Teaching students to think

Since joining the edu-twitter community just over a year ago, I have been exposed to much debate and contestation about the best, or the most effective, way to teach History. I have, for many months, been strongly persuaded by those educationalists and bloggers that promote a more knowledge based curriculum and have found this approach to be rigorous, engaging and meaningful for both me and the students.

This approach has forced my students to not only learn specific eras and concepts but actually know them. In many cases, I have found my lessons to be much more challenging and subsequently my pupils’ written work has flourished as they decorate their essays and narrative accounts with a high level of historical detail.

This notwithstanding, I have found cultivating judgments among students challenging. Students aren’t thinking about the topic. Indeed, my more able students can clearly provide a judgment on a historical period yet my weaker students have been left confused and unaware. This became strikingly clear when one of my Year 7 students asked: “Why do I have to acknowledge and write about opinions that I believe to be true?”

As we are aware, it is critical for modern historians to read many texts over a broad topic and ultimately provide their judgments on this literature in order to inspire an original contribution to any given field. As Lee Donaghy has said, this takes many years for a professional historian to master, so it is unfair and unrealistic to expect teenagers to do the same after only 50 minutes of exposure to any given topic.

So, then, how do we get students to think more independently and rigorously about historical interpretations?

A common way that historical interpretations are used in lessons are during end of unit assessments where students must write an essay judging how far they agree with a statement about any given topic. On the surface, this method allows students to write critically about a historical interpretation, which is linked with the new GCSE specification, it certainly has its drawbacks. I have found that students often see this type of question as a trick that needs to be grappled with, including showing a variety of perspectives, and ticking a number of boxes in order to get the mark. Regardless of this, I don’t think it forces students to genuinely think independently about their studies.

Rather, just like at university, each of my lessons are based around my historical interpretations. First, I make it very clear to my students that what I teach, and how I teach them, is my interpretation of any given event. Secondly, students are expected to link my interpretation to the given text of the lesson – usually Robert Peal’s Knowing History textbook range with Collins. Lastly, students are expected to challenge my opinion by the end of the lesson. Two examples of my historical interpretations are:

  • When teaching medieval society and feudalism, I argue that peasants were much more clever and developed than many historians have said. They used their best equipment on their land and did the quickest job possible when cultivating their lord’s land. They also knew that they were needed by the lord as much as the lord needed them in order for feudalism to properly and effectively work.
  • During my lessons on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I argue that Rosa Parks was in the right place at the right time and her role was completely insignificant for the development of Civil Rights.
  • (I can expand on these if anyone wishes..)

This method has been successful. I have found that students have been much more ready to think about the topics that they know and pupils have begun to understand that every single part of history is highly debated and contested, which makes it so interesting. Moving forward, we will begin to unpick why historians may promote a certain interpretation.