The danger of dressing up our subjects as something else

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.



10 Comments on The danger of dressing up our subjects as something else

  1. Michael Fordham // 14 March 2016 at 19:50 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. I think this is an excellent principle, but like most principles in education I think one has to be a little flexible. The Tudor period is a fascinating thing to study. U values – that measure of insulation that every student of core Science must come to know and love – is somewhat less so. If you make it into a game where kids have to save money by buying draught excluders, double glazing, loft insulation etc, the science can be shoe-horned into a semblance of an engaging fun activity. The alternative is not kids hanging on your every word. At least not in my experience =]

  3. chrismwparsons // 14 March 2016 at 21:15 // Reply

    I guess a key takeaway here is: Know enough about your subject to be able to ‘riff’ on it with confidence, and then let your enthusiasm flow through in the form of a narrative.

    Great post.

  4. I ran into this a few years ago teaching the concept of modernism–I thought I would bore my class to tears, but they not only were eager to hear what I had to say, but could bring their own examples to my narrative. I think we do undersell students’ interest in history AND don’t push them enough in their readings. After that modernism class, I gave them a chunk of Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, which they loved…

  5. Totally agree.
    Interestingly we can try too hard in other areas of life.
    I hear from some men that dating/finding a partner sometimes goes better when you stop trying too hard. But that’s a whole new can of worms!

  6. Thanks for this post. As a history teacher myself I used to be in a similar position of trying to think of activities that would enthuse and entertain pupils rather than focus on activities that help them learn. Now, my focus begins with what I need them to learn and then activities that will help them to think about that learning – memory is the residue of thought, after all!

  7. Hit the nail on the head.

  8. Surely the fault here is not with the activities of themselves but with the thinking that goes into them. Part of the point of any lesson activity is always going to be to engage students and make them interested but it will always be more deeply rooted in getting students to connect with deeper historical thinking which this post does not seem to acknowledge. The issue as an NQT is feeling the need to make everything engaging, different and creative which can lead to shallow ‘fun’ activities which don’t really further learning. But using the phrase ‘dressing up’ suggests that ALL these activities are superfluous window dressings for more ‘authentic’ forms of history which students could equally engage with, but in my experience this is not necessarily true.

    For example I could spend 20 minutes explaining to my students about the size and nature of the Roman empire, Roman culture and the way in which a Roman emperors needed to conduct themselves and then to classify these into sections and they would doubtless leave the lesson with an understanding of Roman statesmanship and some interest in my bloody tales of Nero and desire to learn more. Or I could lead students in a round of the Roman Emperor game and watch the lightbulb moments as students come to realise what emperors needed to consider and the difficulty of keeping together the empire. Students leave the lesson with an understanding of Roman statesmanship, an enthusiasm for finding out more but more have a sense of ownership that these discoveries are their own and not something I have just TAUGHT to them. Yes the students have done a game which simplifies and may even to some extent distort their view of the Romans and their ability to empathise with the struggles of a Roman emperor. However, what they have taken from it is worth much more.

    I am also unsure about the phrase ‘dressing up’ and what this constitutes or indeed what a dressed down history would look like (Jeans and a shirt but no tie?). Because to my mind historians ‘dress up’ history all the time – This is true of more populist historians such as Starkey comparing the Tudors to modern day celebrity culture but even more hardcore academics pepper their works with analogies and metaphors which in some way ‘dress up’ their subject. Surely even the narrative that you provided students with was a ‘dressing up’ in some sense complete with your witty anecdotes and comedy accents designed to keep the students interested. Where does something cease to be ‘dressing up’?

    It just seems to me that the phrase ‘dressing up’ is actually doing a big disservice to the work many classroom teachers are doing in making creative but also thoughtful lesson activities and I just can’t really see what an un-dressed up history is? Or perhaps I have misunderstood. I was writing this while marking my Year 8 Suffragette interpretations movie posters.

  9. This is precisely why we don’t need ping-pong balls with letters bobbing in the water. We need paper and pencil activities with plenty of appropriate content for foundational literacy (phonics, reading, spelling and writing) and, guess what, the kids love it and have a tangible and intrinsic sense of their own practice and learning.

  10. Congratulations on the well deserved mention by Mary Myatt at #TEDxNorwichED – this story reminds me of what my biology teacher did one lesson, which I wanted to share and did via the first part of this article for the UKed Magazine:

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