The completion of teaching for the 2017-18 academic year doesn’t mean the end of teaching itself; along with all the admin work and the various opportunities to get involved in training comes the various and many taster sessions that are put on for upcoming potential students. Over the past month I’ve been involved in a few different versions of these, including some for students that will not be entering A-level study until after the summer of 2019. And all the while I’ve been reflecting on what makes a really good taster session: what types of questions should they be asked, and what type of content should I be covering? Ultimately, I decided on a session (ranging from 20-45 minutes) that would concentrate on asking some key questions about the study of history and seeing the students themselves get involved in an activity to assess their current range of skills and own ability to question. And so, here’s a run through of what I’ve covered in some of these sessions in June and July.
For starters, I go through some brief aims for the session, which include:
- To introduce the course and the modules covered.
- To discuss concepts relating to historiography (the study of history)
- To understand why it is important that historians have different interpretations
- To engage in a source-based activity to show-case detective skills
My first starter activity is discussion based, centring on two key questions:
These are some big weighty questions. ‘What is History’ is a question asked by every historian and is the subject matter for countless books on historical methodology. Nobody, it seems, can come to a full and convincing consensus. But of course, that is the beauty of the subject: that it is open to interpretation. Generally students can identity a difference between everything that is ever happen (‘the past’ Marwick would say) and the significant juicy stuff (‘history’ that is agreed on by historians). In this way we could break this down into two segments:
- Everything that has happened (all the insignificant “stuff”)
- The “stuff” that is important enough for historians to concentrate on.
This is illustrated in the next slide:
I think we can all agree (even historians!) that Hitler was significant and worthy of the attention of historians and scholarly work. However, my two dogs (Fred and Winnie) are not significant enough to merit such attention. Of course, this slide is also an opportunity for me to showcase my two dogs to future students; both of which will form the basis of many rambling digressions. But we could develop this further by bringing in the authority of someone like Marwick, who also makes similar distinctions:
So here we have three layers of distinction: everything that has happened (‘the past’), history being the “stuff” that was significant, and a third additional one (historiography). Everyone partakes in the first stage in that we all have our very own personal histories and past lives. Many participate in the second stage in that people study history back at school and engage in history related material later in life (through reading a book or watching a documentary). However, there is a third layer in Marwick’s list: historiography. This is an unknown term for the majority of those unfamiliar with the study of history: it chiefly concerns how historians interpret the past and whether or not certain ideas should be promoted or dismissed. This third layer is the most interesting of all and is the one that students of history engage with if they have any intention of getting a high grade. Of course, a clash of interpretations – which is often amongst historians – can lead to conflict:
But it could be argued that this conflict is needed and that great historians are the ones who have a fresh interpretation and are willing to throw it into the ring to be seized upon by others. Although other great skills are needed to become a great historian: the ability to think independently and beyond the notion of “common sense”, as well as the ability to dig deeper into issues (just as a detective would) in order to piece together the fragmented, chaotic past into a coherent shape.
The session then delves into discussion regarding sources. Sources are the bedrock of historical study and are needed in order to substantiate interpretations; therefore students of history need to be able to interrogate a source for its value and worth. They do this by simply asking questions of it (What is it? Who made it? When was it made? Where was it made? Why was it made?) and from here we can start to get a sense of how a specific source helps us construct the past:
After this point in the session I provide different pairs/small groups with an image taken from one of the key modules studied at A-level (from ‘The Tudors’ or from ‘Germany 1918-1945’). I don’t give them any context regarding the image, but I urge them to ask simple questions of the images. From here we can start exercising our enquiry skills. One such image comes from Nazi Germany:
Hitler and Nazi Germany always brings a bit of awareness: it is far too important and note-worthy to have been neglected at some point in schooling and in pop culture. So, at this point the students would know Hitler when they see him. But, even without this, the students can deduce that the central person in the image is of importance. Let’s run through the questions:
- What is it?
It is a painting depicting a central figure holding a loft a flag (the swastika). The man is in a military uniform and looks determined. Behind him are amassed dozens (hundreds?) of others dressed just like him. It is likely a biased image in that it shows these people (the Nazis) in a positive, passionate light; it is most likely to be a propaganda image.
- When was this made and who made it?
There are two options here: either during the period when the Nazis were in power (1933-45) or after their downfall by a sympathetic party.
- Why was it made?
To highlight the strength and unity of the Nazi party (a theme regularly returned to in speeches and other propaganda pieces). It shows that the people are united behind Hitler, and therefore Germans across the Reich would be able to see this and feel similar united.
I was interested in the views of the students on engaging in this source, and they did a great job of going further in developing the implicit messages: such as the sun shining on Hitler, the possible religious connotations (is that an angel in the sunlight?), as well as the historical imperial connotations (such as the imperial eagle). This one simple image can raise many questions, which in turn lead to many other questions. Nazi propaganda plays a significant part in understanding Hitler and his party, as well as in understanding what convinced many Germans to vote them in the first place.
The session then ends with a plenary and recapping the central points of discussion throughout the taster session. As a taster session I think it worked fairly well in that students engaged in sources and I was able to nod at many of their interesting suggestions and interpretations. The longer I teach the more I believe that the key to becoming a successful historian lies in the confidence to develop an interpretation. It is a skill that I hope to really promote in the year ahead.