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SHP-BL 2012: Teaching with a purpose

Reporting the opening plenary at the SHP London Day Conference …

Michael Riley and Jamie Byrom – ‘People, places and pictures: creative and rigorous planning in school history’.

History needs beauty. History needs people. (And history teaching needs to sow acorns like these that Michael and Jamie are planting now in their session)…

A beautiful building: the Taj Mahal. A wondrous person: Shah Jahan. A painting that captures beauty and people – the birthday of Shah Jahan. Shah is being weighed because it was customary to give out ones weight in gold and jewels on one’s birthday. What stories does this tell us? What wonders does this reveal? …and how on earth would we plan to use this, Mughal history, in our classroom?

First, they say, we should start with principles which should shape our planning:

1. We must teach with a PURPOSE – why bother?

2. We must ENGAGE with subject knowledge – the more we engage with the knowledge the richer our subject, and our lessons, become

3. We must wrestle with the ENQUIRY

4. We must exploit the PARTICULAR

So, 1: why bother with the Mughals, especially when we have such freedom to choose whatever we want? Let’s think of the end result: would someone observing our lessons be able to detect why we selected that series of lessons? If they can’t figure it out, how can our students? With the Mughals perhaps there is a rationale in the fact that British history is incredibly entwined with Mughal history…. Right up to the present day, where our school populations benefit from the cultural diversity of links with India. Or maybe we should bother because at its height the Mughal empire was 100 million people? Take that Romans! Or maybe because it provides a terrific seam of eye-popping gems – art, music, architecture – that could lead to a fascinating comparison between English and Indian culture. This latter idea is a good example of engaging with the territory, the stuff, the nuggets and the issues of history which can give such energy to the enquiry. But whatever the purpose we must share it, and it must be evident and meaningful to us and our students.

Which leads to 2 – engage with the subject. If you’re reading a Mughal history book where would you make a mark in the margin? How about against the nugget that Akbar delighted in pigeons… A pigeon fancier! So much so that pigeon roosts were built in the Red Fort at Agra. They used these pigeons as part of their control of the empire, carrying messages. Imagine getting students to write pigeon-sized messages relaying the history of the empire to fly back and forth in their history lessons? The students would love this! So when we immerse in the subject, we find nuggets which can lead to wonder, to engagement.

I won’t dwell on the enquiry question (I’ll leave that to Michael and Christine and Jamie who express it far better than I can) but I will touch on the particular. If we consider a particular place, person or moment these are the points in our classrooms when history most comes to life. Every child knows their own place (like home, or their town), a person (like Mum), and moments (when I got caught nicking sweets from my brother) and so starting with the particular provides a concrete foundation, a sense of familiarity in some respects, as they have something to pivot from, to compare to. It’s not like starting with something as decontextualised as ‘power’, or ‘what is democracy?’ So let’s start with the particular. Let’s explore a painting of Jahangir. Put yourself in the painting. Walk through it. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? Starting with the particular this enables the children to find the familiar and by making connections it gives them further reason, the want, to know more: were these lot really so different? What mattered to them? Is it the same as what matters to me?

So, sow these acorns from Michael and Jamie, and watch beautiful oak trees of passion for history grow in our children. Teaching Mughal history, whilst at first seemingly ‘too’ foreign, is actually as familiar in planning terms as any topic we might consider. But it provides such a fascinating, rich flora that I think we would be hard pressed not to include it in our curriculums. Send that by messenger pigeon to your SLT, with a little acorn too.