WLFS History Conference: Walsh

Prosopographical! This is the term of the session for me. Definitely need to go and do some reading

Sources and interps for ordinary pupils in ordinary classrooms. 

Ben begins by talking about his experience of students as an examiner. Some ask for a C, or tweet that he is a prick. Some write long essays in their exam papers about why the system is broken. He says both approaches are common – from my previous examining experience, I strongly concur. 

The mindset he presents – that sources are difficult and not a fair test – comes from the idea that history is just stuff, and that sources are just unhelpful versions of the textbook – something that doesn’t agree with what they’ve been taught. They consider sources as information – unnuanced, factual and not open to interpretation. 

Why do they find it difficult to adopt the historian’s mindset?

(After Jim’s session, I wonder if this is because they are so rarely encouraged to adopt it)

Because it’s difficult. Building an argument is hard, particularly when you haven’t seen many examples of it.

‘You are not entitled to your opinion in this classroom. You are entitled to make an argument.’ I’d like to put this up in my classroom but I think there would be student uproar: maybe that’s a good reason to do it.

This is threatening – you have to open up and say what you think. 

It’s different from other subjects, which are often ‘Here is stuff. Write stuff down’ whereas we’re doing ‘Here is stuff. What’s the important bit of stuff?’ – Ben suggests we are against the signature pedagogy of the classroom. 

Finally, it flies against binary thinking – there’s not always black and white – and confirmation bias – the source does not say what they think it should. Historians ask why it disagrees, whereas students tend to dismiss it or ‘torture the source until it does agree’.

Ben makes an argument for using a simplified pyramid instead of exam board markschemes with students, to show the hierarchy or how to tackle a source – comprehension, inference, the story *of* the source rather than in it. 

He shares his favourite source ever – a weight change diagram of a year in the life of school children in 1906. He uses it as a source that enables a clear inference generator, but also encourages us to consider how the publication of the source itself is important: why was it made? What had changed to enable it to be made?

An interesting side conversation occurs this point about teaching to the test, in which Ben points out two things I strongly agree with – that exams and marlshemes should not inform lessons and that if the exam asks them to go a mile, you make them go two in a lesson.

The dreaded useful question. Ben gave his students sources and asked then to consider – what are they useful for? Bringing their knowledge of the period will help them to make this assessment. He gives us a couple of source examples, showing how content and provenance can both be pulled in by simply asking students to assess what they are useful for, rather than just if they are useful. Giving students source collections can help them when considering this question because they can begin to create a hierarchy.

A good way of characterising it is to give students sources and tell them they’re going to sell them on eBay. How much would you charge – which ones would have the highest starting price? 

We tend to have a view of history and struggle when a source does not meet it: a picture of a medieval woman cutting someone’s head off; a conscription appeal for someone who wasn’t a CO. Can consider *why* these things are surprising/shocking – what’s skewed about our view of history?

Just after Ben recommends that we look at Putin’s rehashed interpretations of Stalin, the projector goes blank so we are forced off to lunch. Ben finishes by saying that he doesn’t think students need to construct their own interpretations to critique historians: why get into the ring with a grizzly bear when you can choose another grizzly bear to fight back? But, I guess you have to know a few grizzlies for this to work. 

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One Response to WLFS History Conference: Walsh

  1. Jim Belben says:

    Really good summary Sally. I feel like I was there. What does the pyramid-to-replace-the-mark scheme look like?

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