Reading the blog got me to thinking about my own work with trainees. To be fair they are quite a mixed bunch. Some come in with really clear notions about what learning means and how it might be achieved, some less so. However all come with one unifying feature, a lack of experience. I completely understand French's frustration when he talks about having been told that group work, co-operative learning and teacher facilitation were the ultimate answers to pupil learning. Many of the trainees I have worked with in the past seem to work on a lesson by lesson basis, not really looking at the larger picture. They tend to focus on activity over content and assume that "engaging" means "fun", and that all teacher talk is a bad thing. They look at assessment as a way of showing progress, rather than as a useful teaching tool. These are the rules of History Club for many trainee teachers. What trainees don't yet know, is that these are the rules of Trainee History Club...
Now I completely understand why universities have to equip their students with all of these beliefs. A single year is really not enough to become a good teacher. Hell ten years is barely adequate in my view! Universities therefore need to imbue their charges with a wide range of approaches to teaching, to allow them to deal with an even wider range of schools and students. Universities need to provide their NQTs with the milk needed to survive their infancy in teaching. This means quick ways to getting classes engaged and simple solutions to delivering content after only a few weeks of training. We all need to start somewhere, and the best universities couple this with excellent pedagogical training as well (the problem of poor training will if anything become worse as universities are cut off from the training programmes, as Rich Kennet has written about before.) The real issue with this form of training comes when such teachers are not weaned off this diet and into more complex understandings of their professional role. The best students should be moving beyond the "activity" approach to teaching within their first few months, others may take a bit longer, but all need to make this move.
It was not until I joined my first proper department in my third year that my weaning really began (it is notable I think that I was always remembered by people I worked with as having been an NQT when I joined them). It was only really through the challenge and support offered by inspirational colleagues, such as Barbara Hibbert, Katie Hall and Nicola Devey, that I began to refine and hone my own understanding of what it meant to be a good history teacher. They helped me have that realisation that French talks about in his blog: that group work was not always the best option; that a really good story is just as engaging as a "fun task"; that difficulty can have its own enjoyment; that history has its own specific pedagogy; that knowledge is a bedrock for students' understanding; that reading history is vital to teaching it; that a love for history should be central to our role; and that teaching a high quality academic history is a matter of social justice. Again, I could go on. For the first time, I felt a bit like an apprentice history teacher being taken through the process of mastering a craft. I am eternally grateful for all the support I got in this endeavour. There is no doubt at all that I would not be where I am today without this input. Barbara's department was a model for the kind of support which might turn a new trainee or NQT into a really fantastic teacher (by which I don't mean myself - this reads quite badly in review!). By extension, the lack of such support is what can lead to a teacher who never really matures. In many senses, this was the experience of Robert Peel (the controversial @goodbyemrhunter) who became so disillusioned by the snake oil that he left the profession altogether and began on an extensive, but mostly unfounded, critique of it. I always wondered if he may have had a very different experience had he received the support I did in Barbara's care.
Now that I run my own department, I try to bring this aspect of departmental support into my work with trainees, NQTs and others. This is where I try to re-write the rules of History Club. You may agree with them, you may disagree, but in my opinion they form the basis of building effective and reflective practitioners of history. I have not put on here a number of more general rules which I think are important eg. "bad behaviour is not always down to bad teaching" and "never, ever say 'he's works fine for me'" as, however vital they are, I think these fit into a more generic category of advice. These 12 rules are my core for great history teaching:
- Being a good history teacher rests on your love of the subject. If you don't read history (or watch history, or really care about history) you are unlikely to get any students to enjoy history at all. Reading that latest book by Edward Baptist might be the inroad you need to re-vitalising your topic on slavery for example. Most importantly, encourage kids to read history! Make sure the library is well stocked. Talk about the books you have read and why you love them (or hate them - "A Ditch in Time" I am looking at you!!)
- Plan from the long term to the short term. One of the big hurdles is to stop planning from lesson to lesson. Consider what you want to get out of a sequence of lessons or unit of work in terms of knowledge and conceptual understanding. Consider how you will assess what you are doing. Then work out how you will get there. Don't assume that every lesson will stand alone - you may need to cover more complex things over two lessons or more. I have written on this to some extent HERE and HERE. Remember that history is an interplay of knowledge AND conceptual understanding. You need to work out how to develop both. More on that HERE.
