Medieval Nazis, the Newcastle Thames, and other museum discoveries

A trip to a local museum this week provided to me some perfect justification of my beliefs in the importance of local history, of the primacy of a knowledge-basis, and of how history at primary-level continues to be wildly misunderstood by those obsessed with discovery-based learning.

Discovery Museum - Neil Turner (CC 2.0)
Discovery Museum – Neil Turner (CC 2.0)

Appropriately enough, it was at the ‘Discovery Museum’. Organised by my parallel teacher, she did all the hard work – organising a trip and jumping through all the form-shaped hoops does not look like fun, and as I continue to struggle coming up for air in the sea of work, her crib notes on each of the exhibits saved me from flailing around attempting to control 30 children whilst trying to figure out what they were supposed to look at. The patience and guidance others give me on a regular basis, my parallel teachers especially included, are a daily lifesaver – quite how they have the patience for me every day I’m not sure, but I am eternally grateful.

In the end, the trip was largely a success. An exhibit on ‘Newcastle Through the Ages’ ticked every box about local history that I (and the curriculum for that matter) care about – grand scale history was brought home by understanding how it affected the local area, silly misconceptions (like the idea that it wasn’t Scotland that ever fought with England, it must have been the Nazis in the Medieval period) were debunked, and a sense of chronological scale was slowly being imparted to the children. The ‘journey’ through time, once made explicit, started to make sense to the children – in just 40 minutes we discussed all sorts, from the Civil War, to the nominal ‘New Castle’, to the effect the printing press had locally and nationally. We ended with the link to our topic, a short WW2 section, which gave real-life examples of how the war affected the city. Ties to the city and to local areas were being made in front of my very eyes, which was a joy to see.

So far, so good. An exhibit solely on two local regiments dating from the 1700s helped further, as children got to learn about the sacrifices of local men as they fought global battles, which extended into modern day Afghanistan. A proud moment had to be a child identifying a lion and a unicorn on a military drum and identifying what the symbols meant – they related it both to the Queen, and to what they see on their passports. A brief look at a giant map of the Tyne led to some excellent discussion about why Newcastle would ever be bombed in the first place, the role of industry in the area, and why major cities tend to be built around rivers (along with the bizarre insistence that the Thames is a river in Newcastle, with half the class running over to look for it somewhere on the map).

The disappointment was in the object handling session run by the museum, which cost quite a bit of money for the school. The children were left with historical objects running as a carousel session and with next to no prompting were told to guess what they were – little guidance was given, no basic knowledge was provided, and there was little interaction with the children. Children were given the answers in the end, but there was no reason provided for the children about why they were doing what they were doing, and the objects weren’t made tangible for the children.

A particularly disappointing moment came with the all-too-brief questions and answers session with the museum expert. During one of the only moments where she assessed prior knowledge, she asked when the war began – most of them said 1939 correctly and even said the invasion of Poland, which was a pleasant surprise, but one blurted out that it all began with Germany losing the First World War and being unhappy about it, with quite some explanation about losing land and feeling embarrassed. This was an incredible answer – I don’t take Topic, but had briefly mentioned this during a Literacy lesson, and I know the PPA teacher taking them for it had mentioned it in passing too, so for a middle-ability child to give such a well-argued, thoughtful, and clearly in their own words answer was lovely.

The staff member’s response: ‘well, it’s not quite that simple’. They moved on all too quickly, spoke a little about gas masks and other objects, and did not provide links to core knowledge. It seemed that this answer deserved praise, and for exploration of wider history. This did not occur, assumably because the whole session was not about the children learning about the war, but instead having fun with objects in the hope they might discover something along the way by themselves.

It felt like the whole thing was exemplary of what was wrong with History at primary-level, and after all the hard work of myself on the day, and my parallel teacher in the lengthy preparation, to provide a day that ticked many curriculum boxes and brought history to life through local connections, was slowly undone by a session that did more damage than good.

Perhaps the museum needs to pay closer attention to the direction of travel in the curriculum – it seems bizarre that they did such a good job with local history for the general public, but for schoolchildren (who I argue need the local connection even more to make connections to grander history) the exhibit was the usual non-history ‘source analysis’ that used to pass as history at primary level.

