Friday, 14 June 2013

On the stretching of brighter history pupils

The education twitter-sphere has been all a-buzz today with stuff about helping (or failing) bright pupils. I am not at all qualified to contribute directly to the debate; I can only recount my own experiences, and anecdotal evidence is not very valuable in such a case. Because of my work as an examiner I meet history teachers from scores of other schools every summer, and I do not think my approaches were in any way unusual. Yes, I taught at an independent school, so it was selective in terms of ability to pay fees. It was not very selective in terms of ability; plenty of our pupils did well to get C passes at GCSE with a couple of Bs thrown in.

However, I think I do have some credentials when it comes to helping bright history pupils make good use of their time in school. I do not know if there is a good way of measuring this, and I have no idea whether my department did as well or better than equivalent departments in Finland or in Shanghai. But we did have a fair number of former pupils who went on to get first class degrees at university. (Yes, that includes Oxford and Cambridge, if any one cares) Some of them have even become history teachers. Also I can affirm that helping the best pupils was something about which I cared deeply and to which I gave a fair amount of thought. My methods evolved and adapted over a longish career, but here are a few things that seemed to work for many pupils most of the time. They didn't work for a few pupils. One can always aspire to do better.

We laid great emphasis on free reading, both quantity and quality. I could buy dozens of books in Edinburgh's charity shops (a bit of luck with location, to be sure) for the price of a couple of new volumes, and our departmental library ran to hundreds. The excellent teacher who helped train me when I was on teaching practice (at University College School, Hampstead) refused to use text books at all with his sixth formers. They had to use proper history books written for adults. I tried, up to a point, to follow his advice, though I did find less able pupils needed the text-book crutch. But in general the principle is sound. For senior history pupils, text books specially written for school exams are a gateway to mediocrity, however “good” they are. It is possible to get very good marks indeed (super-As) at AS (England and Wales) and at Higher (Scotland) using such books, but they do little or nothing to encourage critical thinking, widen horizons, develop sophistication and so on – let alone prepare pupils for university.

This emphasis on free reading started with the juniors (and we had three years before exam-pressure kicked in). One of the things of which I was quietly proud was the History Reading Book Scheme. In theory every S1 and S2 pupil had a History Reading Book. I issued lists based on the school library, and there were general criteria for choosing a book not on the lists (“Ask me if it is OK”). The book had to be brought to every lesson, and it might be set for prep, read quietly for ten minutes at the start of a lesson, or, by fast writers, once a piece of written work had been finished. It saved hours of work setting up cover lessons when I was away on examining duties too. Once in the year there would be a mega-essay based on the reading book. I would set a specific title based on the book of their choice. This scheme was applied to all pupils, not just the brightest, but the brightest chose books beyond their years and used the essay to produce very remarkable pieces of work for twelve-year-olds.

As far as A2 work is concerned serious reading of adult history was taken for granted. Not everyone achieved the standards of the girl who read “Anna Karenina” in the summer holidays before we started Russian history, or the boy who read “The Kings Depart” over one weekend. But the encouragement and advice was available to all. If possible at some point in the course we found a fortnight to do a book review related to their A2 synoptic paper. They would choose a book and I could steer the brightest towards the more challenging works. During my very last year of teaching the OCR introduced a piece of coursework, Historical Investigations, that required the evaluation of several modern historians. I happened to have a very good class that year, and they rose to incredible heights. I regard this coursework, if properly done, as the most intellectually challenging thing I saw in my career.

At this point I am going to chuck in an advert. One of the things about my teaching – a weakness, some would think – was that I always liked to pitch everything just above the expected level for all classes. (I may say I got on pretty well with the Support for Learning Department and their charges. But that is the subject for another blog. Suffice it to say that the less able pupils don't like boring lessons either.)

(By the way I'm not at all happy with these concepts “brightest” and “less able”. That's for another blog too. Undeniably some pupils were more receptive, and more successful, at the sorts of things we tried to do in history courses.)

Back to the advert. When I retired my head was bursting with revision lessons I had given to my AS and Higher pupils and I wrote them down at high speed. They are not for the faint-hearted and some might find them pitched too high. One friend of mine who said he liked them is a Professor of Medical Ethics – a bit beyond AS level. Another friend said he gave them to the young teachers in his department. The point is that I tried, at revision time, to stimulate and stretch, not merely recapitulate. Here's the link to them: They cost about £1.00 which means you can get three for the price of a pint, so I don't feel I am exploiting the panic of nervous exam candidates.

