“The best way to teach is to be chaotic and confusing” Professor Richard Feynman
In April 2016 I was invited to give a talk about history teaching to our local PROBUS group. My career had been in a secondary school, with pupils aged between 10 and 18. They were an even more distinguished group of retired senior professionals than I had realised. I discovered this after the talk, over lunch. However, I had taken the task seriously and had done my best for them. This is what I wrote – though I do not say I spoke exactly the words on the page.
* * * * *
A friend of mine, knowing how fond I am of Venice, lent me a novel called “Miss Garnett’s Angel”. It tells of one who is spiritually and emotionally dead who is brought back to vibrant humanity by the light and the art and the atmosphere of that lovely city, bride of the sea. In order to start the story the novelist must create a character who is flat, boring, without purpose in life. Who else but a teacher of history?
I must admit that I found it hard to enjoy the novel after such an opening.
However, I do not condemn the novelist too much. In one of the Little Grey Rabbit stories that I enjoyed as a child there is one in which Wise Owl’s tree house is blown down in a storm. Grey Rabbit and her friends are rescuing his scattered possessions. Hare gathers up his books. One lies in a puddle but remains completely dry. It is a history book. Hare says of something: “It’s as dull as this history book” and chucks it back in the puddle where it remains, quite dry.
The point is that this perception of history as dull is a common part of our culture, and comes, presumably, from a misunderstanding of what history is, and, it must be admitted, from too many teachers, lessons and textbooks who are misled by this misunderstanding into going about things the wrong way.
In the course of my career I sometimes had to explain to headmasters, and often to parents, that learning more facts off a longer list would not make children better at history, even if it might get them more marks in some tests and exams. I gather from things said by some politicians and some journalists that this wrong view of history is still pretty strong. Teachers in what one might call rival disciplines, such as Modern Studies, sometimes caricature history as merely the learning of factual notes. It does make it sound a very dull subject!
One of the reasons why this is all a dreadful misunderstanding is because learning facts about the past is not the main thing that historians do. There are surprisingly few “facts” about the past about which there is a sufficient consensus to have them taught as absolute fact to be memorised. The many arguments about the causes of the First World War that took place in 2014 were not just between historians on one side and politicians and journalists on the other. They also took place within the academic community. One might consider the Highland Clearances, the Norman Conquest and the causes of the American Civil War as other areas where there is not a consensus. What causes or results is a pupil to memorise?
Take one specific example. When I started teaching, in 1973, the Soviet Union was one of the two world super-powers. It was a success in its own terms. It had played a supreme part in the defeat of Nazism. It had been the first to achieve manned space flight.
Then in 1989 its empire collapsed and soon the USSR itself ceased to exist. I think it is the only time I neglected lesson preparation and marking for the sake of watching news after news. (By the time Barrack Obama was standing for election I was also teaching Politics, so watching the news counted as preparation.) Suddenly the whole of the history of the Russian Empire since Peter the Great changed. It was no longer about the creation of a great power, where school books emphasised the things that made for reform and progress and development (even if some other things were pretty dreadful). It became the story of a temporary experiment that went wrong, and all the weaknesses and problems that could be seen in the old Empire became more prominent.
Imagine a production of “Macbeth” which ends with Macbeth entering carrying MacDuff’s head and the “boy Malcolm” is rapidly disposed of. This would not alter merely the ending of the play, but the whole play. So it is with history. The ends of our stories keep changing, and so the whole story changes, not just the ending. What are these “facts” that should be learned?
[At the end of the talk a question was asked about whether the “facts” in History classes sometimes reflected chauvinism. I answered cautiously, because I did not wish to get into a political wrangle. However two points made in reply included: (1) When I was learning about the Spanish Armada as a child almost everything available had been written by people who had been involved in Britain resisting invasion in 1940. This was bound to have coloured their approach. In fact all the history that is written and taught is affected by the circumstances of the time. The important thing is to make pupils aware of this. (2) History teachers generally do not like it when politicians decree what must be in the syllabus. I understand that this point has affected the English National Curriculum. It certainly affected Higher History here in Scotland, where the SNP Government insisted that Paper 2 should be all Scottish History. In case anyone thinks I am biased against Scottish History I must declare that I have taught it, written books about it and am employed by the SQA to examine it. But I still do not like politicians telling us what history to teach]
Here’s another problem. It concerns the limitations of thought and language. We are far too inclined to think and to talk in generalisations. Consider the following sentence:
“In the middle of the fifth century the Roman Empire collapsed under pressure from barbarian hordes.”
