Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

Some classroom activities that promote the learning and understanding of history

I’ve already referred to some of the activities listed below but include them here for quick reference. In every case the aim is to secure audience participation. As was stated at the beginning, I believe that doing is the basis of understanding as the learner’s role in the process is fundamentally altered when he or she has to take some responsibility for its outcome. In some cases the teacher will have to overcome the real reluctance of individuals to expose themselves to ridicule and here I have been fortunate in teaching mainly those who are themselves intending to be teachers. Every good teacher makes a fool of themselves at least once a day and most teacher-training students are willing to get some practice! Of course there are a few learners with whom no amount of cajoling will work and their right not to take part must be respected. Nothing kills the fun more quickly than the perception that someone is really suffering. Be prepared to choose someone else very quickly but be equally prepared to allow the original ‘volunteer’ back if he or she recovers their confidence!

A. What it means to be human

Depending upon the age of your class either ask one of your students or offer yourself as a guinea pig. Ask the rest of the group what is human about the person chosen. Answers will include the ability to walk on two legs, to grasp and hold on to things (opposable thumbs), to talk, to think. Ask the class to identify where in their heads they believe that thinking takes place and show a diagram or MRI scan of the human brain with the outer (cerebral) cortex, cerebellum and inner workings clearly distinguished. Show how these areas represent evolution, with an animal core (basic emotions like fear and desire) at the centre and successive, de-coding and controlling layers added over time. Suggest that it is in the brain area that most change has occurred in the last million years. We are therefore the descendants of ‘brainy cowards’, not ‘gung-ho heroes’ who died heroically but failed to reproduce.

Now leave your ‘victim’ standing in front of the class whilst you get on with the lesson. After a few minutes ask the victim to say how long he or she will stand around waiting to be released. Some will show great patience, others rebel almost immediately. Suggest that compliance with the lecturer’s request is based upon a long term game plan, namely ‘I want to be thought a good student’ or ‘I want to please this person who has power to grant or deny my goals/ambitions’. Anger or irritation will eventually overcome this strategy, at least temporarily. Then we might describe the person as having ‘lost it’, ‘it’ being control of their own behaviour. Demonstrate other ways in which nice people can be induced to ‘lose it’, for example the prospect of two weeks’ imprisonment in the lecture room without food or water… or for those who hate them, the presence of a large hairy spider in the room.

The more complicated life becomes the greater the danger that ‘losing it’ (i.e. self control) presents to the rest of society. For trust to exist between individuals who depend upon one another for their survival there must be rules that everyone can be relied upon to respect. Unpredictability undermines the confidence we have to have in each other, hence the sanctions that are put in place to reinforce self-discipline and eliminate deviance. The most famous of these is the Ten Commandments but all historic societies have formulated their equivalent – the more insecure the society, the harsher the punishments inflicted on those who ‘rock the boat.’ This point should start a debate about the relationship between environment and culture, and in particular morality which – as has long been recognised – is an aspect of culture. Remember, in some parts of the world it was OK to eat other people and in our own country, not so long ago, people flocked to watch public executions. Over time the basis of such activities may become purely ideological (i.e. inherited) but they must all have had their origin as solutions to some perceived problem. We live in an age when civil liberty is at risk from well intentioned efforts to deny a hiding place to terrorists but how far should the change in our environment represented by home-grown terrorism be allowed to affect our culture? There have been too many examples of dictators appealing to the public interest to justify repression.

top of this page

B. ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

The nature of society and the trust that underpins it are explored in the next activity which, like so many other good ideas, I took from a respected colleague. Divide your class into two halves. Each half must imagine that they have been on an adventure holiday to some remote location when war or pestilence has wiped out the rest of humankind. The environments in which they find themselves are very different: group A is in a sheltered valley with good farmland and some livestock; group B is a wilderness with little food and only the only the water that they had with them. Both must come up with a strategy for survival, assessing their skills and resources and choosing leaders. They do this in separate rooms until you announce to each group that another group has been sighted. What should they do? Combine or go their separate ways? Clearly group B has much more interest in combining than group A but should A trust them? The end result of a meeting may be peaceful or violent but the discussions should clearly demonstrate the need for shared values – beliefs that both groups hold in common. Only through respect for these can trust be built up.

