#youreallyshouldteach…Interpretations of Abolition

With the new A-level came a new coursework topic. I now offer my year 12s the option of writing their essay about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which is particularly pertinent to the school’s context. Much reading ensued. Most of the students are writing about the reasons for abolition, so we have researched interpretations together.

I’ve been teaching a short sequence of lessons on abolition to year 8 for several years now, as part of their study of changes in Britain 1750-1900. It allows for a recap on the Transatlantic Slave Trade unit that I teach in year 7. We use my old favourite Peace and War textbook, which has an excellent four page sequence on different reasons for abolition. The extra reading for the A-level put this into context and I have now started teaching my students about the history of the history, as well as the history. I find it to be a very accessible way of introducing the idea that history changes over time.

The two historians we look at are Reginald Coupland and Eric Williams. Coupland was a professor of Empire history, born in 1884, who promoted the moral and religious motivations of the abolitionists as the main reason for the success of their movement. A biographer of William Wilberforce, Coupland held up the abolitionist movement as an example of Britain leading the world in a moral crusade. He seems to have been nostalgic for the Empire, sitting in an office funded by Cecil Rhodes’s money and buying up abolitionist literature. In my fertile imagination, he finds himself disappointed that something considered so glorious when he was a child has become so rapidly discredited and is looking for silver linings (I’m really projecting here: I haven’t done enough reading to be able to say that, really). Coupland represents the whiggish interpretation of history, that humankind is on a journey to being more civilised.

On the other side, Williams was born in Trinidad in 1911. He studied history at Oxford, where he experienced quite a lot of prejudice. He went on the become the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, overseeing its transition from colony to independence. In 1944, he published his work Capitalism and Slavery, in which he claimed that the moral crusade was incidental to the real reason for abolition, which was that the monopoly held by the Caribbean plantations was no longer in the best interests of the British public. Cheaper sugar was available from other (slave-worked) colonies, such as Cuba; abolishing the slave trade and, eventually, slavery was a way of breaking the monopoly held by a bunch of rich men with strong political representation. Williams doesn’t entirely discount the impact of the anti-slavery campaigns, but he places them among other factors, including slave rebellions, that are lesser to the idea that slavery was abolished because it was holding capitalism back.

There are plenty of other points of view, of course. In Hull they’ll tell you it was all down to Wilberforce. Hochschild makes a good case for the tireless campaigning by the Quakers and individuals such as Clarkson in Bury the Chains. I’ve got Fryer’s Staying Power for a Marxist take on it and Olusoga’s Black and British, but I need to wrestle those back off my year 13s before I can summarise what they think.

For year 8, however, these two provide the perfect start. Not too much and not too complicated. Once the background to each interpretation has been explained, students find it quite straightforward to match the historian to his tale. Just two pictures of the historians on the board elicited the first inference: “He’s white, so he wants his people to look good. He’s black, and he doesn’t care about making them look good.” You mean, their backgrounds have something to do with the story they’re telling? Quite. So, let’s go from there.

Some further reading:

1900-2007: The Legacies of Slavery and Anti-Slavery, Richard Huzzey

British historians and Capitalism and Slavery, O.H.Folarin – on JSTOR – you have to register but it’s free to read. It’s a 1970s review of the topic so it provides a nice interpretation in itself as well as outlining the main arguments.

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WLFS takeaways

As usual, I have spent some time today reflecting on what I can change about my practice following the WLFS conference.

I can plan some short thematics for KS3

Elizabeth Carr’s reminder of Michael Riley’s development study, Toilets through Time, had made me think about where I can put shorter development studies into my KS3 programme of study, potentially replacing some of the chunkier ones. I love development studies at KS3 (that’s my workshop for SHP this summer) but they take a long time and it is easy to lose the thread on one hour of lessons a week. A shorter, snappier version would achieve the same chronology recap and focus on change and continuity and, cleverly considered, could underpin our study of Medicine at GCSE.

I can do multiple choice quizzing to help build student confidence at A-level

Paula Lobo shared how she provides four statements analysing a source, from which the students have to pick the correct one. At the end, she works the correct statements into model answers. This modelling has helped her students to do what comes naturally to those of us who have been doing it for years. I’ve been puzzling over how to better help my students summarise the message of an interpretation for their A-level paper, and I think this will work really well.

I can pair knowledge quizzes with source analyses

Also from Paula – providing a knowledge quiz first forces students to see the link between contextual knowledge and unpicking historical sources. My colleague has been focusing on student skills in this area lately so I am going to pass this on to him to look at. What I really liked about Paula’s quizzes is that the questions were so massively long: they gave an enormous information to go along with the answer students gave. Sneaky, like extra veggies in a bolognese.