So far so good. Learn it. It’s true. But hang on a minute. It may be a sort of truth, but it is almost utterly worthless. What is this “middle of the fifth century?” If I said “in the middle of the twentieth century” you would know that this might be before or after the invention of the atom bomb, before or after Mao came to power in China, before or after the defeat of Hitler, before or after Indian independence, before or after any of us were born, come to that. If I said that in 456 AD Romulus Augustulus was killed by Odovacer, king of the Rugians the extra detail would help. But it would help very little, unless we knew enough about the fifth century for 456 to mean something.
But wait another minute. “The Roman Empire”? In 456AD there were two Roman Empires, and the Eastern Empire, capital city Byzantium, was in all sorts of ways stronger, richer, more civilised – more everything – than the Empire of the West. The Eastern Empire kept going, with many difficulties to be sure, for another thousand years. It was the Roman Empire in the West that collapsed. A very different thing.
The Eastern Empire, incidentally, included the great Library at Alexandria. Later this was burned by the Vandals, an act which gave their name a subsidiary meaning which we now take for granted, even if we couldn’t tell a Vandal from an Ostrogoth. There is a delightful reminiscence by George Orwell: when he learned of this destruction at his prep school he felt nothing but pleasure. There was that much less Greek literature to translate.
I digress. “Chaos and confusion”. I did warn you. Let’s get back to my sentence. “Collapsed under pressure from…” Wait a minute. That’s a metaphor from civil engineering or something. One imagines a dam bursting or a tower collapsing. It tells us nothing at all about how the Roman Empire in the West collapsed or what the barbarians did.
I’m going to digress again. We’ll get to the end of this sentence in the end, if we’re lucky. My sister, slightly older than me, was a successful academic scientist throughout her career. On retirement she did an MA course in Lake District Studies at Lancaster University and has become a serious historian of Lake District affairs. Because she has a scientific education, training and career she has brought a critical outsider’s eye to the career of historian. Leaving aside the tendency to pass judgement on insufficient evidence, and a desperate search for “significance” where none exists, she has been very critical of the tradition of rhetoric in history.
At school and undergraduate level the exam essay, written from memory, usually in an hour or less, remains the mainstay of the subject. This literary form, the exam essay, was developed during the nineteenth century specifically as a training in rhetoric. At the public schools and the ancient universities, pupils and students were trained to become advocates and ministers of religion and diplomats and politicians, careers for which rhetoric was a crucial ingredient. The ability to synthesise masses of material from books and tables into a brief, relevant, coherent whole was also a valuable skill for those in public life.
As far as I was concerned teaching writing was as important as teaching reading. One very happy episode was when the deputy rector found that our juniors had one fewer English lesson per week than was normal, and one more History lesson. He suggested that we should give up one lesson to English. It was a proud moment when the Head of English said “No. They teach writing so well – especially non-fiction – that they use the time well. Let them keep the lesson”.
The essay remains the bedrock of history education below degree level, and that is fair enough. After all, the history teacher does not expect most of his pupils to become post-graduate historians any more than the piano teacher expects pupils to become professional players. But it has given skill with words, plausibility, fluency, subtle ambiguity, persuasiveness and so on more importance than simple conclusions based on evidence. The historian whose purpose is to sell history books to the general public still finds these useful qualities. But – and it is a very big qualification – all too often words can be used to hide a lack of evidence or a lack of simple conclusions. “Collapsed under pressure from”, forsooth.
Let us return to our sentence. “In the middle of the fifth century” (feeble) “the Roman Empire” (rubbish) “collapsed under pressure from” (meaningless metaphor) “the barbarian invasions”. Blimey! What on earth were they? Barbarians, indeed. I wonder if the person who wrote the word “barbarians” knows an Ostrogoth from a Vandal or a Pict from a Scot. What about the Gothic leaders who were educated within the Roman Empire and sought to become part of it? What about the Attila’s Huns, drinking fermented mares’ milk and charging irresistibly across Europe?
