Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

Preface: Why learn?

This might seem a good question if we had any alternative but actually learning is like breathing: it’s impossible to stay alive and not do it. It’s more useful to ask ‘what is learning for?’ We know that it alters behaviour and that it aids survival. If it were not so we would not have such huge brains compared with our size. Nor would we be able to live in such diverse climates and conditions. Travel on the London Underground during the rush hour and you’ll see what I mean. Here are scores of human beings crushed together in conditions that would be denounced as cruel in a zoo. However, these animals have learned a thousand little ways of making their imprisonment tolerable, including the avoidance of any form of body contact that might be construed as a sexual advance or the intention to attack. Moreover, learning has given their journey a direction and a purpose: for each and every one of them it has created a story that gives them a reason for being there and an idea of where they are going. That story is what I’m talking to when I talk to you and the more I know of it the fairer I’m likely to be in my judgement of you. At the same time it’s not a simple, linear, narrative. It has many twists and turns and alternative, sometimes contradictory, plot lines, some of them relating to basic needs, others to long term, even eternal, goals. The latter are much more likely to have been consciously acquired and for that reason are valued more highly. They are also extremely powerful. Nothing makes a person more miserable than failure to live up to the kind of person that he or she thinks they ought to be. This is why most of us would rather be ill than be thought a fool.

So, learning is a natural thing by means of which - through the internal dialogue we call consciousness - humans develop a sense of self. But not all learning is conscious. Humans were learning long before they acquired the ability to think and each of us does a great deal of learning long before we become aware of it. There are older memory systems in the brain than those in the frontal lobes that hold our conscious thoughts, as anyone who has an irrational fear of spiders knows. Spok in Star Trek might make his decisions purely on the basis of logic but few human actions are the product of reason alone, To illustrate the truth of this statement open your classroom door and tell your class that you have just let in your pet sabre-toothed tiger. The boy or girl nearest the door will be its lunch and probably the person sitting next to them as well (it’s a big tiger). For those further away the presence of a large carnivore in the room will sharply concentrate minds. Do the classroom windows open? Will the light fittings support the weight of a human body? Can sabre-toothed tigers jump? The ‘Spoks’ in the room will think of looking up the behaviour of sabre-toothed tigers on their computer. Others (usually boys) will be preparing to be heroes and fight the animal in order to save their comrades, even if it means being eaten themselves. Finally, you – as their teacher – will try to reason with the beast. Surely it will not want to eat such educated pupils? Think of the cost of all that schooling!

The point is that everyone in the room will be thinking very quickly, selecting a role for themselves depending upon their position and their previous experience. No one (except the teacher, who knows what is going to happen) has time for Spok-like logic. The instant that danger is perceived complex chemical changes will have taken place to prepare individuals for whatever action they decide upon. Heart rates will have risen and immune systems will have gone into overdrive. At the same time what I call ‘deep learning’ will be taking place with the brain flooded with chemicals that ensure whatever new experiences are recorded there are recorded permanently.

Few teachers would want to expose their pupils to post-traumatic stress in this way but the fact is that pupils need to perceive some survival value in everything they learn, even if it relates to self-esteem rather than physical safety. I sometimes tease a class that going to and from the refreshment area during a break involves more brain activity than will occur during the actual session. This is because brains are designed to respond to change and to the possibility that the unexpected may occur. Without the stimulus of interaction the organ drifts off to sleep, maintaining only the appearance of attention, a skill developed by generations of schoolchildren and students...

Of course teachers have always had the power to increase the survival value of learning by offering rewards or threatening punishments. Today few students reach higher education without clearing a great many academic hurdles whose sole value lies in their being the key to the next stage. Most of the information acquired is jettisoned as soon as it is no longer needed – the power of forgetting being almost as important as the power of remembering. For those who are less intellectually gifted the school system can fail entirely, leaving teachers helpless in the face of disruptive pupils who have nothing to lose and a great deal to gain by becoming ‘heroes of the resistance’. In both cases the chief casualty is knowledge itself, which has somehow become ‘the enemy’.

How is knowledge to be rescued from such an unmerited fate? The oft-quoted proverb ‘I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand’ reminds us that what you learn is less important than the way you learn it. The American psychologist E.P. Torrance (1915-2003) devised a series of tests (1974) for creativity, including the following: ask your group to think of as many uses for a paper clip as they can, other than fastening pieces of paper together. The average is about four, with scores of eight or nine indicating an ability to think quickly and imaginatively. Science lessons when paper clips were used as crude electrical switches often come to mind; they can have cleaning and decorative uses too. However the most common answer is picking a lock, demonstrating the number of potential or actual criminals in the group… The point is how do I, as a teacher, improve your performance at Professor Torrance’s test? Most groups respond by asking for some paper clips and freedom to spend time in the car park but the serious point is that the knowledge thus acquired is permanent because it is acquired through experience. Learners feel that they have gained something through the exercise, even if it is not at that moment relevant to their situation. It is outdoor exercise for the mind.

Torrance leaves us with two kinds of learning, only one of which adds to our sense of who we are. The first is largely passive: it gets us through our GCSEs and has little value otherwise. It is still largely a matter of recall. The second, often called ‘active’ learning, develops our ability to solve problems and manage situations. Most of what follows will be about active learning and its application to the teaching of history, which is both a problematical subject in that it is concerned with things that have happened rather than those which are going to happen, and the most important subject of all since it is about human behaviour – our best guide to what might happen in the future.