One of the biggest trends in history teaching in the last five years has been the increased focus on the importance of scholarship in the planning and delivery of lessons.
Once you have read through a historian’s work, it can be challenging to think of ways to get it into lessons. I have a hierarchy of ways that scholarship can fit into lessons.
From top to bottom:
Enthusiasm, Anecdotes and Discussions are a well and good but this is an article for Practical Histories! The rest of the article will focus on the ways that practical resources can be made that have scholarship at their heart.
Planning an enquiry based on scholarship can be an immensely rewarding experience. Being part of the History Teacher’s Book Club has led me to books I would never have read and really inspired me to create some lessons that are far more diverse.
River Kings makes use of several references to archaeological sites around Europe to demonstrate how far the Vikings travelled.
I used Marc Morris’ explanation of what was found at Sutton Hoo to help students understand what was found in the burial site and who was interred there.
After so much analysis of artefacts, students were then able to identify unseen artefacts based on what they knew about Viking and Saxon architecture.
I found creating the resources easy because the scholarship fitted the enquiry that I was doing perfectly. I was able to draw on expertise to elevate something I would not have been able to research myself.
Guided reading is one of the simplest ways to drop scholarship into a lesson and give students a chance to engage with historians.
I developed the guided reading activity from my own research methods. I was part of a History teacher Crusade Network that took part in conference days with Thomas Asbridge.
While studying the preparatory reading, I started giving every paragraph a title on one side and jotted down the key assertions on the other side. I then finished with a summary diagram based on everything I read.
The minute I tried it with students I knew it had an application in the classroom. It really forces students to engage with the text and stops them from just passively highlighting, and then not processing, the work.
Make sure you select a piece of text that is appropriate for your class in terms of language and length.
When introducing it first time, lead students through the process and pause for peer and group reflection of the process.
Include the name of the historian and where the text has come from so that the summary activity can be about interpreting views just as much as retaining information.
Story Sources & Scholarship
Dan Warner-Meanwell incorporated the idea of guided reading into his Story, Sources & Scholarship (SSS) activity. By including three key areas of study for historians, students are given a rigorous lesson experience.
The addition of conflicting historians means that pupils end any SSS activity with a judgement to make about which historian’s views they agree with.
Dan has been incredibly generous in sharing his own examples and has collated others on his website. They cover a wide range of topics and can get you started on including them in your lessons.
The judgement line is a common feature of classrooms. Some teachers like to get students to write their opinion along a line to show where students feel in relation to a two sides argument. Variations are the “blame line” or “opinion line”.
The issue is that many students lack the confidence to express their views when faced with a wide expanse of undefined variations to a binary judgement.
I have started to add the judgements of historians when I do a judgement line.
This way students have a scaffold for their own judgements. They can place themselves along the line independent of these historians or by interacting with them.
It is also a great way of discussing historiography if you include the dates of when these interpretations were created or by adding details of the historians concerned.
Students declaring themselves a Marxist or revisionist historian after placing themselves on a developed judgement line is always pleasing.
A view from …
Scholarship is also a great way of getting diverse voices into lessons. Historians have spent all of the time in the archives finding engaging stories to fill their work, we can just lift them out and place them in our lessons.
I am trying to add a wider range of voices to my GCSE topics. The inter-war period and Nazi Germany are widely studied but often it can feel like the topic can seem very top down. I have found the work of Julia Boyd to be incredibly helpful in adding different people to my lessons.
Every “a view from” resource has a short excerpt from the book, featuring the account of someone visiting Germany.
I recently used “A view from Joan Fry” (a Quaker in Germany for charity work in 1919) to give students a more nuanced understanding of the German reaction to the Treaty of Versailles.
Judge a book by its cover
I first saw this idea used by Katie Amery. It is simple, easy to resource and brilliantly effective.
Students stick the front cover of the book that will be used in the lesson and annotate it for meaning. It helps them to understand the meta narratives and focus of the book.
It is also really useful in getting students to think about how historians are creating an interpretation of the past rather than just “facts”.
A variation is for students to end a sequence of lessons by designing their own cover for the book, a great way for them to reflect on what they have taken away from an enquiry.
So for example we can ask, “What can we learn about Empireland from the cover of the book?”
Chapter and verse
If “A view from” uses small excerpts to great effect, then Chapter and verse is a way to use a whole book with a class. It would be unrealistic to expect a class to read all of a historian’s work but a chapter seems far more feasible.
Chapter and verse gives students a range of activities to do while reading a specific chapter. They have to look for specific comments in relation to your focus (in this example: Henry VIII) as well as some notes as an overview of the chapter.
I also include the context of the historian and ask students to find quotes that sum up their view on a range of themes. They finish by stating how convincing they found the end of the chapter.
You can actually upscale this activity and give pupils different chapters. Before you know it, the whole class has a summary of a 300+ tome!
Jumping between topics and time periods is jarring for students. It is easy to forget the hinterland gap that exists between us and our students.
When we start a new topic there are lots of ways to help anchor students in the period we are studying. Historical scholarship can provide this.
Lots of introductions have to set the scene for a historian’s readers, since their editors will often have required them to offer a contextual overview.
Hallie Rubenhold offers an evocative introduction of Victorian London in The Five; Ian Mortimer drops you right in the middle of Elizabethan England, and Peter Frankopan manages to set the scene for the importance of trade from Samarkand to Istanbul.
This is my…
Historians can also be used in concert to make students think deeply about the link between the creator of history and their interpretations.
Based on a (quite frankly bonkers) BBC Two show called This is MY house, This is my… uses one interpretation, but gives students three different potential historians with a brief summary of their background and area of study.
Students then choose which historian connects to the interpretation and provides their justifications for each selection.
It works well as a starter or plenary. It can also be used for primary sources as well.
You can find an example of this in the downloadable resources below.
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Poster & displays
There is also valuable space around the classroom and in the corridor where you can display the work of historians to inspire students.
How historians think demonstrates how professionals contest with the key concepts of the past in a diagrammatic way. It was inspired by the work of Oliver Cavaglioni in dual coding.
These diagrams help to provide the visual representation of the abstract concepts that are essential for the study of the past. I include a historian’s extract on the topic as an example to demonstrate how historians write about it.
I have also started creating posters around key quotes from historians to help students with their historical analysis. Mantel’s sieve is such a great way of helping pupils understand how the past is constructed and Olusoga’s Razor is helpful in contending with conflicting accounts.
The key with scholarship is to let it guide your thinking and resources but don’t let it control what you are doing. It needs to enhance the learning of students rather than leave them overwhelmed. These tips and strategies should help you in the rewarding task of adding more historians to your classroom conversations.
Simon Beale is Subject Leader of History and Politics and Associate Assistant Headteacher at Vyners School, a large 11-18 secondary school in West London. Simon is also co-founder of the History Teacher Book Club.