By the way, I must have another digression here. Since I left university, DNA studies have become part of the everyday life of the historian, especially where written documents give out, as they do in the fifth century. They have discovered that they are no help in telling which parts of Britain were settled by Saxons and which by Norsemen. These raiding peoples all came by sea from the Baltic regions and their DNA is jumbled together. But in Brittany a village has been found where the DNA is wildly different from the neighbours. The people look Breton – they are Breton. But their DNA is wildly different.
There is some documentary evidence that a group of Huns, from somewhere east of the Pripet Marshes, did not return home but settled. Perhaps they have been found.
Incidentally, this story illustrates another feature of the history lesson. The teacher should use whatever snippets of interest come to hand. I do not have footnoteable authority for this DNA story, but I do have it from the conversation of an Oxford don – a medievalist – after a few gin-and-vermouths.
This talk must not turn into a lecture on the barbarians, but a moment’s thought shows us that if Picts and Lombards and Franks and Visigoths and Scots and Britons and Jutes – to name but a few – are lumped together the resulting generalisation is certainly meaningless, factually useless, and probably insulting.
The main point of the talk so far is to illustrate two aspects of history teaching that are not always understood. One is that there is not a clear consensus about the past which we can make children learn off by heart. The other is that one thing we must teach in all schools is the importance of reading critically.
I just want to stay with this lack of consensus a moment before moving on. This year is the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. I saw a post on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, put by a professional historian: “Was the Somme a German victory or an Allied victory?” If you want to be good at history you have to think about the past, not just remember it.
However, I cannot stress enough that I am not saying historians do not need to know stuff, and a lot of it.
I have often asserted that spelling is the least important aspect of written English – compared with word choice, sentence structure, punctuation and so on. This has lead many of my critics to say “He doesn’t think spelling matters” – when I never said anything of the sort. So note well, I have not said knowledge is not important for the study of history.
Good historians know masses of history. If you saw the grand final of University Challenge the other week you will have noticed that five of the eight students taking part were historians. I am very much a school-teacher historian; but I did, about thirty years ago, attend some post-graduate public lectures and discussions that were offered at Edinburgh University. It was clear in the questions that the learned academics there expected to argue about particular documents and precise calendar dates entirely from memory. And for the school pupil there are exams.
As a teacher one had to devise ways of helping pupils commit material to memory. Memory has, of course, a lot to do with interest. Pupils would say “I can’t remember this. There’s so much to learn” and then one would find they knew the names of all the goalkeepers in the Premier League. I remember chatting about this to a friend at my prep school – this would be the late 1950s in North London. I believe one of his younger cousins has become famous as an author. He said: “I like it when there’s a history learning prep. Then I think ‘A 1! No prep!’”. He and I were so interested in the history classes that we just remembered the stuff without having to learn it from notes.. I found it quite hard to change my ways when I got older and this prep school technique no longer worked.
When I was starting out in teaching I commented to an experienced colleague how even our ablest pupils seemed to remember nothing of what they had done as juniors, whereas I could. “Ah” he said, “but you became a history teacher.”
This dear friend, now passed away, had received his army training in the last year of the Second World War. During one dull lecture on hygiene he and his fellow officer cadets were dozing quietly when a camouflaged figure with blackened faced leapt in, lobbed a couple of thunder flashes and a smoke grenade amongst the pupils and sprayed the room with Tommy Gun fire. When the young men crept out from under the desks they found the Medical Officer standing with arms folded. “That woke you buggers up at the back”, he drawled.
My own father, an English teacher, happened one autumn to be teaching “Henry V”. On St Crispin’s day he let off a Roman Candle.
The army has got pretty good at teaching rote learning. I must have been fifteen in the CCF when I learned how to give a fire order: “GRIT. Group; Range; Indication; Type of Fire!!” The following week we learned the duties of a sentry: Dir Ex Pos Nam Pro Par Sig Pas Dir.
My only success with this mnemonic lark came with Disraeli’s Second Ministry.
