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Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan

Iglobe‘m not usually a big fan of international comparisons, or borrowing policy from more successful jurisdictions. This suspicion has been made much more acute by the egregious policy cherry picking carried out by lobbyists, politicians (from all parties) and academy leaders over the last decade. Such cherry picking can be seen in Nick Gibb using the UK’s PISA results from 2000, despite being repeatedly warned of their statistical doubtfulness, along with his use of Tim Oate’s flawed comparative policy paper on the use of textbooks in order to push ‘Singaporean’ maths methods.

Finland is a great example of how commentators, politicians and teachers across ideological divides can simultaneously cite Finland’s lack of a national inspection regime, and it’s history of having a robust inspection regime as the main cause of its success. Nick Gibb for instance talks about Finland when it comes to textbooks (Finnish teachers like to use these), but not the late start or lack of setting or streaming, or indeed the university-based initial teacher education system.

So, it was with a bit of reluctance that I started to read ‘Cleverlands‘ – possibly with the same heavy heart that some pupils approach their increased homework load implemented by a keen-as-mustard MAT executive head after a Singaporean study tour.

I need not have worried. This book was a really interesting read, and not always a comfortable one. Sometimes I found my ideas challenged by its findings, but I never felt as if this had been done through the creation of a progressive ‘straw man’, as sometimes happens when I read self-consciously iconoclastic edu-commentry.

Crehan has an amazing eye for detail, but uses this in order to give us the big picture about each of the jurisdictions she visits. Rather than focus on one classroom practice, or one aspect of the educational system that fits her ideological world view, we are given a tour of the educational and relevant cultural landscape in each place. Synthesis has to wait until the end, and even though there are lessons that we can learn from comparison, Crehan is careful to warn us that we cannot just import policies from a different culture and expect them to ‘work’ here. Really refreshingly she also asks whether we _should_ import some policies merely in order to move our PISA scores up.

Of course my own ideology had me nodding along in some passages. Of course I agreed with the parts that argued for the strong role for universities and the importance of subject pedagogical knowledge for the induction of new teachers, and of well-constructed early years education that isn’t seen merely as ‘easier primary’ or ‘easier secondary’ curriculum and teaching methods. I also bristled with frustration at the anecdote about the author being asked by a friend at the DFE about the lessons she had learned on her travels, and how the policy commitment to school-led ITE meant how the conversation fell on deaf ears.

What I found really challenging, and interesting, was the sections on Singapore and Shanghai, and the thoughtful analysis of attitudes towards repetition and practice in the chapter on ‘the Paradox of the Chinese Learner’. This chapter forced me to reflect on the way that memorisation can be used in the classroom – a task to get done, or perhaps a way of enabling students to use items of knowledge in exam responses that will enable them to get higher marks or grades. Rote learning has a bad press – and perhaps deservedly so. My only recollection of this being used in my own education was by a terrifying teacher at primary school who regularly terrorised us for not being able to recite out times tables. Memorisation and rote learning also perhaps carries some folk memory of the ‘payment by results’ system which seems to have raised standards in the second half of the 19th Century by preparing pupils for examinations during inspections The system fell out of favour as people feared it encouraged teachers to Gragrind unconnected and therefore meaningless facts into children’s brains.

The paradox is that, despite a heavy emphasis on repetition and memorisation, Chinese students consistently outperform others in the PISA tests. Cleverlands draws on studies from 1996 to suggest that perhaps the West might have been doing memorisation wrong (Watkins 1996) by drawing a distinction between ‘rote’ learning, which is ‘shallow, mechanistic, with no attempt at understanding’, and ‘repetitive’ learning which ‘involves deepening your understanding through deliberative repetition, paying attention to the features of whatever it is you’re repeating’ (p.185).

There’s so much more to this book however. The discussion and development of ideas on motivation are also fascinating – helping us move away from a crude ‘intrinsic -v- extrinsic’ model towards one that recognises that extrinsic motivation can nonetheless reflect our own goals and aims – and thus that not all kinds of ‘extrinsic’ motivation are negative or ‘bad’ for learning.

