I am. This student can’t see the relevance of history. I’m working on it. Seriously though, if I can’t convince them that it matters, what is going to happen to them? Will they work hard in my lessons? Will they take an interest, study further at home? Will they choose to study history when they are no longer compelled to do so? Will they appreciate the depth behind contemporary problems or the insight the past offers? Until I can change their perceptions of the subject – probably not.
Two months ago, in a post asking ‘Why isn’t our education system working?’, Joe Kirby argued a major problem was lack of rigour. Writing, not about the “intended” National Curriculum, but “the enacted school curriculum: what actually gets taught in classrooms,” he argued :
Schemes of work in schools are admired based on how relevant and engaging they are as opposed to how rigorous and challenging they are. In principle, there is no trade-off between relevance and rigour; in practice, there is all the difference in the world…”
Michael Gove picked up and expanded upon Joe’s words; much comment attached to his discussion of the ‘Mr Men’ lesson, but he made a broader point. Quoting the passage above, he wondered whether the enacted curriculum saw “proper history teaching… being crushed under the weight of play-based pedagogy which infantilises children, teachers and our culture.”
Better men than I have taken him to task on the speech and the curriculum, notably David Cannadine, Simon Schama and Richard Evans; Russell Tarr has refuted the attack on the Mr Men lesson. I want to take issue with another pedagogical aspect of the speech: I am deeply concerned by this attack on relevance: in teaching, where it is a prerequisite of learning; in history, where it is integral to the discipline.
Relevance is a prerequisite of learning – and thus, of rigour
Daniel Willingham, quoted frequently by Michael Gove, not least in the Mr Men speech, reminds us that students need to find meaning in their learning to ensure retention. “For material to be learned (that is to end up in long-term memory), it must reside for some period in working memory – that is, students must pay attention to it (Why Don’t Students Like School, p.65).” He examines an experiment asking subjects to read a list of words- they were told either to note whether or not a word contained an A or Q, or whether it engendered pleasant or unpleasant feelings. The ‘feelings’ group remembered twice as many words (p.60). “How the student thinks of the experience completely determines what will end up in long-term memory. The obvious implication for teachers is that they must design lessons that will ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material p.63.” Willingham uses this to explain why teachers must consider what students will actually be focusing upon while learning (a powerpoint about the French Revolution may engender more learning about flashy animations than the storming of the Bastille). Equally, this underscores the criticality of students finding meaning in their learning.
A study conducted in American science lessons reinforces this message and identifies the impact of perceived relevance on motivation and subject choice. In a randomised controlled trial, Hulleman and Harackiewicz demonstrated that encouraging students to make connections between their lives and what they were learning in science “Increased interest in science and course grades for students with low success expectations.” They particularly underlined the importance of this for disadvantaged students who “May not perceive, or may have a harder time perceiving, relevance and value in their schoolwork.” They also noted that “Interest is a more powerful predictor of future choices than prior achievement or demographic variables,” something particularly important for history teachers.
If students believe they are being presented with material which is irrelevant to them and their lives, they are unlikely to take an interest in it and so to retain it. If students feel something about what they learn (the despair of a slave, the excitement of the start of the Renaissance, the momentum of the Nazi takeover of power), they are far more likely to remember it. And this is particularly appropriate for students who may not immediately perceive the meaning of the material they are being offered.
What this looks like in practice:
This picture is my list of reasons given by twenty Year 9 students (of 24) for not linking history, when I asked them in the first lesson of the year.
The underlying sentiment is clear: the subject lacks meaning or connection to their lives. This was a challenging, wonderful group of individuals with a huge amount to offer and they didn’t see any point in learning history.
I spent an entire term ‘off-piste,’ covering the scheme of work only incidentally, examining historical and philosophical dilemmas which exemplified the importance of history. We looked at problems like what caused the London riots as historians; not only did this lead to fascinating discussion, it inspired Zelal to visit a police station to ask for arrest statistics (I recount this adventurous term here).
Three months later, the relevance and importance of history were entrenched in their minds – then I aimed for rigour. The first thing I got them to do was to write and then rewrite essays on the causes of the London riots. Throughout the rest of the year, I kept underscoring the relevance of what we were learning, but also pushed them as hard as I could. Students worked exceptionally hard and ended up with far higher levels and far greater engagement in history. Nineteen students picked history for GCSE at the end of the year, a rate three times the school average.
Now, just reverse this order – or simply assume that all they needed was more rigour. What they needed was to love the subject and to be pushed to be brilliant at it. I had tried rigour alone the year before; it worked for some individuals, but for the class as a whole, it failed to motivate or engage, behaviour and choices at GCSE reflected that.
Motivation matters. Meaning matters. Relevance matters. I would love to hear from anyone teaching in a deprived or just a non-selective school, how they bring out the best in students without showing them the relevance and importance of what they are learning. There are many ways to do this – one of the great challenges is taking an apparently arcane topic and showing its relevance. But I challenge anyone to dispense with this and succeed in motivating and inspiring their students.
When we learn history, we seek relevance
In studying history we learn fascinating stories and imagine other times; equally, we understand our world better. If I didn’t see this relevance, I cannot imagine myself so enthralled by the subject.
This doesn’t mean that we should only seek to teach ‘relevant’ topics. Rather, we should take ancient, ‘difficult’, unfamiliar topics and identify what makes them relevant.
