WLFS History Conference: Carroll

Jim Carroll on, how can we get students writing more like historians? 

History is an argumentative discipline. 

Scrap “I think/believe” – don’t encourage then that beliefs are important, because it’s about evidence, not belief. 

Make the cause the subject of the clause, where it will begin to act as the agent. “One reason” gives no indication of the relative importance of clauses. Similarly, “because” gives no indication of the role of the cause. (Fig 1)

Having picked out some problems, Jim returned to scholarship to look for solutions. How does Kershaw do it? He talks us through a paragraph to model. He packs in an enormous amount in a small space, bundling up events into abstract phrases like “consequent government stalemate” and uses verbs instead of connectives to link and characterise causes – adds nuance and flavour. 

Having considered academic historical writing, it’s hard! Key tenets?

Literacy can’t be ‘bolted on’ to history. 

Construction of argument must be explicit. Even writing a narrative is an argument, says Jim. 

Create writers from readers. Give them scholarship and teach them to read it. 

Don’t model language that a historian wouldn’t realistically use; avoid heuristics that shut down scope for argument. 

Lexicogrammar. Jim started with just providing vocabulary but then started to think about sentence structure: you can’t write a counterfactual without knowing how to structure a counterfactual clause, for example. 

Secure substantive knowledge enabled students to think about argument construction. I like to point out to students, when they ask me how much they need to write, that they should think about how much they could write about themselves in half an hour – because that’s how well they should know the topics. They can then focus on modelling their clay, so to speak. 

Consider the different linguistic demands of specific second order concepts, and make them clear to the students. 

Abstract generalisation also needs to be made explicit to students. 

Support working memory in essay planning to help students avoid ‘knowledge vomit’ where they just blurt out all they know without considering relevance. 

We look at some examples of abstract generalisations by students and I am struck by the difference between a student who can do this from a place of knowledge, and students who trot out the generalisations that clearly are not underpinned, and the very subtle differences in language that indicate the two. Something to think further one. I find students will argue well with logic and struggle to see why this isn’t enough: I wonder whether I can get onto abstract generalisations until they can understand how to use knowledge to construct an argument.

We do a cardsort and I get too busy to take notes. We have to organise the cards into groups and then make a generalisation about them. A favourite activity of mine: just did this with year 8 on why the British Empire grew, but I begin by giving them two categories and challenging them to place as many of their cards in categories of their own choosing as possible – this seems to provide a place of safety for the confused.

Jim circulates like a good teacher should and at one point asks the insightful question, what changed to create the cause?

A great session, providing lots to think about. Here are the handouts: 

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