For a really interesting thoughtful and well written journey around the educational landscapes of the world, I can’t recommend this book enough.

Watkins et al (1996) The Chinese Learner: Cultural, Psychological, and Contextual Influences.


Project Halpin – The Other Invisible Hand by Julian Le Grand: Choice

4149926846_917a6d89bd_mI’m currently reading 12 books that I think I might disagree with, inspired by a lecture I went to by David Halpin.  With this post, I’m finishing writing about the first book I read – Julian Le Grand’s ‘The Other Invisible Hand’, in which Le Grand argues that choice and competition in public services is the best way to drive their improvement. Le Grand discusses other ways of improving these services: trust, targets, and voice. In this post we’ll look in more detail at ‘Choice and Competition’, the method which Le Grand argues should play a prominent role in providing and improving public service provision.

Le Grand is careful to set out his stall precisely. He argues that choice and competition must go together if they are to improve public services. That is there must be a real choice between providers and  those providers have must have competition incentives to 1) seek to meet the demand or 2) avoid the desertion by service users that choice implies. In other words money and resources must follow the users’ choices.  Le Grand is also clear that merely giving the name of choice and competition to a policy will not lead to improved services: the choice and the competition must be real. There must be real alternative providers available to service users, and the purchase power of the state must back their choices.

This, for Le Grand, does not mean privatisation because public services take place in a quasi-market. In quasi-markets service users do not pay with their own resources, but those of the state, and this means that, according to Le Grand, these are “fundamentally egalitarian device[s] enabling public services to be delivered in such a way as to avoid most of the inequalities that arise in normal markets from differences in people’s purchasing power.”.  In this way individual wealth or lack of it should not constrain choice .

Beyond this ‘egalitarianism’, Le Grand describes several advantages to this model. Firstly it takes seriously a moral duty to give individuals autonomy, which we have already discussed. Secondly it provides incentives to provide better service, whether they are knightly altruists or knavish opportunists.

The book deals with some of the objections that can be raised about using this policy-approach, but I think it underestimates problems which lie in the way of establishing real choice in education.

The most fundamental of these is about where these choices impact. In medicine, unlike in school, one can make choices about the particular specialist one sees for each medical condition, or even each medical treatment one receives. In each choice, under Le Grands’ vision, providers who are incentivized to attract patients will provide a better service. We don’t pick a hospital on moving to or being born in an area and then dutifully use that hospital for all our illnesses and treatment. Each incident, each need, can be (and often is) met by using different providers. You might visit one provider for surgery on your back, and another to diagnose an eye condition.

Not so in education. Evidence suggests that within school variations are more important to a child’s progress than between school variations. For choice and competition to have an impact therefore, parents and pupils need to be able to make a choice between history teachers within a faculty. In addition, for this choice to be real, they need to be able to choose to send their children to a different school where there is a physics teacher who they believe will meet the needs of their child.  Obviously the practicalities of these choices prevent them from being fulfilled without the allocation of high levels of resources.

However, even if we take the argument that choice at a school level can raise standards, we have to do a better job than Le Grand in facing the resource-problems that get in the way even of the choice of school being met. Even if we allow for the change in fiscal policy that the 2008 financial crash forced upon governments, this aspect of ‘real choice’ is dealt with only at a superficial level. The assertion that choice can be described as real because 80% of children in England have two or more schools within three miles of them (p.79) does not stand up to much thought, or to evidence. Not only does Le Grand rely elsewhere on research which suggests that having a choice of five schools is necessary for positive effects of choice and competition to be felt (p. 74), but his statistic fails to be clear that the presence of schools within an area is only effective in raising levels of real choice if these schools have capacity to take students who wish to attend. It would seem that many of these schools do not have this capacity.

