Teaching History 182: Out now

By Tony McConnell, Katharine Burn, Rachel Foster, Christine Counsell (Editors), published 19th April 2021

Editorial: A Sense of Period

Read Teaching History 182

The editorial in the previous edition of Teaching History began by recognising that 2020 would go down in history as the year of the coronavirus pandemic. The words you are reading now were written in the aftermath of another long period of partial school closure in the United Kingdom, and with examinations cancelled, or at least altered, for another summer.

Preparation for examinations is a theme running explicitly through two of the articles in this edition, and implicitly through another. Writers in this journal – whether providing an evidence base and literature review, or Mummy reporting on her SLT’s latest hapless initiative – often bemoan the reductive qualities of examinations which seek to test understanding of history in ways with which no real historian would engage. One reason that it is so difficult to construct history exams is that history can be ‘done’ in so many different ways and for so many different purposes. The common theme of the articles presented here is that they demonstrate the ways in which our students may form a sense of period, or a series of senses of period which they can compare, and the ways in which this understanding interacts with or informs other historical objectives such as improving causal reasoning - and passing exams.

Matthew Fearns-Davies explicitly addresses the problems caused by students lacking a sense of period in a GCSE thematic study spanning thousands of years. He argues that their ability to tease out nuance in questions of continuity and change, as well as causation, is hampered when they do not have a sense of the period from which their disparate examples emerge. The problem Fearns-Davies faces is that it is impossible to contextualise that amount of history in a couple of hours a week. His solution is to pick on particular examples – in this case, figures from the history of medicine – and use his teaching about them as a way into the period in which they lived, securing a chronological framework for the other figures with whom they also interacted. He finds that the investment of precious teaching time is well worth it in terms of his students’ richer understanding and greater ability to make and analyse statements about change.

Alexia Michalaki began to consider what her Year 9 students needed in terms of a sense of period because she was unhappy with their responses to the question of what caused World War I. She realised that the major organising concepts of that causal question – militarism, imperialism, alliances and nationalism – were being used as a shorthand by students who did not have the contextual understanding with which to understand them. While they were able to use them correctly, they were not able to do anything transformative with that knowledge. Michalaki’s solution, based on her reading of over a decade of teacher research into how to help students to do better at causation questions, was to go into the historiography. She used it to teach her students the events of the nineteenth century which had led to the emergence of those organising concepts in the first place, allowing them to derive them for themselves. With increased ownership of the conceptual underpinning of their arguments, her students’ causal analysis improved.

Jack Mills was also concerned by his students’ substantive knowledge, and the way its presence (or absence) could have an impact on the arguments they made. The issue his students faced was even more fundamental than Michalaki’s, for they were looking at the existence or otherwise of a mid-Tudor crisis, and quickly found that the word ‘crisis’ itself was hugely problematic in the historiography. Like Michalaki, Mills read through both the pedagogy of teaching substantive knowledge and the recent substantive knowledge itself to come up with a plan for his Year 7s. One of his conclusions, broadly shared by Michalaki, is that students need substantive knowledge on multiple levels in order to argue convincingly. Necessary knowledge often involves a sense of period which enables students to judge and evaluate events and personalities by the standards appropriate to their own time, and to suggest and defend causal links which make sense in their own context, rather than from our distant viewpoint in 2021.

How often do our students inform us that any historian working in the present day can have no hope of getting anything right about the past because of that great chronological distance? By the time they reach post-16 study, they are usually a little more with it than that; but, as Holly Hiscox recognises, interpretations remain very difficult ground for students. For her history is, and should be, about more than just what happened and why. She then sets out the steps she took to ensure that her students had a clear idea of what the period they were studying might imply for the ways in which they studied it and the conclusions they might draw. Working with Dr Tom Crook, she and her students unpicked the historical process. Crook, specialising in Victorian public health, compares the issues he faced in having too many sources to choose from with the early medievalist who has too few. In each case, the historical process, and therefore outcome, is different. Each period that is subject to historical study is characterised in a different way by the availability and accessibility of its source material.

Emily Toettcher and Eliza West share with us the next stage of a collaborative partnership between a museum and a school, in which multiple senses of period are examined as a series of local studies. The innovation described in this article is in developing a sense of the very recent past through oral history interviews with people in the local community and family members, focusing on the Cold War. While conceived before the present pandemic, the idea of presenting recorded content through hyperlinks and QR codes is very much of the moment. The article outlines a rationale for oral history. It also serves as a presentation of what is effectively a four-year local study which elucidates the ways in which Amersham has changed, and stayed the same, from one period to the next. By eliminating one variable – a changing place – West’s students really appreciate how one period was different from another. Taken between them, the articles in this edition present a powerful argument for allowing our students to ground themselves in particular periods, and therefore to ground their arguments in rich, contextualised, well-selected and nuanced evidence.