The main positive was, during such an early phase in my career where my focus is on actually teaching rather than grand ideas of fulfilling my ‘vision’, that I had a day where I could test the waters, and that the responses from the children were very good. It has made me more aware of the role of museums in promoting this local history. It also seems to point to the power of the curriculum, as I discussed a little in the last post – the museum can (quite lazily) do the object handling session and pass it off as educational, but schools have to consciously make the push for local and national history because of what Mr Gove jammed in.

Perhaps museums could raise more money, and stop smart aleck history grads like me moaning, by paying closer attention to where primary history in general is going…

Charlie Nettle - Northumberland Fusiliers Memorial, Newcastle (CC 2.0)
Charlie Nettle – Northumberland Fusiliers Memorial, Newcastle (CC 2.0)

The realities of teaching vs. Keeping your ‘vision’ alive

It’s very easy to talk about your Teach First-imposed ‘vision’ when it feels like you’re always a few weeks away from actually having your own class. It all, obviously, dies a sorry death when you’ve finished week 3, you have (another) dreaded observation next week, you’re drowning in Excel documents to be completed (want a real recruitment crisis? Tell wannabe teachers how often they’ll have to deal with spreadsheets), and ever more planning. It feels like a lifetime ago that I talked wistfully about national values and placing History higher on the Primary mantlepiece.

However, one of many things I’ve learnt over the past few weeks have been just how seriously the British Values guidance is taken, at least anecdotally within my school. I had spoken to some people about my wish to one day, perhaps, work in policy alongside teaching, and I had been met with much cynicism – the people who set the curriculum don’t have much power I was told, their influence is limited, DfE is a nightmare and so on and so forth.

What is perhaps most surprising is how obsessively teachers follow the curriculum objectives and relate it to British Values, or look to tie things to the local area, even if they may have reacted to such changes with a heavy sigh. It seems, at least anecdotally, that teachers take more of a consideration of linking things to the locale – the notion that children don’t know enough about their own local area, and thus perhaps require that basis before delving into world geography, seems undisputed.

It seems also that the whole debate is moving in this direction, albeit incidentally. Going an hour at Summer Institute without hearing about Bloom’s taxonomy was rare, meaning that trainee teachers were being sewn with the notion that a knowledge basis is paramount, even if many of the lecturers would be spitting feathers at anyone who suggested that teaching knowledge before letting children loose was probably the best idea.

The whole pedagogical direction seems to now be about ‘mastery’ in smaller chunks rather than wider skills, meaning that the progression metaphor has moved from ladders to onions – both of course as ridiculous-sounding as each other, but it means that when it comes to something related to history, it is assumed that it is better to learn from the local and build outwards. Five years ago, I said the same idea at my Cambridge interview, and it was treated as a radical notion – now, it seems simply taken for granted.

Working my so-called ‘vision’ into lesson plans has obviously fallen by the wayside thanks to the tough realities of actually teaching. (It has though been good to off-the-cuff build it in. One lesson which involved a map related to evacuees gave me an opportunity to ask the class where they thought Newcastle was – answers ranged from where Norwich roughly is, to the Isle of Skye.) However, whilst at one point I worried that my ideas would be a tough sell, many seem to be implementing them for fear of Ofsted, alongside agreeing with the general pedagogical principles.

I rarely have time to sit and read blogs, let alone write stuff, nor do I have the energy to attempt to jam in things to do with my ‘vision’ into the lesson plans for the class whilst I am still at the earliest staging of ‘learning my craft’. However, whilst the idea of having a vision sits on the back-burner for now, the last three weeks have suggested that much of the groundwork to ‘sell’ the ideas I believe in are already there, and it’s the little positives like that that can make the 15 hour days seem worth it in the end.

Is teaching national identity inherently racist? … and other criticisms

Firstly, I have been delighted by the amazing responses I’ve received from my two blog posts. This blog was something that had been encouraged by others but which I was originally reluctant to do, and the decision to finally go through with it was based on a whim: a mixture of responding to the bizarre Chinese School TV programme, and also a way of putting my embryonic ideas about primary education into the internet ether.

Thanks especially to Tom Bennett for retweeting my blog, which led to hundreds of views within a few hours – I am not at this moment in time even in the classroom yet, so to get so many people looking at my ideas and responding is an honour.

