‘Just give them good stories, and things they can relate to.’
This piece of advice was given to me by a legendary history teacher at a comprehensive where I did my training. Overweight, eccentric, unmarried and employed at the school since anyone could remember, he was a modern day Hector from The History Boys. At the time, his advice seemed as outdated and surprising as his mutton chop sideburns.
However, I found these words returning to me one evening after delivering a particularly uninspiring lesson on Napoleon. My year eights and I were doing what we always do: source analysis. Like nearly every other school in England, my school follows a ‘skills based curriculum’ for history. This means that history lessons do not teach pupils about the past, but instead teach them ‘thinking skills’ such as source analysis and critical reasoning. Faced with Napoleon, one of the most fascinating figures in world history, we spent a lesson looking at paintings of him and asking the mundane question ‘are these sources reliable?’ The pupils were bored senseless.
Such an approach to teaching history originated in the 1970s with the Schools Council, which promoted the rather oxymoronic concept of ‘New History’. Schools, they thought, could never teach something so unforgivably reactionary as historical narrative or facts, so history was rebranded as a vehicle for gaining ‘skills’. The actual subject matter was irrelevant – developing ‘higher order thinking’ was the real aim. This cold, utilitarian view of history has succeeded in sucking all of the joy out of the subject.
My year eights had not taken an interest in Napoleon because they had not appreciated his story. With minimal context offered, he had appeared to them a foreign and boring relic of an age they did not understand. They could not have cared less if the sources were ‘relevant’ or not. So late that night, I had a brainwave. Ernst Gombrich’s classic work, A Little History of the World, has an excellent chapter on Napoleon entitled ‘the Last Conqueror’. I would make my class of 30 year eights read it.
My colleagues thought I had lost it: ‘Silent reading?!’ they asked. ‘Good luck.’ But I persisted. I told my class that we would be doing some real history, and set them on their way. Usually quite easily distracted, they read avidly for most of the lesson. The only thing breaking the silence was their questions: ‘How many of the French died retreating from Russia?’; ‘How was Napoleon allowed to give his brothers whole countries to rule?’; ‘Why were the English allied with the Germans at Waterloo?’ They were amazed by Napoleon’s rise to power, and shocked by his catastrophic fall.
As the class filed out for break, one of the smartest but most badly behaved pupils in the class puffed out his chest. ‘When I grow up, sir, I’m going to be powerful like Napoleon!’ Facts are easily derided, but facts are what make history come alive. Once pupils become interested in facts, ‘thinking skills’ can follow.