I can improve my year 12 mini-NEA project

At the start of the year I wrote that my year 12s would be writing short NEAs on each Henry this year. They have completed their Henry VII essays (more on that at a later date). I was chatting about it with Sally Wilson who said she thought she could do the same, but would ask them to also include sources, to give them even more prep for the NEA. I am going to do the same with the Henry VIII essay.

I can better prepare my students for their NEA by setting clever summer work

After Jim Carroll’s session, I decided that by setting a research task into the context of authors of some key interpretations about their NEA topic over the summer, I can clarify the process they need to go through when they are choosing their own interpretations. We offer two topics to one class at sixth form so this may take some careful planning, but I’ve got time.

I could be reading more

To be fair, this isn’t news, but still.

Christine Counsell’s consideration of our responsibility as a profession chimed true. I spend Sunday mornings reading blogs and catching up; I’m going to make sure I include more history teaching blogs in that, and at least one Teaching History article. I’m going to shame-facedly admit that my last three issues are sitting pristine next to my armchair, having only been subjected to a cursory flick, scan of the Cunning Plans and read of Mummy Mummy. I can do better than this.

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WLFS History conference: workshop 3

Jim Carroll on interpretations at y13. His work is based on the NEA, which requires students to do independent research of at least 5 academic historians’ arguments, explaining why they reached different interps and their relative persuasiveness. Jim’s questions focus on Nazi popularity and Oliver Cromwell; students will choose one, depending on the rest of their A-level.

Guidance from the exam board recommended a 6 hour short course to teach the content required for context (optional). There wasn’t a recommendation to teach the contextual background of the interpretations at this point. There was then a recommendation to follow a skills-based course to support students in their historical research and writing.

Jim doesn’t agree that disciplinary knowledge and skills are the same thing, and language matters here because it shapes how we view certain concepts.

Substantive knowledge covers knowledge of the sub-domain, eg specific dates, along with substantive concepts like state and empire. Meanwhile, disciplinary knowledge includes how info is structured into historical knowledge, along with the method of historical enquiry.

Reducing history to content Vs skills might lead to:

  • A lack of emphasis of the importance of substantive content.
  • Idea that substantive knowledge is free floating, disconnected.
  • Failure to appreciate that substantive knowledge is important for further study.

To exemplify this, we look at a reading from Kershaw. We discuss what knowledge he has drawn on to be able to explain why historians have interpreted the Nazi regime as they have: political context of the post-war era; the process of writing history, eg the opening up of archives/availability of new evidence; the effect of collective memory, which is uniquely pronounced in the study of the Nazis, where there was a kind of collective amnesia. Then what makes the Nazis unique: it is politically charged – there’s intrinsic moral outrage and a tacit idea that writing this history should be part of the way we seek to prevent it from repeating.

Other problems:

  • Historical and generic might become conflated
  • It might help SLT to jettison history, eg “Other subjects do note taking and essay writing so why should we keep History?”

(Reminds me of a sixth former who wanted to start A-level history in February of y12 because he studied other essay based subjects and would therefore not be disadvantaged by missing the first six months of the course. Imagine my face.)

  • Students might think that practising skills will lead to improvement.
  • Students think they can rely on trotting out trite pre-prepared phrases, eg “He is biased”

Two more that I missed.

Rather than stick with the exam board guidance, Jim decided instead to engage with previous history teacher curriculum theorisation, history education researchers and academic scholarship, especially overviews of Nazi historiography.

Once students have spent some time looking at some scholarship on the Nazis,

Interesting point that students struggle to understand the idea that historians set their own questions, which will inevitably shape the direction of their research.

Historians make choices that go on to affect how they interpret a point of history. Once they returned from the summer holidays, they had a good idea of 3 historians to focus on, which was followed up by a series of lessons on the time period in which the interpretations were written.

Students are given some background into the events of 1945-now that provides background to their interpretations, in the form of 5 chunks, and complete a diagram to show how interpretations of the topic might have changed over time.

We look at some examples from prior students, considering how they have looked at both the context of the historian and the methodological choices the historian has made.

Don’t feel like I have blogged this session satisfactorily…too busy thinking about it! Thanks Jim.

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WLFS History conference: workshop 2

Paula Lobo speaking about sources, who have been thinking about the challenge that we have to bring people to life in words. We discuss this briefly.

When students are making inferences from sources, it is really tricky to judge what is a valid inference. We read the literature review of this topic and discuss the problem of language in written sources – does it reflect reality? – and can comprehension and evaluation be divorced?

We look at a range of sources on Churchill, that Paula used with y9 and now at A-level. Students pull out some of the words and discuss whether they are positive or negative, by placing it on a continuum and discussing whether the meaning of the word might have changed over time (eg the word dictator might not have been such a negative one at the start of the 20th century).