- Make sure you are keeping up to date pedagogically. There are some brilliant things written in Teaching History, but there are also amazing blogs and Twitter feeds out there. Why not try: John Simkin's brilliant Spartacus Educational; Rich Kennett's Radical History; Ian Dawson's Thinking History; Michael Fordham's Clio et cetera; Heather F's Esse Quam Videri; and of course Toby French's Mr Histoire. Also don't forget andallthat's topic blogs and stand-alone lessons (above) and the yet-to-be-migrated old blog.
- Engagement and fun are not the same thing. Sometimes having a "fun" lesson is entirely appropriate, but engagement requires a different approach. You need to question what you want them engaged in. If the task is to make a board game, are they more engaged in making little counters and drawing a board, or in the history you want them to cover. If the answer is the former, you need to carefully consider your activity. Could you get the same outcome in a different way? This is true of group work activities as well. I always do a lesson on the Feudal System which involves acting it out because I know it is both engaging and effective.
- All history is engaging in its own right if you can find the right way in. Search for the right stories and you will have a topic that gets students enthralled by the past for its own sake. The Reformation is a fiendishly difficult topic for Year 7, but we always begin with the story of the murder and mutilation of three of the King's inspectors of abbeys and ask why someone would do something like this. Every topic has the potential to be interesting. If you think the Industrial Revolution is dull or the English Civil War is dry, you just haven't found the right way in yet. Go back to rule 1!!
- Don't be seduced by the skills agenda. History is brilliant for developing critical skills, but you cannot be critical unless you first understand the context and processes of historical enquiry. In 1949, Marc Bloch noted that "it is a scandal that in our own age…the critical method is so completely absent from our school programmes." (Bloch, The Historian's Craft, p113). Answers are not out there in the ether to be "googled" the whole point of historical investigation is the process by which truth is created. Skills do not exist in isolation and if anyone mentions 21st century skills, run away...fast!
- Have a respect for the past. There is nothing which riles me more than a lesson where a teacher looks at something like beliefs about the afterlife in the Middle Ages and the lesson proceeds on the line "look at these weird people, don't they have stupid beliefs, isn't it a good job we are all more rational today" Now I am not saying we have to treat past beliefs with reverence, but we do need to understand those mentalities. Surely it is far better and more interesting to find a relevant historical example and then work with that to understand the mentality in context. For example "Why did Sir John Pilkington want prayers to be said for him, hundreds of years after his death?" as a means into understanding medieval views on life and death. If you have done steps 1 & 5 you should always be able to find a way to do this.
- There is nothing wrong with teacher talk - as long as that talk is helping students to clarify and expand their understanding. Whilst students also need to find things out for themselves, there is a moral duty for history teachers to help students really understand the knowledge. A student researching the Jim Crow Laws in America may well get so far alone, but it is the teacher's job to place them in the context of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction etc. FOFO lessons are a means to a basic understanding but the depth understanding comes from an interplay between teacher and student.
- NEVER make reading, textbook work or essays into punishments. Textbooks are a vital resource and much maligned, whilst essays can be a real opportunity for students to have real freedom of expression. I always talk about essays as exciting opportunities and am seldom disappointed by the work students put in. Reading is a core part of history. I can think of whole lessons where I have just read and discussed a story with Year 7, 8 or 9 and they have been hanging on every single word.
- Remember that there is joy in the understanding of something complex. Dumbing the history down does not necessarily make it easier, and may make it more fragmentary and harder to understand. I have always found this when teaching the French Revolution and English Civil War. Without connecting them to their wider context they are difficult for students to grasp as they don't make logical sense and therefore become dry and uninteresting to students. You will get a sense of when you have overstepped the mark in terms of difficulty as you get more experience.
- Getting a good history education is an issue of social justice. History is the subject which builds students' cultural capital but also asks them to question its validity. It is a subject which encourages students to challenge the status quo. It is the subject which shows students their place in the world, and in time. It is one of only a handful of subjects which deals with the issue of mortality. It is one of the only subjects which allows freedom of written expression. It is a subject which is wholly human and about humanity. Again, in the words of Marc Bloch, the historian "is like the giant of the fairy tale. He knows that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies." (Bloch, 1949, The Historian's Craft, p22) It can only be these things if it is done well.
- We always talk about History Club. It's the only way it gets better.
All thoughts, comments and additional rules (I have definitely forgotten some here) appreciated.