This activity has the great advantage of being self-proving i.e. however it develops it demonstrates the nature of society and the need for rules. It is in fact a game played by all of us whenever we go out of our houses, making the assumption that those we meet in the street share our ideas of right and wrong and our respect for the law which embodies these notions. More than the existence of a police force which deals largely with individuals on the margin, it is the assurance of mutual benefit that holds society together.

With the interest that has been aroused (and the insights into the personalities present in each group) a discussion can be initiated which explores the right of individuals to prefer their own ideas of right and wrong over those of society. People who stick to their beliefs ‘through thick and thin’ are generally admired, at least in liberal societies, but what if those beliefs lead them to contemplate acts of violence against the state or the general public? Is it enough to be sincere? My own answer is this. Everyone has to the right to give up their own lives for a cause but not the lives of others. It has to be admitted however, that such a strategy would not have defeated Hitler.

top of this page

C. Evidence and its absence

Ask your group to write down what they consider to be the most important things that have happened to them over the previous three days (during the hours of daylight if you do not want to invade their privacy. With undergraduates this request often produces looks of despair, late nights having a major effect on memory).

Sometimes the list includes lectures; rarely does it include anything more significant than ‘shopping’. A second request to ring round any event considered to be a ‘turning point’ will usually produce very little response. A third request to single out any happening that could be described as ‘historic’ is certain to be greeted by ironic laughter.

Now ask the group to imagine something that might happen to them which would be important enough to get them in the history books or on the front page of the ‘Sun’. Do this anonymously, on scraps of paper that can be handed in. Have fun reading out some of the daft ideas that will be put forward e.g ‘marry Prince William’ (which would be interesting if it came from a male member of the group).

The point is that once we are famous, everything about us seems significant (how otherwise would the celebrity magazines make money?) but most of us are secretly glad when history passes us by because the commonest way of becoming famous is either to be the victim or the perpetrator of some terrible crime. Prove this by asking the name of Henry VIII’s second wife or President Clinton’s girlfriend with the infamous cigar.

What we have highlighted is one of the major difficulties involved in learning history as a subject. It is usually about men and women who have become famous because they are very different from ordinary people – the ‘mad’, ‘sad’ or ‘bad’ of my introduction. Another difficulty is created by the partial and often accidental survival of evidence. Take the scraps of paper and carefully select one of the most ridiculous. Throw all the others into the waste bin and then imagine that the surviving scrap has accidentally been dug up out of the ruins of the building in which the class is taking place by some future archaeologist. This is all he or she has to go on when seeking to understand the psychology of young humans in the early part of the 21st Century? Did they all want to marry the heir to the throne?

top of this page

D. Life on Mars

This activity was briefly described in Chapter 1. Ask your learners to imagine they have been kidnapped by a friendly visitor from space who lacks any understanding of human life, except that which is suggested by the pages of a tabloid newspaper. Their task is to explain to the visitor what humans do in a school, a pub, a church and a football ground. You can extend the task to include interpretation of such words as ‘cool’, ‘sad’ or ‘babe’, updating them as necessary. The answers you are offered will almost certainly take a lot for granted. For example, a church may be said to be somewhere where people go to ‘worship’ but what is ‘worship’? Ask your group to give a demonstration, it’s good for the ego! The best fun is to be had with the football ground, especially if you have keen footballers in the group. You may find you have strayed into a very interesting debate about contemporary ideas of masculinity, with the boys desperate to claim some gender-specific territory in the face of withering female scorn!

For my students, who were training to be teachers, explaining the nature and purpose of schools always provided a challenge. Typically they would suggest that schools are places where children go to ‘learn’. When asked to explain what they meant by learning they would often find it difficult. Again, I’d ask for a demonstration – ‘look like you’re learning’ – and again I’d have fun with the results. There is of course a serious point underlying all the teasing. Most pictures of children learning, especially those in school prospectuses, are ‘set up’. Frequently they show ‘wonder’ or amazement’ which are believed to be the products of learning. As we have seen, learning involves many emotions and most of its processes are hidden.

