Working with Historians and Historical Interpretations in Schools: Event Report

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Arthur Chapman’s introduction to the day

Arthur introduced the day by problematising the use of historians in the classroom. Those present were reminded of the very narrow approach taken to historical interpretations, considering academic writing alone with an exam-board driven focus on evaluating historical interpretations with a view to identifying a ‘more correct’ version. Students need access to historical interpretations in all of their complexity, looking at how historians formulate questions, the genre of writing that they use, the focus of their work and the research strategies behind them. Arthur reminded those present to look at all forms of interpretation, and offered the helpful language of thinking about histories, whether they be ‘academic’ or more popular forms, are reconstructions of the past and the purpose of the history classroom is to ‘deconstruct’ them, unpicking the journey that has been taken from the traces of the past to the representations offered up today.

Introducing historians into the classroom

Warren Valentine, of Dartford Grammar School for Girls, followed this up by producing case studies of how he has used the introductions from academic histories of Weimar Germany and Revolutionary Russia in the classroom. Warren demonstrated the challenges that can come from trying to use academic historians to support students in working with summary historical overviews. David Hibbert, of The Weald School, reinforced this message of gradually building up students work with historical interpretations, by considering the importance of understanding the full process of writing history as part of a carefully planned progression model. Where Warren’s work showed how students can struggle to evaluate historical interpretations without understanding the process of writing history, David showed how this could be done. David shared his collaborative project with Dr Jason Todd (University of Oxford), which involved sharing with students an interview with Dr Yasmin Khan about how she came to be interested in the relationship between Britain and India in the Second World War. David’s work showed how to demonstrate historians as people and the challenges they face when working with evidence.

Holly Hiscox from d’Overbroeck school, similarly demonstrated the potential for making use of historians to show the process of constructing history. Where many teachers wince at the A-level coursework (“Non Examined Assessment), Holly has risen to the challenge of getting students to evaluate the historians they are asked to use in their independent research. As part of a seven lesson sequence Holly invited three historians into her school who discussed the challenges they faced in producing their written work. It was fascinating to hear that academics similarly struggle with word limits and this, among many other factors, has an influence on the end product. Supplemented with reviews of historians’ books, Holly’s work demonstrated the powerful ability of humanising the historian and unpacking the choices they make to complexify the process of writing history and dramatically changing their view of historians and the value of their writing.

The view from academia

Charlotte Crouch began the afternoon session introducing participants not only to her work on medieval French aristocratic women but on her work trying to bridge the gap between academia and the classroom. Charlotte told us about the mutually beneficial relationship that had been built up between PhD students at the University of Reading and PGCE students under the expert tutelage of Will Bailey-Watson at the Institute of Education at Reading. While PhD students learned some valuable pedagogical tools, these were exchanged for valuable subject knowledge. Charlotte exemplified the enthusiasm for PhD students to provide history teachers with what they want: primary source material and subject knowledge to correct the sense that “medieval history in school still feels like a man’s world.”

Dr Marcus Collins, of the University of Loughborough followed this up by bringing a sense of order to the disorder of the literature on the Beatles. Building on many of the themes of the morning session, Marcus gave those present a tour of the different genres of writing on the Beatles and how they have resisted historicization. It was fascinating to hear about the different directions academic texts and popular works on the Beatles have taken, with little to no overlap. Participants will have left Collins’ session inspired to reach into cultural histories of the twentieth century to introduce students to a wealth of different genres of historical writing.

Conclusions

Dr Hannah Elias from the Institute of Historical Research expertly chaired the afternoon session and an open forum in the afternoon. Hannah distilled the day into two key themes:

  1. How can a sustainable dialogue between historians and students (via their teachers) be established?
  2. How can classroom teachers be provided with the resources that support teachers in introducing a wider range of historical interpretations?

 

The commitment and enthusiasm of those that gave up on their time on a Saturday to attend suggests that there is certainly the commitment and interest in answering those questions. The readers of this blog are strongly encouraged to share their thoughts in the comments sections or asking their own questions of those who presented on the day who are certainly keen to continue discussing their work.

 

Warren Valentine, for HIESIG

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