Reflections on the conference in Hammersmith

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‘History is philosophy teaching by examples.’

Thucydides

Thucydides’ observation kept coming back to me during the inaugural West London Free School History Conference on Saturday, first whilst listening to Christine Counsell’s opening keynote speech. As part of her stirring cri de cœur for knowledge-based history teaching, Christine argued knowledge empowers young people to engage in the conversations of the privileged.

By way of demonstration, Christine invited delegates to read a couple of paragraphs from Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. The extract ends with Schama describing the impact of the Norman invasion as follows: ‘And it’s a truism that every spring, the grass came up green again. This year, however, there were bones under the buttercups.’

Though taken from a ‘coffee table’ book by a popular historian, Christine catalogued the considerable number of abstract historical concepts a reader would need to understand to make sense of this text: the structure of medieval society, the rules of conquest, the working life of a peasants and slaves, vassalage, lordship, and so on.

For us history teachers, this knowledge is so automatic that it is easy to take for granted, and not remember that at some point in our lives it has to be learnt. As Christine said (I paraphrase) ‘like water to a fish, the knowledge that we swim in is so easy not to notice as we are so surrounded by it.’

This got me thinking about Professor Daniel Willingham on abstractions in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? In Chapter 4, Willingham writes:

‘Abstraction is the goal of schooling. The teacher wants students to be able to apply classroom learning in new contexts, including those outside of school. The challenge is that the mind does not care for abstractions. The mind prefers the concrete. That’s why, when we encounter an abstract principle… we ask for a concrete example to help us understand.’

Our history curriculum at Key Stage 3 – which I was talking about in relation to my Knowing History textbooks – is full of concrete examples which illustrate abstract principles. Pupils encounter conquest through the Normans; social hierarchy through the feudal system; dictatorship through Cromwell; limited government through the Glorious Revolution; and imperialism through eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. Not to mention dozens of other events illustrating concepts as wide ranging as industrialisation, religious tolerance, rebellion, civil war, propaganda, revolution, crusading, and tyranny.

As Willingham explains, it is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to use and understand abstractions without learning them first through concrete examples. The more concrete examples on which you can draw, the richer and better nuanced your understanding of the abstraction becomes.

School history has the ability to furnish pupils with a treasure trove of concrete examples of abstract ideas, upon which they can draw for the rest of their lives. To extend Thucydides’ claim, history is not just philosophy by examples. It is sociology, politics, economics, geography, anthropology, theology – in essence, the whole of human experience – by examples.

Want to think about religious sectarianism? Look to the Counter Reformation, the Gunpowder Plot, or Irish Independence. Want to think about different ways in which society cares for the poor? Look to medieval monasteries, the Tudor poor laws, or the Victorian workhouse. Want to think about the particularly brutal nature of civil wars? Look to the Anarchy, the Wars of the Roses or the English Civil War.

If this use of prior knowledge to understand new content is real, shouldn’t we study it in more detail? That is precisely what Heather Fearn has been doing for her Masters thesis. With only one chance to attend someone else’s session at the WLFS History Conference, I chose Heather’s, and did not regret it.

The Oxford University History Aptitude test is designed to assess sixth formers ‘historical aptitude’ by giving them an extract from a historical text on a reasonably unusual subject – such as medieval magic – to read and understand. As the preamble states, ‘you do not need to know anything about the subject to answer the questions below’.

Heather’s contention is that it is those pupils who have a wide and varied knowledge of different historical periods who are best equipped to read and understand an unseen historical text. What Oxford University describe as ‘historical aptitude’ is really historical knowledge in disguise. To demonstrate this, Heather has devised her own historical aptitude tests. After reading an extract and answering some questions, Heather asked pupils to ‘Explain how any historical or general knowledge you remember has helped you make sense of this passage.’

Heather’s results are fascinating. Her pupils readily narrate the phenomenon that Willingham describes, to explain how they use concrete examples from their long-term memories to understand abstract terms in new contexts. Pupils, faced with a text describing Mao Zedong from the Penguin History of Modern China, made extensive links with Hitler and Stalin to understand features of his rule, such as revolution, dictatorship, the nuclear arms race, charismatic leadership, and the use of propaganda. One of Heather’s pupils finished her excellent response by writing:

‘With my own knowledge of Nazi Germany, the Cold War and this passage on Mao Zedong, I can see the similarities between both leaders and how they control their countries. Much like many different parents raise their children in different ways, many different leaders raise their countries in different ways. Whether it is communism, democracy, or totalitarianism, both Mao and other dictators alike we have studied on our lessons want what is best for their countries, no matter what the sacrifice.’

What a lovely thing to read. A pupil explaining what so many history teachers have always instinctively known: knowledge begets knowledge.

During his closing comments, the brilliant Professor Robert Tombs warned of seeing too much of the present in the past. Of course, this is true when it comes to warping history to suit contemporary political narratives. But when it comes to giving pupils an armoury of examples with which to understand those abstract concepts we use to describe the human experience, history can and should empower pupils to understand the present.

And for those who believe such an endeavour sounds dull, I give the last word to Professor Tombs: ‘History is interesting. It takes determined and concentrated interest to make it boring.’


p.s. Thank you to all of you who took the time and effort to come to our school and share in a love of teaching history, and in particular to Louis Everett for all his hard work getting the thing organised. If anything, the day left me thinking what a wonderful subject it is that we all have the privilege to teach.

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