Using historians for wider context

Marc Faccini, Assistant Principal for Enrichment and Co-Curricular at Future Academies Watford, details the importance of wider contextual knowledge, and why nothing acts in isolation.

Wider contextual knowledge

This is the phrase in the GCSE history exam questions that fills me with dread. The students I teach know stuff, they know a lot, but some cannot connect the dots between individual events. In the exam, this caused issues – some would write about the wrong events, or would miss out key events because they were not sure they should be included. Previously, I have had classes work on their chronology, looking at the impact and consequences of each event. Therefore, if you take a topic such as the Cold War, you can see one event and look at how it influenced and caused another. This created an unforeseen issue: this only works if students remember the chronology and if you take two events out of sequence, students find it harder to find the links or causation.

Textbooks are great

Another issue is always building up knowledge around the textbook. Textbooks are great; however, they can be limited in the knowledge that they provide. I remember one year, the exam question being on the Tolpuddle Martyrs, something that was given a very small paragraph in the textbook. I need students to really understand the history and the period that they are studying. Literally, placing events in the wider context.

What I needed was two things: firstly, I needed students to be confident with their knowledge and secondly, they needed to be able to use each piece of knowledge in a variety of contexts. As well as identifying a problem, I also have the right group to work with – I have a hard-working GCSE group, these students do everything that I ask and are keen to achieve. This is going to the group that I could make this biggest impact with.

I wanted them to hear how history sounds

To do this was simple. Exposure to historical writing. I saw a tweet recently that recalled something written by Christine Counsell: ‘history teachers whose reading and discussion of historical scholarship stopped aged 22 are history teachers stuck in a time warp, ill-equipped to model the vibrancy and rigour of continuing historical debate or to weigh content’.

When you think about it, it seems so simple – I improve my knowledge and understanding by my continuous reading, particularly as a medievalist, I often have to revisit much of the modern history that I teach. By exposing students to a range of historical writing, students would see the best practice in writing history, but reading historical books would also promote wider context in both what the wider contextual picture looks like, but also the wider links between the topics that are being studied. I used Mary Fulbrook’s book and the great work of Stephen Lee. I gave specific extracts of the books and read aloud to the students – this was deliberate – I wanted them to hear how history sounds. I then modelled how I would make notes, taking the points and arguments that the historian was promoting. A Q+A followed where we looked at the events across the 1920s that were mentioned in discussing the reasons for the increase in popularity of the Weimar Government. Students then highlighted their copies with all of the events/people/topics that we had covered and a further discussion took place over the result that the writer achieves.

Nothing acts in isolation

The biggest impact was that students enjoyed reading history. To begin with, it was not easy – they struggled to keep up with the argument; however, once they got used to the style of writing, they were able to follow it and act without my input. For those students who are capable and aiming for the highest grades, or for those who loved the subject, this was a great way of increasing their knowledge and their exposure to history. When the students completed an assessment, many were able to throw in pieces of information that was not in the textbook; some were able to use the direct arguments of the historians; but mainly it showed students how important wider contextual knowledge is and that nothing acts in isolation. Students have grown in confidence and I’m looking forward to using Helen Castor’s Elizabeth I with them.

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