Working with sources: scepticism or cynicism? Putting the story back together again


By Jamie Byrom, published 9th May 1998

Many history teachers will remember the feature on Jamie Byrom's teaching in Times Educational Supplement of July 1996 where he attacked the recent fashion of history textbooks for encouraging only short (and usually formulaic) responses about reliability of sources. He demonstrated the systematic teaching that pupils need if they are to find the techniques and confidence to produce extended accounts. TES journalists missed the point and billed it as the return of ‘the essay', but to the history teacher, well-schooled in debates about progression, it was obvious that these techniques had a much greater significance. Jamie Byrom's work with pupils of all abilities has consistently shown that many pupils need structured help if they are to hang on to an idea in their heads for long enough to do anything with it. Such scaffolding is all too often absent in work with historical sources that seeks only to explore the status of the source as evidence as opposed to the status of one piece of information vis à vis another in the child's working memory. Jamie Byrom's pedagogy systematically breaks down these learning points, precisely so that pupils can, ultimately, put together a developed case of their own. His chief concern is with helping the majority of pupils to gain access to the sophisticated, abstract discourse that is still the privileged preserve of that minority of pupils currently capable of gaining a C or above at GCSE. For here lies the real intellectual challenge for teachers: helping the socalled ‘lower-attainer' to find the keys to unlock high status knowledge and academic success. In this short account of work with historical sources on the Peasants' Revolt, Jamie illustrates some of the ‘can do' mentality that has made his seminal inset so popular and influential in raising standards.

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