Once students have played around with the words on a continuum, they can start thinking about who might use those words to describe Churchill and why. Using Wiltshire’s language of uncertainty, students can use the sources to write about what people thought of Churchill at the time.

Tudors. We look at Paula’s inspiring work on using multiple choice questions to help students assess sources which you can read here: https://lobworth.com/2017/10/21/so-thats-what-you-mean-miss-sourcework-and-multiple-choice-statements/ – this would be an excellent way of helping students to summarise the message of an interpretation, I think, which my lost struggle with for far longer than they should.

Paula has applied this to visual sources in year 9. She gives students statements that forces them to look back at the caption, consider the purpose etc – things they will need to do automatically as they move through their history education.

She also uses knowledge testing alongside source evaluation: in this test demo, the knowledge they need to answer the questions on the first page is required to help them analyse the source on the second page.

This very clearly spells out the importance of contextual knowledge when analysing historical sources.

Lots of really helpful things to think about here!

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WLFS History conference: workshop 1

Elizabeth Carr talking on planting perennials in the history garden: extending KS3 into GCSE.

A year 7 starter activity to start! And one on toilets…

Concerns about the new GCSE have encouraged Presdales history department to think about their KS3 and rethink what their students needed to know to provide the context for GCSE. Should they start teaching GCSE question types? Should they move to a three year KS4? Will students retain it? Will there be transferability in terms of ‘question skills’?

Firstly, they made careful choices about what content to include: putting it all into GCSE would lead to repetition and potential boredom. Better to plant ideas at KS3 that are revisited across the three years to interleave topics and reinforce memory and understanding of them.

The department decided on these for their focus:
Sense of time, place and period.
Big ideas – substantive concepts. Disciplinary knowledge.

A sense of time

Timeline tests, especially at enquiry transitions. Helps students to recall relevant key features for context. Timeline test at start of post is intended as a diagnostic to work out what students know when they arrive in year 7: students match the pictures to a list of time periods on the board and then organise chronologically. This comes up as a starter activity for recap, regularly.

Development study: when did toilets really change? This adds another layer to their understanding of sense of time. Elizabeth also talks about protest/rebellion over time.

Overviews. Offered at key transition points to help students.

Comparative timelines. Spain as compared to Britain: gives students the opportunity to highlight similarity/difference, eg did England have a dark age while Spain had a golden age?

Zoom out and see the bigger picture: compare knowledge of British Empire to knowledge of Britain. We have a go at this and discuss the idea of asking students to predict. Obviously this can go really badly, but seems to be a good diagnostic tool to be able to see what background knowledge students have retained.

A sense of place

I strongly agree with Elizabeth when she says that it is much easier to teach students when they know where places are. The location of Britain in relation to the rest of Europe is useful for the Norman conquest, but also for many other topics. Elizabeth shows a core knowledge sheet for her Cordoba unit that includes a small map to indicate Byzantium in relation to the rest of Europe.

Another example: the geography of the Reformation.

Nice bit of geography here: colouring the map to show points of conflict (wouldn’t this count as 50% of a geography GCSE?)

Similarly: mapping the locations of the major battles of the First World War.

Sense of period

Dual coding: using images that resonate is important because students need to remember the image in order to be prompted by it. Build knowledge at KS3 that will resonate visually at KS4: what a monastery looks like, Henry VIII’s face etc. If they see the same image that they have looked at lower down the school, perhaps they will remember more at GCSE.

Big ideas – substantive concepts

Mapping KS3 concepts that will be needed at KS4 prepares students better for their GCSE studies. This is a bit more than straightforward knowledge.

This helps with that perennial history teacher whinge: ‘I love teaching this but the kids find it really difficult’ – eg Cold War. Laying the foundation concepts in year 9 has helped students to grasp the GCSE content more quickly.

Disciplinary knowledge

Elizabeth talks through some ways that students ‘bump into’ some of the things they will be expected to do at GCSE throughout KS3, eg summarising interpretations and using knowledge to contextualise and critique, working with source material – ‘sources sitting inside their context’ (what a lovely turn of phrase). Elizabeth references her Cunning Plan, recently published in Teaching History, about teaching the Industrial Revolution.

Sorry this last picture is not the right way up!

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GCSE reading

If I ever thought that history teacher Twitter was a bubble, history teacher Facebook reconfirms it every day. These groups are exceptionally helpful for sharing ideas, tips, resources and advice given by exam boards, but I must admit that I find them quite draining at times. People complain a lot (I get it: people are worried) and unlike Twitter, I can’t just unfollow people. I don’t go on social media to be angry and depressed (though I fully support anybody else’s desire to). I have a strict rule instead, that I don’t engage apart from to add positively, with a resource or a question for discussion.