Now here is another thing we did that helped stretch all our pupils – especially the ablest. As soon as I took over the department I got permission from my Head to do away with sets, marks, grades and orders in junior classes. I am delighted to say that every single member of the department I worked with – ten or a dozen teachers over 25 years - found that this worked. In the bad old days of marks a child with a better mark than his peers heeded no further advice; and as for the much praised competition to come top – well, it was like the Premier League. Most pupils knew they couldn't come top so did not bother to try. As for the bottom end, they lived in a world of perpetual low self esteem. But when all work was marked with a meaningful comment (ideally praise + constructive advice) the weakest pupils always received encouragement and the best work, the subject of this blog, was always followed with some suggestions for “next steps”.

Over a long career I tried all sorts of extra-curricular history. Youth Hostel weekends looking at stately homes and castles bring back happy memories. One year all our successful Oxbridge candidates were in my “History on Film” after-school activity. And so on. I may say that none of this was exceptional in our school and nor, as I know from chatting to scores of fellow professionals, is it unusual at all. It is what teachers do, and it stretches and challenges. Everything can be done well or badly, of course, even school trips. What preparation is there, what follow up? What level of conversations take place on the trip itself? Personally I never tried to promote them by offering fun-time apart from the history. The history was the fun (though a lot of extra stuff did happen; I still treasure my Monopoly victory in Falkland YH. And the game of hide-and-seek in Norham Castle.)

I called A-level text-books a gateway to mediocrity. I fancy the same might be true of league tables, as the urgent need to get marks gets in the way of excellence. I am not sure about this, because I was very fortunate to work under a series of fine Heads who put the needs of individual pupils above the pressures of statistics.

What about the two GCSE years? Well, here we allowed our best pupils to aim as high as they could reach by using the GCSE devised by the Schools History Project. The two examined papers were a Study in Depth and a Study in Breadth. For the “depth” we did Germany 1918-1945 (which I do think all European pupils should do once at some point). This was fairly old-fashioned knowledge and understanding. For the “breadth” we did “Crime and Punishment from the Romans to the Present Day”. This was not just juries, sheriffs, police, witch-trials, transportation and so on but involved a great deal of social, cultural and political history. There was, I repeat, no limit to the conceptual levels an able pupil could reach in discussion and in the written answers. The challenges of evaluating sources and of making connections across the centuries were far more intellectually demanding than any memorisation of narrative.

But the glory of the course was the coursework. I had to set up two pieces, moderated by the exam board. One had to be using a range of primary sources including field work to write an essay. What I set up (given the location of our school) was “Was the Edinburgh New Town really as good as it is commonly described?” (and a few glowing descriptions were provided.) The pupils did five tours, made notes and drawings, studied contemporary documents and modern historians. Most of the finished essays were beautifully word-processed and illustrated – but the marks were all for the words on the page. One successful applicant for Classics at Oxford later put in his UCAS form: “I became interested in the civilisations of Greece and Rome while doing my GCSE coursework on the New Town of Edinburgh.”

The other piece of coursework involved showing how the past affected the present. We set up a course that ended with the following essay: “Show how the causes of the Chechen War are rooted deep in Russian history”. The need to use web-sites (many of which, on that particular topic were crazily biased), to grapple with wholly unfamiliar geography, to encounter new concepts and new themes: the challenge was vast – though we provided materials to prevent it becoming overwhelming. Candidates encountered Peter the Great, Solzhenitsyn, Stalin, Tolstoy and Yeltsin. The SHP/OCR rules imposed no word limits and, even though we made it clear mere summary narrative would gain little credit, the best candidates often produced over a thousand words of well-informed and thoughtful analysis.

It is probably true that some history departments, when faced with new examination arrangements, think “How can we get the most marks for our pupils?”. But the right response is “How can we use these new arrangements to improve the education we offer?” Which brings me to my final suggestion as a way of stretching the brightest. When new appointments of staff are being made, always go for candidates who care deeply about history, who think history really matters and appreciate that all history lessons can be interesting, challenging and worthwhile. History ought to be a life-enhancing subject in schools.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

What is the point of studying history?

One of the pleasures (no; I really mean it) of running a history department was that from time to time student teachers would arrive on “placement.” A few of them, especially in the first term of the course, had to learn almost everything – even the importance of punctuality and of speaking audibly. Most of them were really good from the word go.

However, one thing that I found alarming in recent years was the fact that their course did not include any philosophy of education, nor any philosophy of history. My own training, at the Institute of Education, London, was weak on class-room management (virtually non-existent as a matter of fact). It was weak on psychology, too. At the first seminar our tutor said “I’m really a sociologist”, and for the third and subsequent sessions he never turned up. Still, it was a long time ago, and we hope it isn’t true (as I used to tell junior pupils about the nastier events of the Middle Ages).

But our course was very strong indeed on philosophy. One of my three long coursework essays was on the theory of education in Plato’s “Republic”; and I am sure more hours were spent on philosophy than on anything else. The practical stuff one picked up (or failed to pick up) on placements in schools. I wish we had done more psychology, but the philosophy stood me in good stead through my career and, I think, became increasingly valuable as time passed.