A discussion like this could go on and on but the point of the activity is not to explore the nature of learning but to demonstrate the nature of the barriers which cut us off from the past. Many plays, films and television series have explored the same theme, including those that involve travel through time. Sometimes an outsider adopts a culture he feels to be superior to his own, like Will Adams, the English pilot who became a samurai in 16th Century Japan. Such ‘cross-overs’ provide an excellent opportunity for an exploration of culture itself, although encounters between cultures can have tragic consequences for societies that are less technologically advanced, as the fate of the Aztecs proves.

top of this page

E. Words and their meanings

Clearly every human being with a normal brain has the capacity to acquire language. Though an individual may learn several languages in a lifetime (including those like Music and Maths that do not use words) there is some evidence to suggest that their first language must be learnt during the early stages of brain development. The way this happens in infants seems to echo the steps by which language itself developed over thousands, perhaps millions, of years as human beings sought to communicate ever more efficiently with one another.

Ask your group to think of the very first words that children usually say. Invariably the answer is ‘mama’ or ‘dada’ (although my eldest son may have said ‘scissors’). What comes next? Generally it is the naming of familiar objects in the child’s immediate environment like ‘table’ or ‘chair’. You can go round the room pointing at various things, teasing your learners by the names you give them. What kind of words are we using? Answer: nouns. Now demonstrate that conversation is possible just using nouns by pointing at something and saying its name in a very emotional way (with adult students I pretend I am in love with the object…).

It will be soon be clear that such a conversation has severe limitations: I cannot distinguish one table from another nor say where the table is. I cannot tell the group about an action that is taking place nor say how it is being done. For these tasks I require adjectives, verbs and adverbs respectively. Moreover I cannot say where my table is in relation to any other part of the environment. For this I require a preposition. At this point I draw a bird in a cage on the board and ask the group to think of as many words indicating its location as they can (the suggestion ‘through’ the cage demonstrates the difference between grammar and sense).

What should be clear by now is that grammar can be compared to the skins of an onion with each layer being added to the previous one to extend the precision with which reality can be described. So it must have been during the course of evolution as those capable of a greater degree of communication found it easier to survive (it is perhaps possible that this was the very mechanism which led to the enlargement of the frontal cortex because the more memory you have the better use you can make of language).

So far we have acquired the ability to be very precise in our description of the world around us but what about events that have not yet happened - alternative possibilities that depend upon situations as yet unclear? To encompass these we need a word like ‘if’. ‘If’ allows us to hypothesise, to imagine, and to speculate. It is the basis of logic and thus underlies all computer operations. Without such a word we are restricted to the one version of reality that is before our eyes. Is it too fanciful to imagine that our cousins the Neanderthals died out precisely because their command of language did not extend to the conditional?

The value of this exercise is that invites students to examine the present in terms of a past whose different demands nevertheless explain the way our minds work today. Complex as our world is its origins lie in the simple need to survive in the open air and the mechanisms that confer an advantage in that struggle. When we come to look at the origins of society a similar principle emerges: what survives is what works and what works will generally evolve in the direction of greater efficiency, even if – eventually – this takes it in the direction of over-endowment and unexpected side-effects like consciousness…

top of this page

F. Lords and peasants

In Chapter 4 we saw how the invention of agriculture led inevitably to the development of societies in which some individuals, groups or classes came to possess most of the wealth whilst the majority became labourers or tenants. To demonstrate this process first set the scene – I imagine somewhere on the banks of the Nile eight or nine thousand years ago – and then choose one of your learners to play the role of the genius who planted the first crop, be it wheat or barley. There he or she is, sitting patiently by a square of mud, waiting for the first green shoots to appear. Alas, here comes another inhabitant of the prehistoric world, unaware of the importance of what is happening. He (and it’s usually a ‘he’) walks right over the all important muddy patch, squashing the incipient plants back into the ground. What is our unknown genius to do?

The answers will range from sensible (‘ask him politely to go another way’ or ‘build a fence’) to extreme violence, the feasibility of which depends upon the relative sizes of the two actors involved. If the fence solution is adopted, what is to prevent the second inhabitant from climbing over it. Suggest a notice, with appropriate dire warnings, but remind the group that we are in a pre-literate age. Finally guide them towards some kind of agreement which involves each of the parties having their own, separate, field. Thus, through mutual acceptance of the right of exclusion, farming is invented.

Now luck and intelligence play their part. Along the river I’ve seen what is going on and decide to follow suit. However, my land is either dry or infertile, or I choose the wrong plants. At the end of the growing season I am left with a barren waste whereas my neighbours have fields thick with healthy plants. They are already building a granary to store their surplus but I face a hungry time ahead. What can I do?

