One of the saddest things I see (and have done) in schools is the dressing up of our subjects so that they look like something else.
Take Tudor England. The stories that surround this period are quite amazing. The wider-world context in the sixteenth century is fascinating. Dynastic struggle, religious extremism, the emergence of the Atlantic as a route of travel, the writing of some of the greatest literature Britain has seen: the sixteenth century comes loaded with conflict and compromise, catastrophe and creation.
And yet the first time I taught the period I insisted on dressing it up as something else. I got them to take the role of an archaeological team who had uncovered an old Tudor property in London. I ran ‘Queen Elizabeth I blind date’. I got them to produce board games. I made them take on the roles of military planners in the Spanish Armada.
Why did I do this? It was because I was concerned that the past itself would not be sufficiently interesting.
I did this because I wanted to try and connect the past to some existing set of interests the pupils had or I wanted to make it ‘relevant’ to them.
I did this because, as a struggling NQT who had not yet got a grip on managing the behaviour of a class of thirty, I thought that pupil boredom must be the source of their bad behaviour.
But this rarely worked, and when it did I always left with the words of my mentor resonating in my ears: “but have they actually learnt anything?”
About half way through my NQT year, I was swamped. These ‘engaging’ lessons were taking hours of planning every evening. I was collapsing under the weight of a GCSE and three A-Level classes, and one day I just ran out of time. I did not plan my Year 8 lesson. I knew it was going to be a disaster. It was Period 6 and the class came in as their normal rowdy (i.e. Year 8) selves. I prepared myself for 50 minutes of hell.
I picked up my board pen, and wrote on the board “Why did a Civil War break out between Charles I and Parliament in 1642?” I had been teaching the period at A-Level and decided that I knew enough about it to tell the pupils a story. And so I sat on the corner of my desk, managed to get some quiet, and I began to tell them the story of Charles I and Parliament.
And something strange happened. They listened. They kept their eyes on me as I told them about absolute and limited monarchy. They hung on my words as I introduced them to seventeenth-century taxation. They nodded along as I told them about how Charles dismissed Parliament, and they laughed when I told them that the Scots threw stools at the Arch-Prelate of St Andrews (I may have dug out a dodgy Scottish accent). They gasped when I recounted the demands that Parliament made, particularly concerning the education of the king’s children. And they were not at all surprised when I told them about Charles’ disastrous attempt to arrest the 5 MPs in 1642.
Having gone on for about twenty minutes (perhaps more), I then looked back at the question written on the board, and I wrote down three headings: Political Causes, Financial Causes, Religious Causes. I asked them to write a paragraph under each heading, explaining in each a different cause of the Civil War. And, to my great surprise, they got their heads down and they got on with it. Some struggled, but I wasn’t running from group to group trying to manage a complex activity, and so I was able to help them. The TA and I exchanged bewildered glances: never before had I managed to achieve this level of ‘engagement’ in my lessons.
After they quietly sauntered out of the lesson, I sat down to think about what had gone so well. This, for me, was a turning point in my teaching career. I realised that, for about eighteen months, I had been trying too hard. I was so desperate to get the pupils ‘engaged’ that I had kept dressing up my subject as something else. A game. An investigation. A project.
But, when it came down to it, all I really needed was the history.
In fact, by dressing up my subject as something else, I was implicitly passing on to my pupils the idea that my subject wasn’t interesting. Every time I told them about their latest exciting project or game, I was doing nothing more than saying “this isn’t very interesting, so I’m going to make it more interesting for you”. Even worse, I was unwittingly encouraging them to think this was true for other subjects. “But Mr Fordham let us make a game” they would say to other teachers. I was not just undermining the intrinsic value of my own subject: I was undermining the intrinsic value of every other teacher in the school.
And this is why I think it is dangerous to dress up a subject as something else. Ultimately, I don’t really mind what methods someone uses when they are teaching. What works varies from subject to subject and teacher to teacher. But I do think that, if we get pupils doing activities that shifts the focus from the content being studied onto something else, then we are treading on very dangerous ground.
We have all chosen to teach our subjects because we find them intrinsically interesting. Let’s share that fascination with our pupils, and potentially spark an interest for them as well. Let’s not dress up our subjects to look like something else.