In addition, Le Grand fails to properly consider that, once parents and pupils have made their initial choices, there are important barriers which mean that, in many cases, parents will be unable to exercise more choice and will have to use voice.  Cost of transportation, having siblings in the school, a valued Chemistry teacher even though the English teacher and history department is falling apart, quite apart from emotional ties between their children and their peers will all act as barriers. These problems are in addition to taking into account that of the other two schools within three miles one is a notorious sink, whilst the other’s catchment area covers the nice estates which means that it is over-subscribed.

There are other things that Le Grand makes a nod to, but does not properly consider.  What information do parents need in order to make a decision?  Are league tables, or progress 8 figures enough to help them make this choice. What information do parents actually use on making school choices?  Do they think about the quality of provision or is this only one factor balanced with others that are un-related, such as ease of access, where siblings are or even whether they think the head is a wally.

So, choice and competition is a fine policy on paper, but it crunches up into a ball at first contact with reality. Interestingly the coalition government and, to an even great extent, the current Conservative government talk much less about competition and choice and much more about ‘autonomy’.  Perhaps this change has been driven primarily by the lack of resources available to government to provide for the level of choice required by Le Grand’s invisible hand.

I think we can question whether autonomy can really pertain to schools which cease to be independent legal entities on joining a multi-academy trust, many of which act like franchise businesses and impose teaching methods from the centre. The recent white paper represents a final nail in the ‘choice and competition’ coffin when we also consider that regional MATs are likely to emerge, meaning that parents can choose any of the three ‘Educorp’ schools within their three mile choice-zone.

So, my reading of ‘The Other Invisible Hand’ took much longer than I had thought it might. This is because it’s one of those books which is so intriguing that you have to keep coming back to it.  You can see how reading this book has made me think about current policy, and question why the government has not more clearly set out how ‘autonomy’ as envisaged by their proposals is (1) really ‘autonomy’ and (2) how it will raise standards.  One day I might to do some more reading on this and post about it.

What’s interesting me at the moment though is why policy makers prefer structural policies like these, when it is classroom level changes which seem to make an impact on the experiences that pupils have in school. Thinking about this has sent me to other books, such as ‘The Education Debate’ by Stephen J Ball.  Where this will lead, who knows, but this year of reading books that I think I might disagree with, has got off to a really informative and interesting start.

Distance – Paris, Syria and ‘us’.

I’m writing a section of a GCSE text book at the moment, for Edexcel’s recently approved spec (for teaching next year!).  The section is about London in the Second World War, and it’s part of their warfare through time unit.  This summer also I wrote a book about the Restoration for AQA’s new spec GCSE.  Both periods involve a fair amount of  bad fortune, evil intent and death, as do many periods of history.  After a summer of counting victims of the Plague in 1665 I thought I was immune to the tragedy that history presents, especially as I’m often the person who scoffs at the celebs mourning the passing of long-dead, far-distant relatives on ‘Who do you think you are’.

However, recently I’ve had to question the extent to which I can remain detached from the people I’m studying, and also to question why events such as the recent attacks in Paris seem more real, more shocking than those arguably much worse atrocities being carried out much more frequently across the middle east.

So, here’s what happened.  Whilst researching for the book, I surprised myself by sniffing back tears when I read these notices in the Register of Civilian Deaths on

notice1 notice2

I had been following a gang of unofficial volunteer firefighters called ‘the Dead End Kids’ who operated out of a warehouse in Wapping at Watson’s Warf.   But, it wasn’t words that brought me to the kids, it was a picture of the face of a young lad called Shamus O’Brien. This photo (below) was taken by the amazing Bert Hardy,  for publication in the London Picture Post (though I’m not sure that it ever was printed).  Shamus immediately grabbed my attention; his frayed coat, chipped teeth and man’s-hat-on-a-small-head made me think of a young person signing up for something that he didn’t really understand. Looking at the date made me think again – by April 1941 the Blitz had been going on for more than 7 months – so Shamus and the other ‘kids’ had seen real action – perhaps that might explain the wear and tear to his coat, and his dentistry.

