SHP2014: Don Cumming

SHP number 26 opens with glorious weather, as it always seems to. The first session is Don Cumming, talking on “Our island story: really?!”

Don says that some of huge changes make him feel a bit like Statler and Waldorf from the muppets. Changes across all years are putting lots of pressure on us as history teachers; measuring progress now that levels are dead is a new challenge; promoting good literacy within our lessons; managing Ofsted and responding to Ofqual. There is some lovely stuff. The new ks3 opening statement and the framework for the new GCSE are proof it is not all doom and gloom.

However, there is a worrying rise in nationalism recently, and maybe as history teachers we have a role to play in this. Don talks about the Scottish vote and the issues surrounding it, identifying the bias in Scottish history towards the notion of England as conquerors and questioning whether we do the same in the history classroom further south. We teach 1066 as the story of a vicious French Viking but what about the Norman empire? Perhaps we need to adjust the focus for some of our units to ensure we’re not teaching a UKIP-approved programme of study.

Some more ideas. Use timelines to teach interpretations – all timelines are an interpretation, really, so there can be some real rich learning going on when considering their focus. An activity involving tabards and considering contextual understanding:

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Different empires: USA, Scottish, Belgian, Nazis, French, British; and a number of statements about what empires might have done. It’s important to consider them all under the same terms. This isn’t just a problem here: countries all over the world are working to ensure the history taught in schools gives as broad a picture as possible, as our society becomes more international.

How to avoid this? Teach them to be fighters. If they are good historians they will have the intellectual power to recognise interpretations and selective stories. They can recognise how to frame the questions they need to ask about a variety of topics. We consider a variety of pieces of evidence (the one I scanned had a killer snail on it) to consider what it tells us about the period.

Don gives us some literacy ideas: write, cover, spell, check; creating a bank of hedging words; using colour to identify different parts of writing, consistently and then getting them to do it; do some action research and share what you find out; train them to be better peer assessors, improve their classroom dialogue, practice their writing, use a wider range of evidence – Don shows us a game with a rugby ball, firstly watching some throwing and then describing what is going on, then getting them to do it with their eyes closed and doing the same: recording evidence of the throwing so that they understand better what different types of evidence can show.

Don’s final message is a call to reach out and create better communities among history teachers, and to teach our students to be good historians and recognise insidious, creeping bias.

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