This post, coming shortly after I handed in my MRes thesis, and just a couple of days before I start the grind of actual teaching(!), is focused on some of the fantastic responses I had. It’s always lovely to hear positive things, but I think the critical feedback has been especially important – please feel free to keep it coming.

Kiran Gill, now sadly leaving her position leading Policy for Teach First, emailed me back with two points which I’ll deal with separately.

A Magna Carta-themed dinner in a West London School. Hammersmith and Fulham Council (CC 2.0)

Is it possible to define a positive identity without an ‘other’? Is there a risk, in imposing an identity on pupils (through telling them facts, rather than teaching them critical skills and asking them to reflect on what resonates with their personal experiences) that we can end up alienating them from aspects of their identity which we are not discussing – othering them in the process?

This is similar to a good back-and-forth I had with Tim Young on Twitter, who called my first post ‘worryingly nationalistic’. The terms nationalism and patriotism are not particularly handy, but in purely a historical sense nationalism is probably the closest: the idea that values come from how a nation uses its past to define itself. The best explanation of this probably comes from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities – whereby the ‘imagined community’ creates ties between people of all different types, through ever-changing identity myths.

My principal contention is that this must be positive – that it is by definition inclusive, since it can encompass anyone who comes here and integrates. (A classic, if now cliched, recent example would be the athlete Mo Farah.) In a classroom, it shouldn’t be that pupils have to ‘choose sides’ – just as there can be ‘Italian-American communities’ (which can include people who are multiple-generations away from their ethnic identity), pupils can define themselves as British and whatever else they like. But what would matter is that they define themselves as British at all, and that this identity was taken seriously. I don’t want this to be imposed – there shouldn’t be a penalty for a child to reject it – but that it is offered in the first place.

In purely academic terms, what my ‘vision’ is trying to do is to get pupils to think about where values and identities come from. Sometimes this can be folklore, or traditional history, or religious stories. There can be ‘universal’ values, but this is a moral minefield – how does one explain where the UN Declaration of Human Rights comes from, what its basis is, and potential clashes with particular cultures? Rather than engaging 30 eight-year-olds with the complex nature of women’s rights in particular countries, you instead engage them with how women’s rights evolved in this country, and ask them whether things are better now, and if they could be better in the future.

Another loaded word, ‘tolerance’, is an awkward term probably closest to what I am envisaging. France’s values are not particularly far-flung from Britain’s, but they have evolved differently – it is not about privileging one above the other, but to say that as different countries we have different values, but often agree on certain things. This introduces them to politics, which is the art of compromise.

This shouldn’t be ‘othering’ alternative identities for children. By teaching it whole-class, and providing a knowledge-basis of the idea of British identity, it in turn produces the ‘skill’ of understanding people, and how they and ourselves can hold multiple identities at once.

Ultimately, the subtext of arguments based on whether national identity as a whole is a good thing is whether or not it is racist or supremacist in some ways – but what I hope to argue is that difference is a good thing, and that just as there are vast differences in a city alone, there are vast differences across the world, and that national identity should be the last ‘building block’ before we get to ‘human identity’.

If children in a class come from many different backgrounds, what ties them to everyone else around them? What encourages them to take part in civil society, and feel connected? In a homogenous, perhaps separate, community, what ties them to a diverse city? My argument is that national identity does that, and that this is particularly an issue for primary schools, and involves a discussion about what the purpose of history is.

This is a convoluted, long-winded answer to what is a very important question. Please feel free to give feedback on it – I’m sure it is something I’ll end up returning to multiple times.

Is it very British to be proud of being British?

This is a point I hadn’t thought of before, and is perhaps mainly an issue of me using the term ‘pride’. Cultural norms are things that are rarely taught explicitly – the British have a cliched, if widely accurate, reputation for queuing and self-deprecation, which very rarely has to be expressed; it is codified within normal day-to-day life. These cultural norms are not something that has to be expressed as good – they are simply a fact of life here, just as there are different cultural norms elsewhere that are neither better nor worse.

I am not aiming for a robot army of small children waving Union Jacks – it’s a philosophical point to do with identity being rooted to past. The American motto ‘e pluribus unum’ (out of many, one) is a good conceptual understanding of the positive side of it. It shouldn’t be proselytising, nor jingoistic. It is that, by participating in British civil life, you are a part of it – and in some small way you define it for the present and the future.

