Extension teaching and learning for Sixth Form History. What’s next ?

As the season for university applications approaches, the question of how to most effectively extend sixth form student learning becomes topical. Of course there is no generic answer for all subjects. In a quantitative/numerical based subject the progression between levels of difficulty and challenge can be more immediately evident to the student for many reasons, including the accessibility (or otherwise) of the exercise, and the fact that attainment can be measured against agreed criteria, such as whether a process or formula has been applied correctly.

For the student and teacher of the Humanities the development of an extension programme is, perhaps, a more complex task. For my own subject of History there appear to be three main approaches – each with its own merits and limitations. These are, of course, combinable and in no sense mutually exclusive.

1.Widening the circumference of the student’s engagement with the syllabus topics by encouraging reading of academic monographs and other specialist literature, rather than reliance on textbooks, or teacher-generated distillations.

The advantage of this approach is that student may already have a foundation of contextual knowledge that will offer a platform to gain a more advanced understanding. The student may encounter some fantastic writing, and gain an appreciation of the skill involved in constructing narrative (yes, narrative) argument and analysis. The limitation is, perhaps inevitably, that the student’s awareness of other historical topics is not broadened as much as if the reading were done for an off-syllabus topic.

2. Approaching the subject through its philosophical foundations and historiography.

There are essentially two sub-sets to this approach, which can of course be blended. One is via the rich literature in the “What is History ?” genre. Sir Rees Davies once lamented that when historians attain a certain degree of eminence, they stop writing History and start writing about each other.  This was a pardonable exaggeration, but a number of highly distinguished historians have forayed into this area, including Sir Geoffrey Elton, J. H. Hexter, and Sir Richard Evans, whose glorious historiographical street-brawl, In Defence of History, is a must-read. These books can be a great introduction to the debates about the nature and evolution of History as a discipline, but are at their most effective if they lead the student into reading at least some of the authors mentioned by the historiographer. Otherwise, the student can become like the medieval felon who recites a verse of scripture to claim benefit of clergy, without any understanding of what they have just said.

The other sub-set of this approach is to engage with texts that are particularly characteristic of an historical school or movement. A typical pathway is to engage with social and economic History, in part as a means of finding something that is an alternative to the political and military History that is so prevalent in the examined syllabus.  This can be an exceptionally rich and varied wing of History, and was predominant in the discipline from the 1950s to the 1970s. Although often susceptible to aridity (and sometimes derided for this with varying degrees of fairness by other historians) Social and Economic History can be a useful corrective to an “intentionalist” conception of History that overly privileges the actions of powerful men and women.

My suggestion here is for the teacher and student to look beyond the obvious ports of call. References in personal statements to Le Roy Ladurie’s use of primary sources, “against the grain” of their creator’s intentions, in his admittedly wonderful Montaillou, must have become somewhat tiresome for the longer-serving gatekeepers to the world’s most competitive History and liberal arts degree courses.

The hardier may venture into E. P. Thompson’s now neglected The Making of the English Working Class or set out on the vast and choppy waters of Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean or dabble in Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. The resurgence of biography since the 1980s and the enduring popularity of narrative history for periods such as the Tudors and 20th century dictatorships and wars, has rather resulted in these old masters being re-hung in the less visited corners of the historiographical gallery. There are, of course, more recent and accessible paths into this genre (in the broadest sense) – try for example Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and The Worms and Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged.

Both these sub-sets of approach No.2 can open the student’s eyes to a world of historical writing in which the conceptual and methodological principles are more overtly detectable than in, say, biography or military history (two genres which I am in no way denigrating). However, the challenge can come when the student needs to re-integrate their understanding of these approaches back into their own sense of what it is to study History. The risk is that the label of “Whig” or “Annalist” obscures all the other features of that historian’s spadework, craft, knowledge and imagination.

3. Guiding the student to a particular off-syllabus topic that is in a timespan or region that is not on the taught syllabus.

There is much to be said for this approach, as it requires the student to engage not only with different types of evidence, but sometimes with entirely different assumptions about polities, institutions, cultures, sex and race and modes of living, working, and thinking.  New vistas can be opened up, in areas such as non-European History, Medieval History, and the History of minorities and the excluded.  Such an approach relies fairly heavily on the teacher’s familiarity with the material (and their preparation and delivery time, no less) to guide the student through this unfamiliar landscape. The issue of resourcing is perhaps less prohibitive in an age when a bounty of free resources is instantly available from national libraries, archives, digitisation projects, universities and educational charities and programmes.  However, coordinating and arranging this material into a course of study can nonetheless be a major task.

Ideas for a new approach to History extension teaching

The student of History who has the good fortune to have a teacher who introduces then to any one of the above approaches will certainly benefit as this support will doubtless help them to think critically about History and expand and deepen their engagement with the subject.

However I think that extension work could do more to bridge both the gap between History and other subjects, and between how History is studied at school, and what academic historians do in universities.  I have three proposals below.

1.Studying History through the medium of a second language. Any student who wishes to study History should attempt to engage in some of form of text or writing in a second language – whether ancient or modern. Teachers of History and languages should collaborate to make this happen.

(I will return to this point again in the future.)

2.The use of digital technologies. History as a subject has lagged behind other disciplines in its adoption of reconstructive and immersive technologies. Just as GIS has already begun to revolutionise the teaching of Geography, it has that potential for History too. Even more recently, the University of St Andrews’ Smart History project has enabled the individual to walk through virtual streets reconstructed from historic maps. The potential for this is extraordinary, but is as yet in its infancy. Who interested in History would not want to walk the streets of Vermeer’s Delft, or of pre-1666 London, or of medieval Baghdad?

3. Archives, Libraries and Museums.  National, regional and town archives and museums are often neglected treasures for teaching and learning with vast collections of Historical documentation. We can use them to access so much History – whether charters from Norman barons gifting land to abbeys, or the records of Early Modern charities, or how communities developed and evolved through industrialisation and immigration. Every student applying for a History degree should spend a day with a collection of documents, and should produce some form of written response based on their reading of a pre-20th century hand-written document.

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