Teacher and author Dale Banham explains how historical puzzles and in-depth stories can grab a student’s attention and fire their enthusiasm and passion for the subject.
Stories as hooks and initial stimulus material
As much as possible we should aim to start each lesson or sequence of lessons with the historical puzzle, the in-depth story that grabs the student’s attention and fires their enthusiasm and passion for the subject.
Even when teaching exam units, take time to build a sense of engagement and puzzle first. Students perform better when the initial emphasis is placed on the intrinsic motivation of the subject, the human story, the historical puzzle and the engaging enquiry that pulls these together.
The example below is taken from a Year 9 enquiry into the Holocaust. The enquiry starts with the initial stimulus of part of a photo that is gradually revealed to the class as they infer answers to the questions on the slide.
The enquiry itself is built around the story of one individual in the photograph, Frank Bright, and his attempt since retirement to find out what happened to his classmates.
Frank’s research can help to challenge student misconceptions and broaden their understanding of the Holocaust.
The photo was taken in a Jewish school in Prague in 1942. Many members of the class were sent to ghettos, some were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, others were sent to death camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz. Frank and some members of the class survived the
Holocaust because they were chosen for slave labour.
Through one class photo we gain a complex, tragic and intimate account of the impact of the Holocaust on multiple lives.
Students gain an important opportunity to see victims of persecution not as a faceless, nameless mass of victims but as individuals.
Understanding events such as the Holocaust from the perspective of the victims is crucial.
Too many students can fail to register that the past is about human action and that the events studied affected people’s lives, often in devastating ways.
They can struggle to see links between facts and historical narratives, unless those facts are brought absolutely to life, mediated by personality.
By carefully planning our routes into historical enquires we can show students that history is not the story of strangers, aliens from another universe; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier.
As Michael Wood stated in a recent edition of the BBC History magazine ‘History is many things, but at its most powerfully affecting it is the tale, explored with truth, clarity and feeling, of a single life through time.’
Using a story to set up a mystery or puzzle
Another effective example of using a powerful story to engage students with a key area of the curriculum is Ian Dawson’s use of the story of Henry II being whipped by monks in July 1174.
Becket was murdered in December 1170, but Henry wasn’t whipped until July 1174 – why the gap?
The story creates a sense of mystery – Why did one of the most powerful rulers English history has seen consent to being whipped by monks?
This provides an intriguing way into power relationships in Medieval England. Henry needed to buy the Church’s help against rebels amongst his own family and his barons.
He was not all-powerful – a quite different conclusion from one that is reached by solely studying the events of December 1170.
The activity helps students reflect upon key themes such as the importance of religion
and the power of kings in the medieval period.
Stories that shine a light on the key themes
The introductory story can drive the enquiry that follows and as teachers we can make full use of the overview strands that lurk within the engaging depth study of an individual.
For example, the story of Thomas Howard provides an absorbing way of exploring some of the key themes of Elizabethan England.
It provides a way of connecting to previous knowledge – Thomas Howard’s father and grandfather were central characters during the reign of Henry VIII.
As the diagram shows, the family history of the Howards and story of Thomas Howard highlights many of the key features and themes of the Elizabethan period – such as the problems caused by rivalry within the royal court, arguments over the succession and rebellions involving leading nobles.
Howard was wealthy, ambitious and one of the most powerful nobles in England. He was angry when Elizabeth chose William Cecil as her main adviser.
Norfolk felt that he was being ignored at court. However, his plan to gain greater influence backfired and helped cause a rebellion in the north of England.
Norfolk even planned to marry Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. This is a good example of the overview that can lurk within the depth of an individual story.
Another example is using the life story of Jesse Owens as an introduction to an enquiry into the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Owens’ life provides a lot of contextual information about what life was like for Black Americans in the 1930s, as well as the longer-term causes of discrimination.
His grandparents had been slaves. Jesse’s parents, like many Black Americans in the south, were sharecroppers.
Being a sharecropper meant that a family rented land, and received a house, tools and sometimes seed.
In return they had to give the landlord (usually a white farmer) who owned the land one half or sometimes two thirds of the crop.
Living conditions for Jesse and his family were very harsh.
Their house was later described by Jesse as ‘wooden planks thrown together’. The roof leaked and it was very cold in the winter.
The family had no money for doctors or medicine. When a large lump appeared on Jesse’s leg his mother cut it out with a hot kitchen knife.
Even after becoming perhaps the most celebrated athlete on the planet, Jesse still encountered prejudice. When Jesse returned to America from the Olympics, he soon encountered prejudice and discrimination again.
In Germany, during the Olympics Games, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as white athletes.
When he returned to America, he found that he could not ride in the front of a bus or live where he wanted. This shows students how ingrained racism was in American society at the time.
Stories that challenge misconceptions
Stories can also be used to challenge misconceptions that students might have at the start of an enquiry.
The example below uses the story of Albert Speer and his family to demonstrate that many middle class Germans supported the Nazi party – challenging the common misconception that it was only the unemployed working class who were attracted to the party.
Stories can provide opportunities for meaningful retrieval practice.
The story of an individual can also represent an excellent opportunity to reflect back and connect to previous knowledge.
We normally use the story of Ernst Rohm as a way into exploring the Night of the Long Knives during an investigation into how Hitler became a dictator.
However, Rohm had been a member of the Freikorps and he was involved in the Munich Putsch.
His story therefore provides a way to pose questions that lead to meaningful retrieval practice – seeing how much students can remember about content covered in previous units of the GCSE course.
This form of spaced retrieval practice is very useful, linking new knowledge to previous knowledge at the point when it begins to be forgotten.
It also adds variety to the regular retrieval activities we set.
Finally, stories can also be developed into parallel timelines that show the connections between events affecting an individual, national developments and the international context.
The example below is centred on the life of Frank Bright (see earlier class photo). It shifts the story of Jewish persecution from the perpetrators to the victims, helping students see that decisions taken at an international level or by national governments have a very
real impact on the lives of individuals.
Three parallel timelines run through the story below: international events (in black), events in Germany (in blue) and Frank’s story (in red).
This helps students develop a clear chronological framework for the events that occurred between the First World War (when Frank’s father and uncle fought for Germany) and the end of the Second World War (when nearly all members of Frank’s family ended up as victims of the Holocaust).
Images courtesy Hodder Education – visit the Hodder Education website for Dale Banham’s series of textbooks – Engaging with AQA GCSE (9-1) History.
Dale Banham is a Deputy Headteacher (Curriculum, CPD and Teaching & Learning) at Northgate High School, a large 11-18 comprehensive in Ipswich. Dale is an Honorary Fellow of the Schools History Project and has recently published a new set of textbooks for Hodder Education