Should Universities play a more prominent role in school history-teaching? This is a subject that has come to recent prominence in British national news headlines, following Education Secretary Michael Gove’s proposal that the future content of ‘A’-Level courses should be decided by University-level academics (as reported here). By sheer coincidence, this announcement was made during an event that we put on in Durham, which invited high school history teachers in to the University for a three-day conference on history-teaching. The conference had several aims, but was first developed from a desire to see what teachers and lecturers could learn from each other about how we teach history at various different levels.
Us University staff, including Head of Department, Professors, Lecturers, and postgraduate tutors, wanted to know more about why our students arrived at University with certain skills but perhaps lacking in others. The teachers, who included experienced managerial level teachers, Newly-Qualified-Teachers, some teachers with PhDs and MA degrees in both history and education, and even some PGCE students, were naturally interested in what students could expect from the University environment at Durham and what types of pathways could be opened up by a Durham history degree. Teachers attended from a variety of schools, including private boarding schools, local state schools and middle schools, further education colleges and adult learning centres.
Much fun was had by all! Because we learned so much from each other, I decided to talk about what we learned over two blogs. This first blog will give you a taste of what we discussed and what we learned about teaching, while the second will be directed towards our collective take(s) on Gove’s recent proposal.
The first thing that we did, was to let some of the lecturers outline the philosophy and methods that lay behind their teaching at Durham. They took it in turns to give short, introductory lectures on their main teaching areas, and to illustrate some of the best ways through which this had been achieved. Examples included using specially-made podcasts and contemporary film reels to teach Nazi Germany (comfortable enough for most teachers), playing the music of Wagner and reading Darwin’s theory of evolution to understand cultural developments in nineteenth-century Europe, and touring Durham cathedral to show how historical sites render the past instantly more immediate and relevant to groups of Durham students (as outlined here in my previous blog).
One of the major points that seemed to have been made by all these, was that undergraduate students at Durham were heavily involved in both the direction of the courses taught here, and the future research of the lecturers. We realised that because the lecturers are able to chose their own curriculum, the content of courses changed all the time in order to reflect what the teacher was researching at that particular time. This means that students are kept up-to-date with what hopefully becomes groundbreaking new research. In addition, lecturers bouncing ideas off their students and inviting open discussions lets the students learn how to develop an idea and research methodology by doing it communally, and also lets them learn that they are having a real impact on the future development of the field.
Another section of the conference outlined exactly what lay behind these various teaching philosophies at Durham. One session included a lecture from one of our ‘stage tutors’ (who monitor things like attendance, essay submissions and certain pastoral issues to each year-group). This lecturer spoke about the types of issues that we often encounter with our first-year students, and then explained how our teaching techniques addressed these. We also asked ‘what is a lecture and why do we give them?’, and did the same with regards to seminars and tutorials. At the heart of all of this was our drive to produce independent, forward-thinking students who regard themselves more as ‘historians’ than students, and who were inspired by their passion for addressing those big, unanswered questions through their own work.
So, how did this go down? Interestingly, almost all of the teachers said that they loved being lectured at: a welcome change! Many said they it reminded them of how much they loved their undergraduate degrees, and that they had fallen back in love with the discipline all over. We realised that this had been great in enthusing the teachers to press on with their jobs with renewed vigour. Good results all round! Some noted that they had gained some useful tips on how the same annually-taught topics could be rendered fresh and exciting through innovative teaching methodologies, and especially those that appealed to the modern teenager such as internet forums, video and audio, and especially by setting up discussion groups on Facebook. I myself teamed up with my colleague Gemma Wain (whose own blog can be read here), and we will shortly be visiting a local Middle School in the North-East to see how the teachers do the Norman Conquest to kids ages 11 and 12.
So, this blog gives you an outline of the event, and hopefully an impression of its great success. In the next blog, I’ll talk about the hottest topic on everybody’s agenda during the conference: is Gove right, and should Universities have a greater say in directing the high school curriculum?