Teaching History 170: Out now

Journal news

By Editors: Tony McConnell, Katharine Burn, Rachel Foster, Christine Counsell, published 23rd March 2018

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Editorial: Historians

When we do history we are not alone. Even sitting in the most obscure corner of the top floor of the library, surrounded only by books, we are in the presence of other historians. We locate our arguments among theirs, just as one role of the historian might be to locate our modern lives among the lives of other peoples, perhaps in other places, at other times. This edition of Teaching History is about historians, and the way we encounter them in the classroom, in all their forms.

The first subheading in Paula Worth’s article reads ‘The much maligned historian’. This is not a comment on the effectiveness of her Year 12 students as historians. It is, rather, a lament – for it reflects how her students’ desire to interact with the work of professional historians resulted in their outright dismissal of some esteemed figures based on small gobbets of their work. Worth sets out to explore how best to overcome students’ natural (and, in our worse moments, taught) tendency to demonstrate their understanding of what historians have written by disagreeing with them. Worth realised that what underlay students’ criticism of academics’ omissions was genuine misunderstanding of what a history book was for: historians select their evidence and their emphasis, and do not include everything. She shows how to help students to shape their own language in dealing with historians’ interpretations.

Carolyn Massey and Paul Wiggin are also concerned about how their sixth-form students interact with the work of academic historians. Their piece in this edition directly addresses the issue of what we mean when we tell students to ‘read around’ the subject. Finding that their Year 12s did not do this well, Massey and Wiggin started a reading group in which they taught their students how to read historians’ work, reflect on it, and think about it. Like Worth, they find that an appreciation of historians’ work is likely to be much richer if it is built by reading longer extracts rather than the isolated gobbets that we tend to provide; they also discuss and reflect on their own successes in changing the cultural assumptions of their students, and their approach to the core historical discipline of reading. These students will be well prepared to read history at university.

Kerry Apps has written about her choice of the witch-hunts as the basis for a significance-based enquiry in Year 8. She unpicks the distinctions between historical significance and historical interpretations through her observations about her students’ understanding. She touches on the different interpretations of eighteenth-century and modern historians, showing how she enables her students to keep track of the differing lenses required in any interpretations activity. She also looks at the interface (perhaps interference) between modern cultural ideas about witches and witchhunts and the efforts of historians such as her students to think and write about them. Her students are able to account for how historical interpretations of the significance of the witch-hunts have changed over time. At the heart of her article is a role-play activity with a conclusion which is surprising to modern eyes – which is, of course, the point.

At the start of her article Apps justifies her decision to introduce her students to the witch-hunts rather than the more ‘obvious’ French Revolution. Suzanne Powell’s article is about introducing her Year 8s to something even less often encountered in the Key Stage 3 classroom: the broad span of human history. Can, she asks, students do anything meaningful with ‘big history’? How can they make the kinds of connections required to set events in their centuries-long contexts? This is an important part of the discipline of history, and not just for those historians who write the currently fashionable works on the longue durée. Powell sees her article as a starting point for her own thinking and others’ research. It is also, surely, an excellent preparation for her students in bringing them beyond the set curriculum, helping them to become independently excellent historians.

We encounter one more type of historian in this edition: the local historian. In our Triumphs Show, Catherine Priggs and Eliza West turned their students into historians of their town in collaboration with the local museum, which now uses the resources that they produced. Katharine Burn and Jason Todd made local historians of the students in some of the schools in their PGCE partnership by enabling them to compare their own attitudes to their locality to those of previous generations. In the course of their investigations they also encountered a community project seeking to empower residents to act as historians of their own locality. Their article sets out a series of important principles to inform the planning of any local enquiry and explains how to conduct the research necessary both to uncover the history of a site and to explore others’ interpretations of it. It also suggests how to compare two complementary sets of data in which the students were both the historians and subjects, with their own historical consciousness about their home in the spotlight.

Talking of historians, and those who teach them… the editors want Teaching History to reflect the concerns of its entire readership, and to provide a showcase for the work that is being done in history teaching in schools, colleges and universities in the UK and beyond. The vast majority of contributions to this journal arise from a simple email to the editors offering a piece for contribution. No prior experience is necessary. If you have a triumph to share, a cunning plan, a piece of micro- or macro-action research which has changed your practice; if you have read and implemented some of the ideas which this journal has showcased and want to reinforce or contradict the author’s argument; if you have something which seems like a good idea but you aren’t quite sure how to proceed: please, visit www.history. org.uk/go/ContributeTeachingHistory and get in touch.