In particular the philosophy gave me confidence that what I was doing was worth while. Some subjects have an obvious practical value that can sustain the weary teacher’s morale during the bad times. The value of History as a subject, however, is not immediately obvious (and some educators, parents and pupils still do not acknowledge it). Some of those student teachers who joined my department looked blank when I asked them what was the point of teaching history, and I can’t help wondering whether they will be able to sustain a career to the end, or will they end up disillusioned and emotionally withered, like Crocker Harris in “The Browning Version”.

My own ideas on the whole grew and were refined during my career, so that I could argue with conviction when rivals wanted to steal bits of my timetabled time and explain ( sometimes possibly a bit too forcefully) to head teachers that merely persuading our pupils to learn more facts off a longer list would not improve the department. I can also look back on forty years and think that not all of the time was wasted.

Our youngest pupils were Primary 7 – ten or eleven. With them, on the very first day, I would say two things. The first was “In this room we aim to improve three things: reading, writing and thinking. Does anyone want to argue that those are not worth coming to school to do? We shall do all sorts of things – some of them you might even enjoy – but at any time you can challenge me and I’ll be able to tell you whether we are developing reading, writing, thinking or maybe more than one of those things at once.” I never had any more complaints of the “What’s the point of doing this” sort.

The second thing I would say was “Now, who are the good games players? Anyone play a musical instrument?” (There were always some). “Now, tell the rest of us, how do you get better at goal kicking/playing the flute/skate-boarding?” Someone would always say “Practice.” “Exactly,” I would reply. "So we shall do lots of practice at reading, writing and thinking and I can promise you that by the end of the year you will be a bit better at all three.”

Oddly enough, I was speaking the absolute truth to these children. “Thinking”, of course, included memory work, problem solving, planning, critical thinking, historical imagination and so on.

Meanwhile, some time in the early 1990s, our subject was under fire Some educators wanted it to go the way of Latin – a niche for eccentrics – while “Citizenship” or “Social Science” or “Humanities” became the norm. At the moment in Scotland we seem to have weathered that storm. I am told that History is currently the third most popular subject at Higher (16+) level, after English and Maths. But the crisis led me to get my ideas about the value of the subject down on one side of paper, in a form that could be handed to school management, school governors, parents, prospective pupils, student teachers and anyone else who cast doubts on our work. I still have a copy of it, so here it is. I hope fellow professionals agree, and the rest of you learn a bit about what we are trying to do.


Interest and Entertainment: In History we meet characters more extraordinary and varied than Shakespeare dared to invent, and tales of wonder and heroism that neither Hans Anderson nor J.K.Rowling could better. There is romance, adventure, intrigue and beauty. There are issues as subtle and complex as any that are dreamed of in our philosophy and devices beyond the wit of Heath Robinson. We deal with town and country, home and abroad, local and national, the spiritual and the material.

Useful skills:
-         The efficient use of libraries, indexes, catalogues and computers
-         The ability to use the Internet for research
-         Training in evaluation and selective judgement
-         The ability to synthesise many books and sources into one coherent account
-         The ability to present results clearly in prose and in graphic form, using a computer where appropriate
-         The ability to construct a logical argument and to solve a problem with detailed evaluation

Scepticism: The world is full of people who want us to believe what they say. Politicians, journalists and advertisers are obvious examples. In general we should be cautious of all those in authority, of the rich and the powerful – and, of course, of historians themselves. In order to be free in the modern world one must keep exercising ones mind in freedom, testing the pronouncements and the judgments of others. History gives training in the scepticism needed to remain free in the modern world.

Development as an individual: Theodore Zeldin once wrote that “history is autobiography”. In other words, as one learns about other people one learns about oneself. As we study History we learn about the human race, we learn what it means to be a human being, we learn what our place is as human beings in the scale of human history, we learn what human beings are capable of. We also learn to put ourselves – twenty-first century Edinburgh prosperous middle classes – in perspective. We realise that there have been intelligent, honest and good people in other ages who have not shared our prejudices, our attitudes, our ideas. So History teaches tolerance, flexibility, openness and awareness. To study History is to become a more complete human being.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Suffragettes and Suffragists

The Suffragettes are all over the media at the moment, thanks to some very significant anniversaries. This blog-post is going to argue that the Suffragettes were a lot less significant than they are cracked up to be, so, in an effort to divert abusive criticism, I had better make two things clear from the start. In the first place I have tremendous admiration for the courage and determination of those who carried out militant actions. In the second place I am a whole-hearted supporter of the rights of women then and now.