There used to be a feeble exam called O-level. It was supposed to be a two-year course, but not only did we cover it in one year, as a matter of course, I used to be given characters who had decided to take the subject up in the Sixth Form and get them through O-level in one term. One dead certainty was the domestic reforms of Disraeli’s Second Ministry. Let me run through them for you:
Artisans’ Dwelling Act
Rivers Pollution Act
Sale of Food and Drugs Act
Employers and Workingmen Act
Agricultural Enclosures Act
Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act
Public Health Act
Merchant Shipping Act
I am rather pleased with that. If you arrange them in that order the initial letters of the acts spell out “Arse-face PM”. I don’t remember any pupils failing once I had worked this out, and several got As. Like I said, O-level History was a feeble exam.
As far as possible I tried to have my pupils remember material as my friend and I had done at prep-school. With so much immersion in class – readings, questions, discussion, lectures, exercises of various sorts – that the material became internalised. In the end, of course, there was nothing for it but for them to give time to learning; but I hope memory was always linked to researching or using the material.
One of the very big ways that school history has changed since I started is that syllabi are now strictly limited and clearly defined. When I started, the A-level History syllabus was one page in a small booklet. I was set to teach a paper called “Outlines of European History” and only by studying past papers could you guess what might come up. A good candidate could revise hard seven topics and two would come up. A chancer could skim through three topics and they would all come up. One year I recall half the questions in our chosen 200 years were about France, there was one on Russia, one on Spain and one on Italy. Now there is a clearly defined syllabus, in a booklet of its own, and candidates are expected to have studied all of it, but nothing else. So revision memory-work can be precisely directed.
Last Saturday we had the first examiners’ meeting of the year for Advanced Higher History. We were taking a selection of last years’ dissertations and discussing them so as to confirm our agreed standards before the markers are presented with twenty-five new dissertations to mark in three days, and we hover about standardising them. The criteria for awarding marks have been refined and developed over fifteen years – you can find them on-line - and the two key qualities are analysis and thoroughness, which is more or less what I have said so far: power of thought and quantity of stuff. In the dissertations thoroughness does not depend on memory, but they also have to do a three-hour exam. Incidentally, the quantity of stuff has to be relevant, and it has to contribute to the analysis if the candidate is going to reach good marks.
I am very glad to say that I ended the meeting feeling uplifted by the superb quality of much of the work that is done by final-year pupils in schools.
I was having a conversation at school, twenty years ago, about memory and debate with one of my colleagues, a modern linguist. He had trouble seeing my point. For him there was so much grammar and vocabulary to learn that it occupied almost all the school years, except for maybe some debate about literature in the final year.
The example I used to explain how history was different was the death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Everyone knows that he was killed with an arrow in the eye. You can learn it from umpteen books. But even a ten-year old can look at the only piece of evidence for this we have – the Bayeux Tapestry. The words “Harold Rex Interfectus Est” are the caption for one frame. The word “Harold” is written over a Saxon soldier clutching an arrow that has pieced his eye. The words “Interfectus Est” are over a Saxon soldier being cut down by a Norman mounted knight with a sword. Which is Harold? I spent a long time debating this with our Primary Sevens – the youngest pupils I taught – for history is not “What happened in the past” but “The debate about what happened in the past”.
I have just deliberately used the phrase “Everyone knows that”… One of the most important jobs of the historian, and so of the school history teachers, is to examine and question myths. Sometimes a myth can be true: “Hitler was awful”. But it can be believed as a myth or it can be believed as a matter of judgement, based on knowledge and understanding.
In practice most myths turn out to be either completely untrue, or, more often, turn out to be simplified, selective, half-truths, un-nuanced and untested. My six-year old grandson loves Star Wars fights, whether with light sabres or Lego models. These play-fights are always goodies against baddies. And the baddies (that’s grandpa) always lose. Most common discourse - journalistic, over a drink in a pub, by politicians – is conducted by trading over-simplified myths. One of the things a historian should always do is say: “Hang on a minute. There’s a bit more to it than this.” Or “It wasn’t quite like that”.
No historian I imagine – certainly not a school teacher – is so arrogant as to suppose he can correct all myths. It is a matter of a way of thinking, not of always knowing the right answer.
I used to say that there were two things I wanted all my pupils to remember: one was that Vikings did not have horns in their helmets. The other was that the Battle of Culloden was not fought between Scotland and England.
Myths which now appear almost weekly in our media today include deification of Winston Churchill and an assumption that Appeasement caused the Second World War. There is so much more to be said on both topics. For that matter I wonder how many people who have very strong opinions about Mrs Pankhurst and the Suffragettes know that the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of votes for women three years before the First World War. Or those people who think of Napoleon as a good strategist forget the utterly ridiculous attempt to conquer Egypt without first gaining command of the sea.