The Dead End Kids took their name from a group of Holywood child actors who starred in films about rough kids with hearts of gold. They were led by Patsy Duggan the eldest lad in the gang. It didn’t take me long to learn more about the Duggans, as they were a big family in Wapping (in every sense), and because they’d been the subject of a long piece for the New Yorker Magazine by Mollie Painter Downes. She tells stories of the Kids rushing into buildings, rescuing people, dragging incendiary bombs into rivers and earning heroic status. This piece is a fascinating presentation of life in London during the blitz tailored for an American Audience, and it was this article that had sent me to the record of civilian deaths on Painter Downes wrote of the deaths of two of the kids, on the night of the 29th December, a raid that focused on the City of London and the East end. The fires that night were so bad that the event became known as ‘The Second Great Fire of London’. I wanted to corroborate the New Yorker piece, and to find out whether the Kids really did lose two members that night.

Painter Downes writes of ‘two of the [Dead End] Kids, Ronnie Ayres and Bert Eden [being] killed during the raids while tackling blazes with the gang’. Checking the records told me that she was right, other than the spelling of names. But the record told me more. Ronnie was killed on Thomas More Street (marked in yellow), where Bert lived with his parents, and Bert died across the other side of St Katharine’s Dock on St Katharine’s Way.  Both these streets were a short walk from the relative safety of the shelter. map

I suppose my mind went back to the other pictures I’d looked through on the Getty image bank that had the Kids showing off for Bert Hardy’s camera.  Running up ladders, pulling carts filled with buckets and tin helmets, all this looked like great fun – but I realised that not all the kids were in that picture, because Ronnie and Bert had already died by the time they were taken. That’s when their deaths became real to me, and when the kids’ story became more than just a story.

This research was all happening in November 2015, when the Paris attacks took place. Like most people I was horrified by these events, and like most people I knew on an intellectual level that there was something terribly and awfully normal about them, taking into account what is happening across north Africa and in the Middle East, where terrorists kill civilians, and military forces kill terrorists, and civilians. Some of my friends questioned online our feelings, and posted details of equally dreadful attacks in other places, which hadn’t affected me at all. They pointed out that the Syrian refugees who exercise the attention of so many journalists were fleeing the kinds of terror that happened just once in Paris, but happened every day where they had been living. I saw that they were right, of course, but wondered why I felt so differently about the Paris attacks.

The answer is obviously distance – spatial, cultural; and insulation – we are insulated from the world as many people experience it by the distances between us, and by the way that modern media presents stories quickly – a video, a stat, a vox-pop and then onto the next item.

History isn’t the only, or even the most effective way of helping us widen our knowledge of the lives of other people.  However, the experience that I had this autumn, and the experiences that I have had in the classroom suggest that helping students to pause over the study of someone different from the past, well this pause might help them get the right kind, and perhaps the right amount of distance.

In defence of inspirational posters in school. 

  I’ve never used a shop bought inspirational poster, but I have made a few, and I think that their judicious use can be very beneficial. 

With most things it’s the quality and the way you use them, rather than their presence which is important. I can think of a few reasons why I might turn to an inspirational poster:

  • If teachers and students need some help in thinking about how life could be different or better;
  • If they want to think about their futures in ways that might not immediately be obvious from their surroundings;
  • If students need help in learning to regulate their behaviour or the way that they relate to others;

Of course, posters, like iPads and whiteboards or pencils and paper or libraries and assembly halls are not guarantees of learning or positive attitude. Posters about respect can be found on the walls of rooms in which students and teachers are in conflict, or about working hard where teachers and students have a tacit agreement that things won’t be too taxing. Such posters are redundant, but that doesn’t mean that all such posters are. 

Historic Environment Studies – AQA in more depth

Water in English Gardens (22 of 33) | Hatfield House Gardens, Hertfordshire, UK.Last week I took an overview of all the environment studies. Though they’re (mostly) worth around 10% of the GCSE I wonder if they’ll be giving many HODs and teachers something to worry about as they start to think about their choice of board and specification. This is mainly because they concept of an historical environment study will be new to many teachers, especially those who have been doing modern world teaching (as I have).