As such, it is not about necessarily pride, but simply that such an identity should simply be a by-product of living here, just as it would having ties to your locale, to a sports team, to your school, to all sorts.

‘Getting Ready’ by Brian Burke (CC 2.0)

There’s one critique I am surprised to have not yet received in response to this blog, but which was put to me at Teach First by one of my fellow primary participants, a native Englishwoman living in Scotland: what’s the difference between English identity and British identity?

This is probably the one criticism I remain stuck for words to explain, but I feel is mitigated by a focus on working on identity from the very most local and slowly outwards. This means that, in Scotland for instance, Scottish identity would come before British. It is more complex for the case of England, since often the two are synonymous – but it can be understood, at least for younger audiences, as a similar divide to regional differences.

Perhaps these responses have been convincing, perhaps they have not. I look forward to hearing more from people on the matter – I’m sure I’ll forget all about this over the next couple of weeks as I get stuck into actually teaching, but I hope to come back to it, and hear more from people on the issue.

Chinese School: Whole-Class Identity

As someone who always eschewed Twitter until just last week, I was refreshingly impressed by the live tweeting going on re: BBC2 programme ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School’. A quick refresh of the #ChineseSchool trend as I was watching meant I spotted teachers (as in real ones, not just Teach First newbies like me) saying precisely what I was thinking a few seconds ahead of me. I won’t bore people giving a review of the programme; expect Tom Bennett’s TES article tomorrow to give the programme the dressing down it deserves.

One thing I didn’t spot people discussing was a very specific issue: the notion of identity. I put my first post below which roughly outlines why I care about this.

In the programme, little snippets were mentioned that attempted to justify the very particular whole-class approach. This included the exercises in the morning, the attempts to have discipline strong enough for a class of 50 to work, and the focus on the uniform. It was never made explicit enough, and this was a lost opportunity to explain why such a whole-class approach could actually work.

‘Child-centred’ learning has led to far less focus on the concept of the class as a unit – never mind a unit of learning, but simply part of a child’s identity. Classic (read: cliched) behaviour management techniques, e.g. punishing the whole class for one child’s misdemeanours, rely implicitly on this concept. The teachers in Chinese School sometimes made comments about focusing on the whole class, but it was swept under the carpet in a programme that preferred trying to paint the Chinese as some exotic other.

Whole-class identity, no matter the pedagogy or style of the teacher, creates a collaborative environment.

You can live in a Vygotskian building site paradise with such a focus – like when one child, who had failed his PE test, helped to teach the class about a logical puzzle involving metal rings. The point is that the whole class is progressing, and everyone is playing to their strengths, without the need for setting. It means that self-confidence is embodied.

It also makes discipline easier. It means that a teacher can teach 50 pupils at once, because the focus is on the class as a a whole progressing. It trains respect, both for the teacher and the rest of the class. How many times have you heard teachers pull the lame ‘you’re disrupting everyone else’s learning’ – why would the pupil care without being taught to think of oneself within a class identity.

It trains children to think about more than themselves – to think of their peers, to be ‘part of a team’, of fair competition.

This is all that the teachers in Chinese School were attempting, but whether the teachers were coerced or did so willingly, it failed not just because of the ridiculous four week premise of the ‘experiment’, but because of the obsession with it being ‘Chinese’. When the concept wasn’t working, the teachers went full on with teaching Chinese culture – when in reality, it should have been more about what joined the pupils of that class together.

The teachers ended up distancing the pupils from the very whole-class identity they were trying to solve by over-playing the Chinese element. 

We need a discussion about what kind of ‘learning environment’ teachers want to make within their classrooms, and joining children with their fellow classmates is an important topic to discuss. My argument is that this can only be done, as per my first post on this blog, by tying together school, local, and ultimately national identity, along with the class unit.

And that is precisely the problem with Chinese School, the TV programme. By making it ‘Chinese’, it has failed at the first hurdle, of making it directly relatable to the class they’re attempting to teach.

As a final note, consider the 2013 Ofsted report on behaviour for the school that the programme was based in. These ideas were already in place – how about getting teachers from this school to try and put their own clear class identity into other schools?

CLmDmllWIAAX2wD.png-large

First post: Primary History, Primary Identity

I thought I’d begin with an edited version of a speech I made at Teach First Summer Institute 2015 on my ‘vision’ – it’s focused on my class in Newcastle and what it is I want them to achieve, and the broad ideas will hopefully inform the next year or so.

