By Teachers, For Teachers

December 31, 2013
Pip Edwards

Philippa Edwards

This piece may risk telling people what they already know but my hope is it will support like-minded teachers to take a fresh look at their teaching priorities. Maybe we’ll have a few more discussions, add to our departmental agenda, create a new club, buy a magazine and share an article, or act with urgency to get our A Level students to a conference …

I am delighted to share my experience of working alongside associations like the Prince’s Teaching Institute, the Historical Society and respected academics to enrich my students’ classroom experience …

Teachers, like most professionals, are driven by empowerment. As a historian, my empowerment comes from subject knowledge. The opportunity to enrich subject knowledge generally comes from reading, or from insightful discussions with colleagues. I am fortunate to have been involved with the Prince’s Teaching Institute [PTI] whose mantra is ‘by teachers, for teachers’. I have been a recipient of its subject knowledge-based School Programme events whereby schools’ departmental representatives set and monitor targets which are intended to enrich teaching and learning in their department. Recently, I have been involved as a Subject Leader for the PTI and have had the opportunity to liaise with university professors in order to put on useful, inspiring subject days for new teachers.

We understand that as teachers we are also learners, but learning often takes place in the form of enhanced understanding of context and subsequent emotional awareness of students; our ability to find new and engaging strategies for new groups; the ways in which we can use data to make informed decisions (an often divisive topic); and the creation of new pedagogical approaches: ideas often come from other practitioners or from the students we teach. Rarely, apart from in private reading, do we engage with the latest, greatest research in terms of subject areas.

Some departments in schools across the country are very good at dedicating time to subject knowledge and organisations like the PTI encourage such approaches. As part of our involvement in the scheme I encouraged book sharing and added a subject knowledge-sharing section to our departmental sessions; I need to get back to this and give it more impetus. Great teaching and learning is the key to a wonderful education and school experience, but dare we forget sometimes that it is the effective planning of lessons that is key to students’ passion and achievement. As part of our target setting with the PTI, we also set up a History Society in order to enrich the students’ subject knowledge beyond the curriculum; this led to additional trips and visits, student presentations on their areas of interest and some powerful discussions on key historical issues.

Academic support

Recently I found myself in a quandary as to where to redirect the work of the History Society; we had recruited younger members with plenty of enthusiasm but less confident in engaging with academia. This is juxtaposed with my involvement as a Subject Leader with the PTI and increased level of engagement with academics, so far in German History, such as Dr Damien Valdez, Dr Daniel Siemens and Dr Ingrid Sharp. As subject leaders, we make contact with university doctors and professors and plan the subject days. These academics deliver presentations to teachers with the intention of enriching their subject knowledge. The reality, of course, is that every teacher in the room would be thinking ‘how can I use this with my students?‘. With that in mind, we ask the academics to share ideas and resources that could be used in schools. We also deliver two workshops to give teachers ideas on how to use the materials and how to approach the set period. It can be a challenge but it is perfectly plausible to find a way of using powerful academic research with students. So what could we do with our History Society and in lessons? After all, it is our job to make the complex more relevant and make key concepts clear.

Step one following two subject days on Germany 1918-45 was to use materials of Nietzsche, the Weimar Republic, the rise of National Socialism and Horst Wessel with A Level and GCSE classes. This was wonderfully empowering: students really buy into being challenged and engage well with anecdotal information and the personal stories of characters involved in history, like Horst Wessel; such examples also serve to teach key concepts with subtlety and meaning. Even Nietzsche can make sense when you get students to translate his pondering, then relate these to some of the Nazi ideas (though there is no evidence that Nietzsche held such extreme ideas as the Nazis later put into action).

Step two was to find ways of using this with the History Society. As younger students, they would need to be exposed to such information in a more appropriate way, for you also cannot presuppose the existence of contextual knowledge. So I understood it to be about taking the basic principles and personal stories associated with some broad issues like anti-Semitism or what it was like to be a young person in 1930. Horst Wessel’s story is transferable as a concept of how the Nazis used him and created misleading propaganda in order to create a martyr to their cause.

Meaningful and relevant

I plan to use plentiful materials from these sessions. Students could also appreciate and learn a lot from carefully selected pieces of Weimar art: what does it teach us and why is art such a powerful form of expression? They could watch a select section of Triumph of the Will and make assumptions about Nazi rule, and the impression people had of them. Fortunately, I’m also involved in subject days on ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Revolutionary Russia’ because it would be an unfortunate irony to over-deliver German history. There is a school of thought that suggests that schools over-teach Hitler and Henry VIII.

Tom Sherrington recently said that we shouldn’t put a lid on learning and I firmly believe that. Ours is not to dumb down, ours is to make meaningful and relevant. I’ll keep experimenting with my use of university level academia on younger students. Without this, how can we ever really expand minds and open up a world of exploration, discovery and awareness?

Philippa Edwards Pip Edwards has been a History Teaching and Learning Leader for five years and recently taken on the post of Literacy Coordinator. This has provided opportunities for exploration of innovative and creative approaches, and a sharing of ideas and good practice with colleagues in other schools.