This week I want to look more closely at AQA’s offering. They’re interesting because they are so closely embedded in with the depth study that they’re associated with. The questions allow students, (actually require) students to use their knowledge of events and society in the period studied, it’s fashions and pre-occupations in writing answers.  This means that the period study content should be read side by side with that of the H.E. study. Also, the kinds of locality that are implied for each H.E. should be taken into account when planning which unit to teach.

The Medieval Units

The two early periods have a strong military focus.  The Norman period could imply studies of early castles, such as Pevensey, whilst the Medieval unit, with it’s focus on the conquest of Wales suggest the development of castles such as Builth Castle in Powys.  The earlier Norman period has a focus on military tactics and innovations that is not present to the same level in the Medieval study, though both units mention battles that could be the focus of future H.E. assessments.

However, both also have strong social history aspects. So, whilst the Norman period has a focus on the village which would enable the board to set a medieval village location, and a focus on the changes that the Normans made to Cathedrals and churches, the Medieval study focuses on the development of towns.

The Early Modern Units

The Elizabethan unit is the one I find hardest to pin down to particular locations, or types of location. The focus on the rise of the Gentry and of living standards might mean a focus on the homes of the nobility – indeed this is the focus chosen for the specimen assessment material.  We could also read into the content on the church a study of Protestant or Catholic places of worship.  The spec also mentions theatres, so putting a tenner on the Globe being one of the locations might be an option.

The unit on the Restoration has more to go on in terms of possible focuses for H.E. locations. Theatre is an obvious choice, as is Medway in Kent, the scene of a famous naval disaster.  The big star of this unit seems to be London, with a focus on the plague of 1665, and the fire of the following year, coffee houses and Samuel Pepys, the focus on fashions and the changing face of the city being obvious.

The Specimen Assessment Materials

Whilst looking at the specimen assessment materials confirms how much these H.E. studies are embedded in the context of each depth study, common threads in the approach to assessment across the studies do emerge. For instance, the questions emphasise the context of each locality, asking about the use of castles to control areas in the Norman and Medieval studies, or Restoration fashions reflected in Bolsover Castle.  The mark schemes show however that there are strong preferences for answers that focus on the design, materials, as well as the symbolism of the various features of the locality concerned.  This is really exciting stuff – students will be given an opportunity to get to grips with the physical aspects of the past that we have not had the opportunity to introduce them to. Additionally they will be asked to think in terms of the mentalities of the past, to understand how buildings and places had such an impact on the minds of those living in the periods we’ll be studying.

Historic Environment Studies at GCSE

cropped gargoyle-1.jpgThere are big changes coming at KS4.  Others have written excellent posts summarising the new specifications and the differences between them.  On reflection there’s something for everyone in most specs – we will each find some aspects that we seem to be familiar with.  However, there is one new part of the GCSE – the Historic Environment Studies which are really new to most GCSE teachers.  I thought I would take a look at the differences between the different specifications in overview.

Board % of Grade Embedded in another unit? Specified site or centre choice? Topics
AQA 10% Yes – in British Depth Study Specified three years in advance (1) Norman, Medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration historic environment
Edexcel 10% Yes – in Thematic Study Specified in spec. (2) Crime and Policing in Whitechapel from 1870 to 1900
Surgery and Treatment on the British Western Front 1914-18
London and the Second World War 1939-45
OCR – SHP 20%(4) No – though centres can do this Centre choice (3) Centre choice within ‘parameters’
OCR 10% Yes – in British Depth Study Specified in spec. Urban Environments: Patterns of Migration
Castles: Form and Function 1000-1700
  • (1) – AQA will announce the sites when approved by Ofqual
  • (2) – ‘Site’ is widely construed to mean ‘London’, ‘Whitechapel’ or even ‘the Western Front’.
  • (3) – There are guidelines to help centres make the choice in the spec.
  • (4) – OCR – SHP spec examines the historic environment study in a separate paper.