In history we do not believe everything we are told, and we do not subscribe to “everybody knows that..” . The past is to be investigated and debated, even at school.
Since I was at school, and since I started teaching, the huge change in the examination system has been the number of marks now awarded, and questions set, that require critical use of primary sources, and of the rival interpretations of modern historians. The various exam boards vary in how these are examined, and on the amount of weight given to them. But I never encountered them till I went to university, whereas now they are part of Higher, of GCSE, of A-level and of Advanced Higher. The main point of exams is not to arrange children in order and to give them certificates, but to see that they have worthwhile courses in preparing for the exams. So now, in order to cope with modern exams, they have to learn to weigh up interpretations and evaluate and read critically. Usually when there is some news in the press about a new exam system it means that the balance of marks between the various elements has been changed. Up until about 1980 we did nothing but essays, on various topics – and I guess you did too. Essays are still a big part of history – quite right too - but now there are long dissertations, comparison questions about primary sources, the critical balancing of rival interpretations and so on. As I say, different boards go about things differently. I would say that the best pupils at Advanced Higher go into far greater depth, whereas the best pupils at A-level do more critical work on sources. They are both good courses.
In the class room there have been three changes in technology that have revolutionised history teaching since I began.
One is the photocopier. I think I need not develop that point. How did we manage for two-thousand years without it?
The second was the video recorder. We had one in each history classroom by 1995. I recall the deputy rector complaining about teachers showing their classes a lot of videos once the exams were over. I replied: “Well, I’m all right then. I show them a lot before exams too.” He protested. “Look here”, says I, “you are a scientist. The video for me is like a practical for you. Which is better? Me telling them about the long-bow or them seeing one being fired on TV? Which is better? Me telling them Hitler was a successful public speaker or me showing a film of him making a speech?” He is a good friend of mine, and got the point.
The third was the personal computer. I remember the first one coming into the school, bought by a Maths teacher out of his own money. But for my last three years I had an interactive smart whiteboard and could summon the internet at will. Telling S1 about Drake’s expedition to the West Indies, we could go there courtesy of Google Earth. Telling P7 the story of Caedmon, the Northumbrian poet; well, I googled “Caedmon” and in less than a minute we were listening to a voice reading one of his poems in the original Anglo-Saxon. I know that you-tube has now replaced the VCR.
One of my department was away for a year. We needed a substitute. There arrived a young man called Mark, who handed in his PhD – on Maitland of Lethington – the day before his first term began. He turned out to be an excellent scholar, a wonderful personality and a born teacher. “You can’t let him go” I was told. So the timetable was re-organised and he stayed even when the absentee returned. I think we all had to teach one set of English, so as to make up the timetable arithmetic.
After a few years with us he went off to be Head of History at Charterhouse, and then a housemaster there. He became a Headmaster before he was forty. Then he was killed in a car crash.
After that I insisted in my department, as a memorial to Mark Loughlin, that there should never be a boring lesson. The others responded well. It took me a while to learn this – there need never be a boring lesson in History. There is no such thing as “This information is boring but you’ve got to learn it.”
There is so much I have not had time to talk about. School trips to Prague, and China and the Ypres Salient. History Society Youth Hostel weekends in the Borders. The Arts Foundation Course, where we took Fifth Year types to concerts and plays and art exhibitions. But the bedrock was what went on in the classroom, and in the pupils’ own time.
I have not, perhaps, lived up to Feynman’s ideal of chaos and confusion, but I have tried to leave more questions than I have answers. If senior pupils asked me how to get better at History exams the answer was “Practice”. But if they asked how to get better at History – which is not quite the same thing – the answer was “Read and think”.
The elderly teacher ground down by a lifetime of going over the same old stuff with unresponsive pupils is the stuff of fiction. You may have seen “The Browning Version” by Terrence Rattigan. The depressed teacher in that is called Harris, come to think of it.
If all history meant was learning more notes, I would never have stuck it out. In fact history is an ever-changing, thought-provoking, life-enhancing subject. By the end of my career I though I had the best job in Scotland, and I am very grateful to you for letting me talk a little about it.