To offer one example, Jeremy McInerney notes in his course on Ancient Athens:
The Greeks established democracy, valued the rule of law, and articulated definitions of freedom and virtue. At the same time they owned slaves, denied women a public voice, and asserted their racial superiority… They were a complex, complicated civilization, and we are their descendants… By engaging with the Greeks, we may come to understand our own world more fully.”
*Almost all the remaining photos in this blog are student responses to a question I include on their half-termly reflection sheets, which is adapted from the work of Hulleman and Harackiewicz cited earlier: How is the history we have learned useful or relevant to you/to modern life?
Not just Athens though – we can learn more about how multicultural societies rise and fall from Convivencia Spain, trace the fear of the ‘undeserving poor’ from Elizabethan Poor Laws, consider the importance of individual liberty through the Putney Debates. Every aspect of history has relevance to some aspect of our lives today, it is intrinsic to the subject. Once you highlight this way of seeing, students will do the same: two years ago, in her first lesson on the Cold War, Penelope spontaneously likened its proxy conflicts to the Byzantine Empire’s system of client states (she was someone who did choose History GCSE).
Michael Gove believes the past is relevant to us, too. In one speech, he argued that: “All of us, I am sure, were inspired by a teacher or teachers who kindled a love of knowledge, a restless curiosity, and a passion for our subject when we were young.”
“Shakespeare’s dramas, Milton’s verse, Newton’s breakthroughs, Curie’s discoveries, Leibniz’s genius, Turing’s innovation, Beethoven’s music, Turner’s painting, Macmillan’s choreography, Zuckerberg’s brilliance. And all of us, I believe, want to excite the next generation – as we were excited – by the adventure of learning.”
He wants the history curriculum to affect young people too; his call for “Space for study of the heroes and heroines whose example is truly inspirational,” implies, presumably that they see these heroes as offering a relevant example to their lives. Although he and I might choose different heroes and heroines (see, for example, Schama on Clive of India), we agree on this at least.
If Mr Gove believes, as it appears he does, history should be relevant to students, attacking teachers who show this relevance seems counter-productive.
When we learn history we acquire habits of mind which serve us well elsewhere
Another huge pleasure offered by history is the chance to get involved with a knotty problem – what actually happened? When our witnesses disagree or our interpreters clash, we are forced to investigate problems thoughtfully, reading between the lines, seeking every source possible, sometimes falling back on our intuition – and presenting our conclusions convincingly.
I am tip-toeing around the word ‘skills’ here. Daniel Willingham has offered strong evidence that ‘skills,’ as such, do not transfer easily between domains. (Or rather, that novices and experts approach problems differently, so teaching students the practice of experts is not always helpful).
So let me use another term – ‘habits of mind.’ One of the first things my students learn is that any statement must be backed up by evidence. This habit, of justifying your thoughts, will serve students well in any context. With time and practice, broader structures for arguments can transfer too.
Willingham, ever reasonable, also noted that activities appropriate for experts may be justified for other reasons- he particularly notes motivation (pp.142-3) – he just cautions teachers to be mindful that the result is likely to be motivation, rather than deep learning of a topic.
When Ananama said to me a year ago – “I want to be a journalist – I don’t see how history is relevant to that…” I asked her what journalists do. “They research things, find out what happened, then write articles.” We quickly agreed that this was exactly what a historian does.
She was in Year 8 – a long way from mastery. However, with that boost in motivation, I can imagine her continued study of the subject and additional effort towards it. I could even suggest that this might have the effect of nudging her to pursue the subject with sufficient evidence and hard work to reach mastery. This would certainly make her a good candidate for journalism.
In sum, if skills are to transfer (and Willingham doesn’t say this is a bad idea, he says it’s much harder than we imagine), if students are to be motivated, then we could and should be noting the relevance of history.
Teachers have a hard job persuading students that anything they are teaching them matters, doubly so in deprived communities or with students who may not share teachers’ views as to the value of education itself.
If teachers need to highlight the relevance of the subject, the topic or the habits of mind this builds, then they need space and support to do so.
If there is another solution to engaging students, getting them learning, I’d love to hear it – but it is not rigour alone, nor discipline alone. These are important. But they force compliance, not a love of learning – they are temporary student. In history’s case, a solution relying on these approaches alone is likely to lose us the student at 14. In English, there is, of course, compulsion to continue studying – but we risk a deeper disengagement with Shakespeare, or reading, let’s say.
I have been inspired by a couple of people promoting deeply rigorous approaches to their classes in the last week. Learning about Jo Facer teaching her Year 7s Chaucer, her Year 9s The Odyssey, or Joe Kirby setting out to ensure his students really understand Dickens’ context made me genuinely envious of their students. I asked Jo how she enthused her students with Chaucer, part of her answer read: “With year 7, I don’t think I would go down the “English canon, important, blah” route. They just aren’t interested. Like the Ofsted English report says, try to enthuse year 7 about GCSEs and they just don’t get it.”
We are dealing with children – wonderful, articulate, brilliant children, but children nonetheless. Let’s not condemn teachers attempting to make what they are learning relevant to them. Let’s be critical about the approach we take, let’s be wary of approaches which inject relevance at the expense of learning or rigour. But let us not pretend removing the relevance and relying on rigour alone is a solution.
Let us, instead, engage our students in that rigour and work with them to find the meaning in the curriculum and the desire to excel – rather than pretending we can impose excellence upon them.
This blog post has grown and been split at least three ways; next week I will talk about what the history curriculum looks like – and what it might look like.