AQA’s historic environment studies are embedded in their British depth studies, and focus on specific aspects of the wider content related to those studies. Departments that follow the ‘Norman England’ option will therefore study ‘the historic environment of Norman England’, while those taking ‘Medieval England’ will study ‘the historic environment of Medieval England’. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the departments teaching Elizabethan or Restoration England will also be teaching about the historic environment of each period.

The focuses in each ‘historic environment’ study depend on with those of the rest of each depth study, but there is a fair amount of generic description. So, whilst Elizabethan England refers to manor houses, gardens and theatres, and the Restoration period refers to ‘stately homes’, the Norman period mentions ‘Cathedrals’ as well as ‘Castles’ which also figure in the Medieval description. Each depth study refers to ‘key historical events’, though the only illustration given in each case is ‘such as battles’.

AQA plan to publish the specific sites for each exam series three years in advance on their website. I can’t find reference to these yet, though I’m sure that they have planned the first three.

Update: following a very fast email response from AQA, who tell me that: “We will be publishing the sites three years in advance (it’s in the draft b specification), so for example, once we had an indication from Ofqual that this will be acceptable we will publish the sites for 2018, 2019 and 2020 to help teachers plan their courses. We’ll also be providing individual resources packs for each site and overall guidance for schools.”

The Historic Environment makes up 10% of the total marks in AQA’s GCSE


Like AQA, Edexcel’s Historic Environment component is embedded in another study, though in this case it is the thematic rather than the depth study.  At first sight this might imply an approach which considers how and why a site changes through time.  However, AQA have set out much shorter time periods in which the Historic environment studies take place. For instance. though the Crime and Punishment In Britain study, runs from 1,000 to the present day, the embedded historic environment study is a much more focused thirty years, from 1870 to 1900 and is focused on the issue of crime and policing.

Similarly the Medicine through time study, which runs from 1250 to the present, contains the embedded historic environment study of “The British sector of the Western Front’ and is focused on the years 1914-1918 and the issues of ‘surgery and treatment’. This pattern is repeated in the Warfare through time thematic study. The London and the Second World War option runs from 1939-45, though it lacks a focussing subtitle in the way that the others have.

The Historic Environment makes up 10% of the total marks in AQA’s GCSE.


OCR is offering two different specifications at GCSE, and each has a very different approach to the historical environment.


The Schools History Project approach to the historic environment immediately sticks out from the crowd of the other three offerings.  The SHP-OCR specification it is 20%, double the tariff of the other specifications. It is also the only specification to assess understanding of the historical environment in a separate exam.

The second and perhaps most significant difference is that the specification ‘offers centres a free choice of site within a clearly stated set of parameters’, with the hope that this will lead centres to study a local site ‘that will enhance learners’ developing sense of identity’. The choice of site is not totally free, as there is a list of ‘parameters’ (though these are really guidelines to help centres choose workable sites).  Like the other boards there is no ‘requirement’ for a site visit, but the specification does say that one is ‘desirable’.  There is no requirement for the study to relate to any other part of the specification, though I would imagine that many schools will choose to find a site related to the periods and substantive history that they will be teaching elsewhere in the course.


The alternative specification, in common with those offered by the other boards, embeds the historic environment within another study. Also like  most of the specifications set out by the other boards, the historic environment study makes up 10% of the final marks of the GCSE.  Like AQA, OCR have embed their historic environment study within the British depth study.  There are two environment studies. “Urban Environments: Patters of Migration” is the study for the BASA ‘Migration to Britain’ depth study, whereas for both “The English Reformation” and ‘Personal Rule to Restoration’ depth studies centres will take ‘Castles Form and Function 1000-1700’. This approach seems to imply an aspect of change and continuity that the others do not.

This approach also differs from the other specifications in that it involves both a Board and a centre specified site which ‘complements the specified sites’.  Again a site visit is ‘desirable’ if not required. The sites for both studies until 2022 are set out in the draft specification.

