship, and because I thought that it would be an exciting work for my students to engage with. To put this in context, I’ve been working on adjusting our Key Stage 3 schemes of work to include a more international perspective for a while. This is both because I think it’s historically important and because I have had students ask me about what is happening in the rest of the world while covering some of the key events of British History, and I would like to work on giving them some answers. So this seemed like a good opportunity, but one with limitations.

One of my key considerations had to be that while I am in charge of the  KS3 schemes of work in my department, I knew that emailing everyone (including two new members of staff) mid-way through the holidays going ‘hey, I read something really interesting during the break and therefore I am radically overhauling the Y8 scheme of work’ probably wouldn’t go down very well. I could have decided to put it off until next year, but I really wanted to try it out with the year group that was coming up. Therefore the best option for the moment seemed to be to plan a mini enquiry that would introduce  the seventeenth century climate crisis, before we started the sequence covering the causes of the Civil War.

That decision made, I now needed to work out what historical question I wanted my students to engage with and how I’d go about designing the enquiry that would allow them to do so. The focus of Parker’s work is on examining the link between the climate and the political crises of the 17th century, across the globe. An enquiry that used it, therefore, would naturally be inclined towards considering causation and similarity and difference. It was with this in mind that I came up with my first two possible enquiry questions:

Why was the 17th century ‘the century of the soldiers’?
Was the 17th century ‘an age of iron?

The problem with these was revealed as I started thinking about how the students would go about answering these questions  and ended up with about half a term’s worth of possible lesson questions to cover. In order to do justice to these enquiries, my students  would need to consider all of the following: why the climate changed at the start of the 17th century, why it was linked to political crises, whether it was the sole cause of political crises, why composite states and marginal lands were particularly affected, along with a host of other questions. This was potentially an interesting project for re-jigging the entire scheme of work for next year, but in this case I had allotted myself only a couple of lessons. I therefore needed to a) make sure that my students  could come to some kind of worthwhile conclusion, and b) link this sequence of lessons onto the enquiry about the causes of the Civil War that would follow. So I decided to have another go.

Was Britain particularly hard to rule in the 17th century?
Why was the job of ruling Britain such a difficult one in 1625?

Again, the problem with these questions were all the debates that might potentially  follow on from them. Britain in 1625 as compared to when? Britain in 1558 or Britain in 1603 or even Britain in 1714? Or possibly, Britain as compared to where? The Holy Roman Empire? Ming China? At this point I was beginning to fear that I had bitten off more than I could chew. To stave off despair, I opened the packet of biscuits I had meant to save for later and decided to have a think about what exactly it was that I wanted to achieve before I went back to the drawing board. The answer was that I wanted to give the students the idea that the English Revolution was taking place in a context of global climatic instability, and to help them make the link between really rotten weather and political crisis, without leading them down the path of over-determined causal explanations. Once I’d articulated this to myself, it didn’t take long before I came up with an enquiry question and lesson questions which, if not perfect, suited my purposes for this mini enquiry.

Enquiry Question: How did the climate make Charles I’s job difficult?

Lesson 1: Why did the climate make things hard for rulers?
Lesson 2: Why did the climate make things hard for Charles?

As you can imagine, by this time my coffee had become so cold that it was utterly undrinkable.