We all aspire for children to succeed. We all want them to fulfil their potential. We all want them to be able to do everything the ambitious national curriculum wants them to do. We all want them to go on and become dancers, artists, singers, academics, teachers, footballers.

This is the bare minimum. My Teach First vision, which I admit is probably different from many people here, is that alongside all this they form an identity.

That that identity is formed firstly in the classroom. Amongst their peers.

So take my class. I walked in yesterday and, stealing my mentor’s idea, told them how there’s a mythical board in the headteacher’s office with who is the best class. I said that at every school I’ve ever taught at (…), my class has always been the best. It’s partly behaviour management, but more importantly it’s that they identify as part of a smaller unit.

Then it’s formed in their school. This is covered by the usual inter-school events, particularly sports. Then the area the school is in. Sometimes, particularly if the area as a certain reputation, that can be extremely difficult, but overcoming that is essential.

Then the wider locale, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Football. To say to the child whose family have just moved here, that you are a Geordie – you can walk to St James’. That team is yours.

And all the history associated with Newcastle. To understand what that big monument in the centre of town is for, why it’s called ‘New-castle’, what makes this city different to Sunderland or Southampton or Swansea.

Then the North East. What makes this region unique? Hadrian’s Wall, the connections with Scotland, Viking raids. Why is the Geordie accent unique? Why is it similar to the Mackem, to the Boro, to the Hartlepool, what happens to the accent when you go south, north, east, west, why is that the case?

Then to England, with its unique history. Its long tale of rights long fought for – from north easterner St Bede writing the first history of the English people and the first translation of the Bible into a vernacular language (which took another millennium to happen properly), to Boudicca, whose statue stands proudly next to the Houses of Parliament.

And then to Britain. What joins four nations together, not always harmoniously. A constitution that has been fought for, slowly.

This view assumes that history is about what joins the past, the present, and future all together – that we inherit the past, and must look after it carefully for the future generations.

This view also assumes that history, like most of the curriculum, is fundamentally about teaching facts: not about ‘source analysis’ skills – that’s what English does. It’s not about getting children to guess what objects were for, or simply understanding that things were different ‘in the past’.

What matters is that children understand that their history is a part of who they are, and that learning who they are is one of the most important lessons they will ever learn – and will continue to learn throughout their whole lives.

Solving identity crises is a genuine panacea to societal ills. But the battle is getting schools to take the vague (if well-meaning) British Values guidance seriously, and not just as an Ofsted tick-box exercise.

Joining the nation together at primary level and beyond means explaining that their right to vote took a long time to happen. That the right even to be told what they were being arrested for had to be fought for, and has been passed around the world – this enfranchises the young.

It fights extremism – it explains that to all those who live here under our law that we are equal, whatever our colour or creed, and that we as a nation have inherited our rights from the past.

It gives community life back, which has been lost over the past half-century or so. Why is it that northern cities seem so much better at community than southern cities? Because identity is tied to certain values. These values are difficult to define but they are felt, and are associated with past generations.

It explains to children that we all have collective responsibility. This is ‘community cohesion’ but it requires us to proactively tell a national myth.

‘Our Island Story’.

Nationalism is not a nasty thing, it is not about defining yourself as better than other nations, it is about understanding that different cultures have different values and accepting those differences. That is the very definition of tolerance.

It’s saying that, values and beliefs aren’t plucked from thin air, they’re crafted slowly over time, using the past and the present and considering the future. Whilst intolerance to gay rights might sometimes come from religion, the very freedom of speech, the very notion of freedom of choice, ultimately comes from Western European Protestantism – that is an example of our history evolving over time.

It is about saying to children who come here from far afield: this country is yours, and you should learn about its history, so that you can fully participate in this society.

Part of this is that history isn’t just political facts: it’s Shakespeare, it’s Churchill, it’s the castles around you, it’s the art work in OUR galleries, this is ours. This is our cultural heritage. It’s stuff that schools are already doing, but are not consciously linking to identity.

It is essential we teach this to our children. If you make children proud to be from your class, proud to be from your school, proud to be from their neighbourhood, proud to be Geordie or wherever they are, proud to be from the north, and proud to be British.

That is what will make tomorrow’s citizens.