I will be making a more detailed survey of each of these specifications in the coming weeks, starting with the AQA spec.  I’d love to know what departments are thinking about doing with regard to the historical environment study – or whether it has figured much in your thinking so far?

Northern History Forum

IMG_0061Last night I attended the Northern History forum at Leeds Trinity University, ran a workshop entitled ‘Playing Games in History’ and met some great teachers, new and experienced.

Ben Walsh gave the opening address, and reminded us of the benefit of asking ‘why am I teaching this?’ every now and then, as well as giving us some fantastic website tips. These included:

Time Maps

I was there to run a workshop, which I did, entitled ‘Playing with History’.  My aim was not to offer any over-arching theory, but just to present (with new teachers particularly in mind) some techniques that I have been honing over the years to keep lessons moving with purposeful pace.   You can find the materials for the talk on this page.

Great History spotted on the Web

I  have read such great history around the web this week, that I thought I’d compile some of it into a post.  Most of what I’ve spotted here should be directly relevant to teachers at KS3-5.  A good example of that is the fascinating life and views of John Lilburne, described by Michael Braddick over at Sheffiled University’s History Matters blog.  Lilburne provides the kind of life and example that we can use to great effect in the classroom, in order to ask questions like ‘why did he spend most of his life in prison’, or perhaps considering his historical significance (or lack of it!).  We might instead compare his treatement to that of Henry Vane or John Lambert in asking whether the Restored Monarchy was really as reconcilatory as the Declaration of Breda might suggest.

I have also been listening to the amazing podcasts at Alex Ford’s Meet the Historians.  This is a really exciting and ambitious project to enable students to access the thinking of historians through an interview with their history teacher.  Alex asks some really interesting questions, and the historians are given the time and space to answer. What I like most about the series is the example that Alex sets to us and his students.  What I take from this is that history is not only something that we have learned, it is something that we do, and something that we can keep on doing.   Secondly,  I think about the times we might vaguely exort our students to ‘interact’ or ‘engage’ with the sources. From this podcast students can hear, and perhaps understand what interaction with a historian might really mean.

I was drawn to this post by Scott Allsop‘s tweet.  The article itself is bit rambling, but it gets interesting right about where it discusses using diagrams to show relationships between countries, and in its central idea that devices such as these can ‘force us to expand our conception[s]’.  I often use diagrams and simplified maps to try to explain complex things. As always the devil is in the detail, but figuring out the detail can help students to understand where the limits of their knowledge are, and to put the detail back into the big picture.  As an example I asked my own students to update their diagrams of the feudal system last week.   They came up with some interesting ideas, including a feudal donut, with the king in the middle.  One really interested me.  It showed a house with a small dank cellar in which slaves worked, and two lower floors for Villeins and Freemen.  These floors were connected with stairs, which also led to the upper knightly and aristocratic floors, and finally to the attic where the King resided.  Crucially some of the stairs had baby gates installed, to make it harder for people to move upwards. This made it nearly impossible to become ennobled, but relatively easy to slip between free and unfree status depending on whether you could afford to rent land.  I can’t claim that this is a finished or full understanding of the feudal system, and I think that what’s going on here is the replacement of weaker for stronger misconceptions. It’s certainly better than the boring old Feudal pyramid that in the past I have taught in one lesson, and which then they forget.

Thinking about how history is done, over on Gaby Mahlberg‘s blog there is a really interesting post in which she reviews Writings of Exile in the English Revolution and Restoration by Philip Major.  The book itself deals with the culture of Royalists at home and those exiled beyond England and seems to offer a glimpse into the way Royalists dealt with the dislocation and loss that comes of exile.  However, what grabbed me was the way that Mahlberg describes these topics as a “newish and still only patchily explored field”, and her judgement that the book “posed many important questions, successfully answered some, but also left enough for the rest of us to puzzle over”.  Mahlberg’s review is not a question of whether Major’s ‘interpretation’ of exile was ‘correct’ or ‘accurate’, rather she seems to suggest that history is a joint-venture between countless eyes and hands, all of which build on each others’ work.  Not only that but, as there will always be new fields to be explored, the work of history cannot be finished.  I’d add that old fields can often contain new surprises.