Again the answers will vary but the obvious solution – stealing - seems out of the question as I am outnumbered. I will have to trade but what do I have to trade with? Only my labour, which my neighbours will purchase at least cost to themselves. All of a sudden I am forced into economic dependency, a condition which my descendants will inherit whilst their children will inherit their prosperity, adding to it through marriage and purchase.

Naturally the new lords of the land are grateful for their good fortune. Understanding themselves and their prosperity to be at the mercy of gods who can both bless and blast they will invest hugely in what they believe to be pleasing to these gods and in the process try to ensure their own immortality. The new agricultural landscape will bear witness to their efforts in the form of temples, tombs and pyramids, whilst specialist skills will be developed to fashion the objects and buildings which the rich require to demonstrate their wealth. Soon the river bank will boast a host of successful settlements each with their ruling family. If you can draw you can represent this scene on the white board, bestowing villages on carefully chosen members of your group.

But what happens if things go wrong? Supposing the Nile does not rise and the crops do not grow. In one village they have been sensible and stored grain against such an eventuality. In another they have spent their time partying (everyone will know whose village this is likely to be). If they want to keep their position the leaders of the party-goers have to organise an attack on their wiser neighbours. In turn those neighbours seek help from others equally under threat (my enemy’s enemy is my friend…). Who wins the resulting war will depend upon strength, bravery and tactics but the winner will be rewarded with regional dominance: his will be the gang that everyone wants to belong to.

Result? Bigger temples and bigger tombs and in due course a system of writing that allows the great leader to communicate his will over large distances and record his grandeur for future generations to admire. His control of resources will place the means of coercion in his hands as well as the services of skilled artists and craftsmen to elevate his status. Before long all the complex apparatus of modern state-power will have come into existence, the inevitable result of sowing a few simple seeds.

top of this page

G. The Cat that Ran

I used the word ‘inevitable’ in the previous paragraph to describe a situation which appears to be the sole possible outcome of a particular set of circumstances. Such a supposition begs the question ‘what if ?’ What difference would it make if the circumstances were slightly different? The great Russian author Tolstoy famously dismissed Napoleon’s claim to be a man of destiny, ascribing his successes to forces far beyond his control; yet history provides countless examples where – because so much power is concentrated in so few hands – the destinies of nations can be altered by individual wants and desires. Moreover, accidents unrelated to the main action can play a decisive part in great historical dramas, there being no more obvious example of this than the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

It is possible to argue that the First World War would never have happened if the archduke’s car had not reversed backwards past a café in which the disconsolate Gavrilo Princip was sitting, unable to take a shot at his intended victim because the archduke’s route through the city had been changed at the last minute. The chauffeur had apparently forgotten about the change of plan and was attempting to rectify his mistake when Princip saw his chance and took it. Of course there was the system of alliances which would bring in all the great powers once war broke out and there was the glorification of war itself that caused millions of young men to rush to the recruiting offices as soon as hostilities commenced but earlier crises had been weathered successfully and no-one actually wanted a war in 1914, however well prepared for it they were (the Schlieffen Plan etc). As with the atrocity of September 11th 2001 it was the extreme nature of the archduke’s murder which altered minds although both events might so easily have been prevented.

A rather simpler event than the outbreak of a major war can help children to understand the complexity of causation. Let’s suppose a man is out driving one evening (when teaching undergraduate groups it’s always easy to pick out the most likely candidate). It’s raining and visibility is poor. All of a sudden a cat runs across the road. Our man swerves to avoid it, skids and ends up with his car embedded in a nearby garden wall. Who or what is to blame for this happening? First responses will include the cat, and the man (for not being hard-hearted enough?). However, the cat belongs to an old lady who always puts it out at night, despite living by a busy road; and there’s a man with a rotweiler living next door who hates cats and deliberately puts his animal out at the same time so that the cat is scared into fleeing for its life. And what about the state of the man’s car? Has he had it maintained properly? If the ‘victim’ is a student it’s unlikely… What about the state of the road? Has the council kept it in good repair? Are council tax payers too mean to provide the money? Finally, who is to blame for the weather? Maybe God is responsible for the accident… Bring all these issues into focus by imagining that the car driver has been charged with reckless driving. The group are the jury: ask them one by one to declare their verdict. Oddly enough, if the ‘victim’ is popular, the verdict is likely to be ‘guilty’.