After reading a couple of comments about the content of the new GCSE, I hopped onto Twitter to find out what people were reading to prep for it. With A-level, I’ve found that the more I read, the quicker and more efficiently I can get through the topics, but traditionally I’ve found that teachers don’t do a great deal of reading around the GCSE.

Although this was reflected in a couple of replies, I was surprised by how many people got back to me to share what they’d been reading. Here is almost everything that almost everyone recommended to me. It has been quite difficult to put all these into one post, so I have attempted to categorise. I haven’t read a fraction of them, so can’t vouch personally – do leave a comment if you can, or if I’ve missed something you love.

Thematic studies

Ian Mortimer’s Time Travellers series and Ten Centuries of Change both got a lot of praise. The former covers Medicine and Crime in varying levels of depth and are accessible enough to use with students as well. I heard Ian Mortimer speak at the BBC History festival in October and he was superb – he did an A-Z of Restoration England and he had exceptionally detailed subject knowledge for someone speaking with what seemed to be no notes.

Roy Porter also got a lot of love for Medicine reading.


Derek Reynolds’s Limits of Liberty and Hugh Brogan’s Penguin History of the USA were both mentioned a few times. I used these extensively for A-level and Brogan was good for the early stuff as well as the 20th century. Dee Reynolds’ American West and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee were also popular for American West. Leuchtenburg got a mention: I really liked his Perils of Prosperity when I was teaching A-level Boom and Bust. The Story of Us was also recommended as a documentary series.


Deep breath for this one – Richard Kerridge recommended, “Marc Morris and David Bates for basic Normans. Lanfranc by McDonald. Leach’s the Schools of Medieval England. Morillo ‘Battle of Hastings’, Gillingham’s William ii. William the Conqueror by Maurice Ashley.” These are all completely unknown to me, although Marc Morris got a few mentions from other people. Kerridge must never sleep!


I’d never thought of looking up podcasts to brush up my subject knowledge but these are also very popular. The BBC’s In Our Time series was recommended by a couple of people.

People shared some book pictures with me, too. My favourite kind of picture.

wider reading tweet 2wider reading tweet 3wider reading tweet

I came away from this discussion much buoyed and reminded that, for the most part, history teachers love history. Many thanks to the following for engaging with my question:


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#youreallyshouldteach…Emma of Normandy

Last year, one of my favourite year 11s approached me at the end of the lesson and asked me if I’d ever heard of Emma of Normandy. Her gran has asked for a reading recommendation, she explained. I had not, but set about doing a bit of research and was aided by the helpful and knowledgeable Helen Snelson, who sent me a few links. Now that we are in the midst of an Anglo-Saxons and Normans revival, Emma is somebody worth getting to know, if only because she provides the blood link between Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror.

Emma was an 11th century noblewoman, the sister of Richard II of Normandy, and she ended up marrying two kings of England and giving birth to two more. She became the second wife of Aethelred in 1002, adopting the name Aelfgifu upon her arrival in England, and had two sons, Edward (ie, the Confessor) and Alfred. After he died, she took her sons to Normandy, but was soon back as the second wife of Cnut. Whether she consented to this or not is a bit obscure, but certainly she seems to have been held in much higher esteem by Cnut than by Aethelred. Apparently lots of the records of the time mention them together. Aww.

Unfortunately, after Cnut’s death, things got quite messy. Emma supported the claim of her son, Harthacnut, over the claim of Cnut’s son by his first marriage, Harold Harefoot. Although she was initially supported by the powerful Earl Godwine, after he defected she was forced to ask for help from her older sons, Alfred and Edward. Things went badly for both of them, though considerably worse for Alfred.

She eventually returned to England with Harthacnut when Harold died, at that point commissioning a lavish biography of herself, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, from a Flanders monk to try to raise her profile and win favour for the Harthacnut regime. This possibly was not very successful, though, because when Harthacnut died in 1042 and Edward the Confessor ascended the throne, Emma was deftly chastised for perceived poor behaviour towards Edward in the past and was never as powerful again. I suppose this could have been Edward separating himself from an unpopular noblewoman, but apparently she might also have been overly close to the Bishop of Winchester around this time, so perhaps this was the problem. She did deny the latter, and successfully undertook the ordeal of the ploughshare to prove the rumour false. I had to look up ordeal by ploughshare. It’s akin to walking over red hot coals.

So, you really should teach about Emma of Normandy. She was politically important for around 50 years, at a time when women don’t seem to have been, and as well as having two kings as husbands (and a priest as a lover, allegedly) she was the mother of two more and the great auntie of William the Conqueror. I like to think Eleanor of Aquitaine read about her and drew some inspiration.

This blog is brought to you, with some discomfort on my part, using only one source, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I’m not a medievalist. But I think she’s a great character.


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