A Cup of Tea from the History Resource Cupboard #28daysofwriting

HistoryResourceCupboardSo, yesterday was the end of a long week (even for a part timer like me), and I was stuck for something to do with my year 9 class.  It was the end of the half term, they’d just done an assessment, and we’re planning on starting the First World War next term.  All in all I was stuck, with only a vague idea of what to do.  I fired up my onedrive and typed ’empire’ into the search engine, as I hoped to find a link between what we’d been studying and the coming war.

A brilliant lesson that I’d seen described at my first SHP conference flashed up. The files must have been sitting on my drive since then, and I punched the air as I realised that the wonderful people at History Resource Cupboard had saved my bacon.  I’d hit upon the first lesson in the great scheme of work about Britain, the Empire and the Industrial revolution, which you can find here.  I can’t recommend it enough, as it starts by asking students to consider the link between tea, coffee, cheap clothes, and other commodities, encourages them to make close but fun analysis of a piece of evidence and ends with some well supported writing.  If you’ve never taken a look at the site, please do – it’s great.

#28days of Writing – Institutions and Strength.

Hmm, bit worried that I’m going to resort to this so early in my #28daysofwriting, but this evening I’ve been looking back at things that I started to write and then, for some reason, didn’t.

Last summer I went to the Northern Rocks Conference, and it was great, and I started to type this:

#Nrocks – why you should meet your heroes and your demons

I spent saturday with some committed, engaged, intelligent and funny colleagues, listening to speakers who were also incisive, informative and thought-provoking. That’s right, I spent saturday at NorthernRocks 2014 in Leeds.

So, I met some heroes (missed some too, as there were at least three people I wanted to see in each block).  However, I found myself agreeing with Dominic Cummings (the author of the legendary typed rant that was leaked from within the DfE) about one important thing – that politics should play much less of a role in classroom pedagogy.  However, something has been bugging me about Cumming’s take on ‘handing power to ‘you guys” (meaning us teachers) over things like performance pay and QTS.

Cummings was very eloquent about the negative power of interest groups and the ineptitude of politicians (westminster is ‘broken’, according to him).  I believe that he is honest about his desire to see politicians out of the way of schools and children.  I am also increasingly convinced that unions should be campaigning about our working conditions and not our pedagogy  However, I think that he dismisses the power of institutions as a force for good, and has underestimated the effect of the free for all that is the logical extension of his philosophy.

I’ve been thinking more and more about the need we have for institutions in which we can place trust, and from which we can both learn and draw strength.  I went to a great school, and I still draw strength from the experiences I had there.  My time on the PGCE course at Oxford also remains a great source of wisdom for me, and I’m very proud of the work I did for 10 years at Little Heath School, an institution which I feel great affection for.  Many people like me gain from the investment they place in leisure clubs, and the heated debates at committee meetings of photographic societies and running clubs reflect the importance that such clubs have in our lives.

I think we need more institutions, not fewer.  Teachers should belong to a profession, and if they want to, to seek membership of a Royal College of Teaching.  Induction to this profession through professional education (rather than mere workplace training), will raise the profile and the esteem of Teaching.  Rather than contamination by the blob, HEI involvement in initial and ongoing teacher education helps further to raise this esteem, and provide institutions in which we can be proud.  Through subject institutions we can learn to listen to each other, rather than throw brickbats.  The Historical Association and SHP has taught me a great deal through their publications, websites and conferences.

It’s probably a rather 19th Century view, but as I walk through Leeds and admire the buildings that our local institutions made, and sense the pride and purpose behind them, I can’t help hoping that as a profession we don’t become too atomised, and that the chains of this, and training consortia of the other, develop into (or are replaced by) institutions and organisations in which we can place our hope, loyalties and our trust.