Most groups will see that the point of the activity is not to provide an answer but to demonstrate the many factors that can contribute to a relatively straightforward event. There were clearly background causes – the state of the roads, the weather and so on – but individual actions and choices also played a part, right up to the moment when the victim’s girlfriend chose to show her appreciation for the ‘hot’ night out they’d had together, just as the cat ran out… Perhaps Tolstoy was right: it may not be the historian’s task to come up with a general theory of causation but to show how particular events have particular causes, however long in the making some of these may be. It’s all a matter of emphasis: ‘do we make history or does history make us?

top of this page

H. Body Language

In the text I argued that getting inside the heads of people in the past required the ability to think their thoughts which in turn required familiarity with their forms of expression. This doesn’t just mean learning their language. There are more direct ways into the mentality of the past, for example music and movement.

We live in an age when clothes express a degree of informality allied to a preference for the outdoor life which both men and women share. The minimal summer uniform of shorts and T-shirts embraced by both sexes and most age groups in the West is not just a reflection of global warming but of a desire for mental and physical freedom. We have become addicted to ‘play’: the lucky ones amongst us combine athleticism and languor in a way which the Ancient Greeks alone would have appreciated. It was, of course, very different in the past. Less than a hundred years ago women encased themselves in corsets so tight that they caused internal injury; men wore suits on to the beach and only the very poor went out without a head covering. In late Tudor times that would-be hero the Earl of Essex posed for the miniaturist in tights so tight and trunks so short that a modern reaction is almost instinctively homophobic whilst the Ancient Egyptians have left us an image of themselves that is both tranquil and timeless; the smiling faces look beyond the present with its distracting concerns into a future where ma’at is unchallenged and unchallengeable. Romans look business-like and organised, the Aztecs terrifying. Their cosmos appears bleak and on the edge of catastrophe.

The music that is expressive of these cultures is equally diverse and affecting. Unfortunately we do not know what the music of the Ancient World sounded like though efforts have been made to reconstruct it. When Tutankhamen’s silver trumpets were played back in the 1930s the trumpeter used a modern mouthpiece; even so the sound is unforgettable. Substantial amounts of music do survive from the Middle Ages, not just the liturgical sound of Gregorian chant but the robust and jolly accompaniment to feasts and tournaments. By Henry VIII’s time we have the king’s own composition ‘Pastance with Good Company’ with its timeless evocation of the joys of being alive and young. Singing this song will take you more fully into the adolescent Henry’s mind than any number of history books, though without them you won’t know precisely what it is you’re feeling. In total contrast are Victorian parlour songs like ‘Come into the Garden Maud’, the biggest hit of its day. If anything the gap between that world and ours seems bigger than the one dividing us from Henry Tudor, yet it must be bridged, not only in fairness to our great-grandparents but because we need to feel the influence of past ways of life and thought if our own culture is not to suffer the impoverishment of isolation.

There is one form of movement which probably expresses more about an age than any other and that is dancing. As far as it is possible to tell every human culture has engaged in rythmic movement to the accompaniment of music, sometimes for sheer enjoyment but more often as part of some more serious religious or social ritual. In some cultures it is the only occasion when groups of young men and women interact. Just why dancing differs so widely from place to place and time to time is an aspect of the wider debate about culture but surely the controlled movement of an 18th Century minuet is more than a product of fashion. It indicates a society achieving its goals through rather than outside a strict set of rules – the opposite, in fact, of our own, although the historian is bound to be puzzled given the picture of the same society presented to us in Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’.

Tudor dancing seems to lend itself most easily to the primary school setting as the steps can be simplified without losing too much authenticity. A slow dance like the Pavane makes a good beginning whilst a faster one like the galliard will really test the fitness of performers. Start each dance with the proper form of reverence. An opening bow or curtsey locates the activity within a particular mindset and teaches the importance of good manners. In our efforts to dispense with formality and the artificial barriers of rank and class we have forgotten the function that good manners perform – namely the avoidance stress and conflict. Showing respect sets the opposite party’s mind at rest and enables social interaction to be relaxing and productive.

top of this page