My main point is that the strategy and tactics of the militants were wrong-headed and probably counter-productive. Because of the way things panned out, with the First World War moving all the goal posts everywhere, it is quite likely that women in Britain would in any case have gained the vote in parliamentary elections when they did. But history is not about what might have happened, but about what did happen, and a good case can be made for arguing that the Suffragette militancy delayed, rather than speeded-up, the granting of the vote.

Far too few history teachers, and almost no members of the general public, seem to be aware that the House of Commons voted in favour of votes for women by an overwhelming majority in 1911. It is simply untrue that women failed to get the vote during the decade before the First World War “because men thought they were unfit for politics.” That point may be true, more or less, for the late nineteenth century, but by the early twentieth century things had changed. All sorts of male-dominated organisations (the Labour Party and the Church of Scotland for example) were in favour of votes for women. Women already had the vote in local elections and, as I have already said, the great majority of MPs were in favour. The arguments had been won.

The arguments had been won partly as the result of a whole host of social and cultural changes involving education, marriage laws, career opportunities and so on. They had also been won by the efforts of a number of dedicated and energetic women who had campaigned and argued for four decades on a whole range of women’s rights – Josephine Butler, Elsie Inglis, Elizabeth Garrett and others. Their leader, as far as the voting question was concerned, was Millicent Fawcett, and her organisation is usually referred to as the Suffragists. This label is a convenient way of distinguishing the “rational argument” group from Mrs Pankhurst’s avowedly militant organisation.

Given that the arguments in favour of votes for women had been won, there were four main obstacles to a change in the law. One was Queen Victoria, who disapproved of the whole idea. Well, she had been removed by death. Another very serious one was political disagreement about exactly which women should get the vote and on what terms. This was a time, remember, when not all adult men yet had the vote. (This obstacle will be easily understood if you have followed the arguments about reform of the House of Lords in our own day. Because the reformers are divided about the nature of the reform, the minority of anti-reformers are able to block all proposals.) A third obstacle, since we have just mentioned them, was the House of Lords. The issue was not tested by a vote, but it seemed highly likely that the Upper House, with its high proportion of crusty old dinosaurs, would vote against. And finally, by sheer bad luck, the Prime Minister, Asquith, was against votes for women. Prime Ministers can be overwhelmed by democratic or party pressure, but they are enormously powerful when it comes to setting agendas, finding parliamentary time and prioritising business. After the 1911 vote Asquith was able to put in place all sorts of delaying tactics.

This prevarication was what provoked the militant Suffragette outrages; the anger is entirely understandable. But as a tactic it was totally misguided. Mrs Fawcett was in despair. For a pressure group to be successful it must identify, and persuade, the key figures in the decision-making process (as the Suffragists had been doing for a long time). Lloyd George (a supporter) wrote to Mrs Fawcett that he feared the outrages would make political victory impossible, and so it proved. We expect modern governments to refuse to pay ransoms, or give way to terrorism. This line of argument reinforced Asquith’s position. One influential member of his cabinet was the famously obstinate Winston Churchill. He was hardly likely to support votes for women after an axe had been thrown at him.

In fact the War came along and changed everything. Asquith publicly admitted that his views had changed. So did other leading opponents. Lloyd George became Prime Minister. In the atmosphere of national unity in the face of danger, and in the surge of respect for the men who had volunteered and for the women who had given themselves fearlessly to war work, the passing of a new Reform Act raised no party-political questions. The absurd compromise of offering the vote to women over thirty provided they were rate-payers or the wives of rate-payers was enough to satisfy the remaining dinosaurs in the Lords. Mrs Fawcett was consulted by the Speaker’s Committee that drew up the Bill. It became law with very little fuss.

In fairness to the Suffragettes, it seems to me that their militancy may have had a favourable effect on the decision-making process at two points. One was Mrs Pankhurst’s 1914 declaration that she would put all the resources of her movement behind the war effort. The outrages had caused so much publicity that this was a moving gesture. The other, just possibly, was that the politicians in 1916, discussing the issue, may have thought “We can do without another wave of Suffragette militancy in the middle of this war. We had better include women in our Bill to give the vote to all fighting men.” But I have no direct evidence of this being said or thought.

If you want to follow up this blog with some more reading, I particularly recommend the work of Martin Pugh. His “Votes For Women In Britain, 1867 1928 2nd Ed (New Appreciations in History)”, for example, is excellent. If you would like something shorter, there is a piece by me available on Kindle:

I will, as a footnote, admit to some personal bias on this issue. My copy of “Millicent Garrett Fawcett” by Ray Strachey, was given by my mother to her mother as an Easter present in 1945. My mother was a London University lecturer in Chemistry before the Second War began, and I was very much brought up in the “rational argument” tradition of political persuasion. Also my study of history has shown me the extreme importance of the decision-making process – all too often neglected.