More on British History Classes

More from the article on British history classes:

Progressive educators tend to cast skills and knowledge as a dichotomy, when in reality they are a sequence, and knowledge must come first. Trying to exercise historical skills such as source analysis or understanding causation without a solid grounding in a historical topic is impossible. It is like trying to run before you can walk. Pupils find the whole process frustrating and confusing.

This became clear to me when I taught a class of 13-year-olds about Napoleon. Still under the baleful influence of my training, I started the lesson by showing them a source — Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting Napoleon in his Study. I then asked them to infer from this source what sort of man Napoleon was. The class fell about laughing at his effete stance and tight trousers, and repeatedly inferred that he must be gay. I angrily explained that he enjoyed a particularly passionate marriage to a lady called Josephine, and asked them to infer something else. There was a pause. “You must admit, he does look pretty camp,” came the next response.

My pupils could not take an interest in Napoleon because they did not know his story. With minimal context offered, one of the greatest figures of modern European history appeared to them as remote and risible. I decided that for the next lesson I would photocopy “The Last Conqueror”, a chapter on Napoleon in Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. We read it as a class, and they were fascinated: “How could so many French soldiers die retreating from Russia? . . . How was Napoleon allowed to give his brothers whole countries to rule? . . . Why were the English allied with the Germans at Waterloo?” Facts are easily derided, but facts are what make history come alive. Only when pupils become interested in them will the skills begin to emerge.

And then there’s this clincher:

Today, traditional history lessons are invariably seen as boring, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Have you ever heard someone reminisce about an inspiring history teacher who was a “guide on the side”? Great history teachers draw upon a passion for and knowledge of the subject to tell stories, explain ideas and bring the past alive. They do not have to rely on nonsense “learning activities” to make the subject engaging, for discussing the story of humankind is interesting in its own right. In short, they teach from the front.

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2 Responses to More on British History Classes

  1. Captain Easychord says:

    If you’re surprised and offended that 13 year olds would find the portrait funny, then you obviously don’t know 13 year olds very well. Looking at the portrait, I can see exactly why a teenager would see it as camp – no point in getting angry at their response. Why not discuss with them why they think it’s camp and then move on to tell them about clothing styles at the time? What they need is guidance into how to ‘read’ the painting. Analysing such a source for inference is perfectly valid, but you can’t expect them to do it without the support of the teacher’s knowledge.

    I’m glad the teacher managed to move on from it and engage their interest in the subject though.

  2. The point, I think, isn’t that 13-year-olds are immature (of course they are), but that none of them had enough prior knowledge about history to say anything else.

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