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SHP in London: Reflections on Christine’s Plenary

It’s impossible to imagine anyone better than Christine Counsell to keep the conference bubbling to the end – vitality, positive tone, body language, utter conviction. Impossible as ever for mere words to do justice to her session – unless I was transformed into John Milton at his ‘Paradise Lost’-writing peak.

The full title was “Disciplinary history for all: Why it matters, why it is so difficult and why we should not give up” – and the best I can do is just note down some of my jottings:

  • ‘Knowledge is pivotal’
  • ‘Sense of period, narrative frameworks, temporal perspective’ are all tough for students but that’s why we must work at them with all our being (and they are tough not just for students, also teachers. If only Christine had told me this earlier I might have tackled something easier over the last years).
  • ‘A school’s assessment-driven culture can have a profoundly distorting effect, detracting from excellence and forcing teachers to seek reductive, quick fix solutions at the expense of deep knowledge. At worst, children have been short-changed in the interests of “raising standards”’
  • The central importance of the enquiry question and of carefully constructed puzzles, something they think they can answer straight away but then realise it needs unravelling

(sounds like a Christmas present which has been wrapped up to look like one thing but then turns out to be another – much more pleasurable and rewarding for working through the extra layers of wrapping paper

  • Insights into the nature of history: learning how valid claims can be made about the past and what makes some claims fragile or strong
  • The limited value of ‘bright ideas’ – no matter how bright the idea is, it has to be owned, tailored and thought through by every individual using it

(and bright ideas have to be integrated not isolated – how will they become part of the warp and weft of your course?)

  • Confusion is ok – real learning is impossible without facing up to bafflement. It takes effort to find a way through a puzzle. We learn a lot better if we see confusion as a springboard
  • Teaching history really well to the lower-attaining pupil is intellectually very demanding – it’s far harder than most politicians, historians and journalists realise. But all the more reason for us not to give up. We are RIGHT to keep trying to achieve that toughest of goals: to help struggling and disaffected children into strong historical understanding. ‘David Cannadine has confirmed what we already knew – that there is no golden age when such pupils knew a lot of history. We are therefore the pioneers’. Let us not give up in bringing rigorous history to ALL, even when our efforts are frustrated or vilified.
  • And finally the development of history teaching is work in progress, an on-going conversation amongst history teachers and history educators. Far more has still to be discovered and learnt than we currently understand.

As ever I was left feeling both inspire and humbled. I’ve seen George Best play football, David Gower score 100 and Ian McKellen on stage. And listening to Christine has the same effect – you know you’ll never match what you’ve seen but you’re inspired to have a go.

Ian

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