On the stretching of brighter history pupils by @historylecturer

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.

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.

This article originally appeared at: http://georgehharris.blogspot.com/2013/06/on-stretching-of-brighter-history-pupils.html

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