The vortex of History

I spent the past weekend in Brussels at a EUROCLIO Conference. Bringing together History educators and researchers from across Europe, this conference promised great things but exceeded my expectations.

We considered the concept of the EU and discussed the ways in which this multilateral organisation had brought a sense of connectedness, benefits for member states, but also division. We discussed the concept of European identity and what that meant and looked like for different member states. We explored European integration and enlargement along with the political, social and economic context in which some members states joined (the fall of communism in the USSR, for example). We analysed propaganda posters, we toured the European House of History – one of the most thoughtful and intelligent examples of curation and flow of ideas I have ever come across in a museum setting. We discussed the drawbacks of teaching only ‘high politics’ in History and how this can make students feel alienated by History and feel that it is about the actors in leadership roles and the alliances and treaties – all of which make History un-relatable. We discussed the fact that much of the History taught in schools centered around the white, educated wealthy male demographic and the impact of this on minority groups, immigrants, women and those without success in or access to education.

We also discussed the fact that an over-arching European history topic is uncommon (at least in Scotland) and this can have a detrimental impact on students trying to make sense of a topic that they are studying. How can we begin teaching Mussolini's Italy, Appeasement, Nazi Germany, World War Two or any other European topic without first helping students understand how these events came about in more than a surface level manner. For example, the National 5 History course offers a unit in its 'European and World' section on World War Two. It begins with a topic entitled 'German territorial expansion' which requires students to start at the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939 and the subsequent invasion of Poland. How can we place this in context if our students have nothing on which to pin this? Conceptually we are asking a great deal of our students - surely we would need to teach World War One, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Stalin, the rise of Hitler, the British and French policy of appeasement, the ideologies of communism and Nazism BEFORE we can get anywhere near the Nazi-Soviet Pact? How does a teacher do this within a strict time frame? How can we do this justice in any meaningful way?

Similarly, the National 5 course offers a unit on the Cold War which opens with the formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. We cannot just start here without knowing what came before...a long time before. This to me is absolute madness and can only result in a very superficial grasp of History. It feels as though we are not educating students about History, but just offering up what to many will be random facts about important people, battles, treaties, alliances etc. How does it all fit together? It is my view that a broad arc of European History should be taught in the first two years of senior school so that going forward, students have a degree of context as opposed to moments in History that float and are unconnected. We need to get ourselves into the vortex of History - the flow and the connections in order to a good job, surely?

I teach a topic on Migration to and from Scotland (1840s-1939) - this focuses on Scottish history and even though we are required to look at the Empire, we do so only through the impact the Empire had on Scots and the impact Scots had on the Empire. We follow this with a study of the Atlantic slave trade (1770-1807) and this is immediately followed by a study of Weimar and Nazi Germany (1919-1939). Does the exam board allow or even desire a flow of knowledge or just a requirement to tick the three unit box? I enjoy the topics that I teach at National 5 level, but fear that without any prior knowledge of World War One and the rise of imperialism and colonialism, the learning can at best be transient and shallow. I am fortunate to have 2 years in which to teach the three units at this level, however local authority schools are allocated 1 year, which in 'real' teaching time equates to less than 9 months. 

We also considered the impact of not teaching European History and the international organisation of the EU. When students lack a clear understanding of what the European Union is and how it came to be, they can misunderstand or be completely unaware of what it means to be part of a union. The day after the Brexit Referendum the most researched question on Google in the United Kingdom was “What is the E.U?” Is the absence of a subject like 'Civics' as is taught across Europe detrimental to our young people and their ability to vote from an informed non-biased perspective?

The idea of teaching History using a broad-brush, transnational approach is not something that I have been able to do since I taught A Level and IB qualifications. I was reminded of the value of such an approach as we toured the House of European History. The museum is arranged over several floors and takes a chronological approach to European history portraying ideas and themes of each era. We were taken through Europe from the age of revolutions to the present day. Themes of revolution, imperialism, colonialism, scientific discoveries, democracy, national socialism, communism, human rights, economic ideas, alliances, enlightened ideas etc. were brought to life using new media and the most eye-catching display of items that I had never come across. If you ever have the chance to visit the House of European History, you should go: not only is it free, it is thought-provoking and so well-conceived. I met several individuals who master-minded the exhibition and the corresponding educational material. All women; they were an inspiration to me. Their passion and desire for constructive criticism was so motivating for me. The keynote lecture by Liesbeth van de Grift, “The case for teaching the history of European Integration”, set the tone of the weekend and asked some really big questions about integration and the impact of teaching it to encourage cohesion and a sense of identity. Laurence Bragard from the House of European History took us through what must have been years' worth of research into primary source material and also the story of Simone Veil.

Helen Snelson (EUROCLIO, University of York & Historical Association) put forward the idea that we need to deliberately transform the perceptions of our students by making them see History through a different lens. Helen stated that this was History teachers’contribution to democracy. This really resonated with me. We need to teach History that is contested. We need to contest ideas and understand that our students will come to our lessons with pre-conceived ideas about identity, politics and gender (among other ideas), and appreciate our role as History educators: challengers and shapers of young minds – not through political or social influence but through teaching from a broader, non-biased perspective. Helen advised that re-framing narratives is so important if we are to engage our pupils in History as a meaningful pursuit….and History is a meaningful pursuit.

Another benefit of taking part in a three-day event such as this was the new teaching colleagues that I met. I worked alongside teachers from Estonia, Sweden, Holland, France, Romania and Turkey. I listened intently to their experiences which were so different to mine. I heard from a Turkish colleague facing the difficult task of trying to integrate Syrian and Kurdish migrants into his school system. He said that Turkish was the only language in which these migrants are taught and that government support for such children had been withdrawn. I spoke to a German colleague who told of stories of Syrian migrants who had aced all of their exams. This in itself is awe-inspiring especially given that this success occurred when the pupils knew that they could be sent on at any moment. My German colleague was frustrated by the lack of media coverage of such good news stories.

I had some free time whilst in Brussels so visited the Museum of History and Art. I visited the temporary ‘Crossroads: Travelling through the Middle Ages Expo” and saw a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, medieval Islamic fabrics, golden amulets depicting monsters and a full-size replica Viking ship. I then perused the permanent collections of the rest of this vast museum. The treasure-trove of exhibits here has to be seen to be believed. I have visited a number of Ancient Egyptian museum exhibits before, but have, until this time, yet to see a mummified baby crocodile or bird. Every day, it would seem, is a school day.

And it is precisely this that I want to note: we must, as teachers, keep learning; keep refreshing our ideas, our connections and our outlook so that we can be excited about new possibilities in education. Today I showed my pupils some of the images from the House of European History which directly related to their study of National Socialism and Revolutionary Russia. If we don’t keep learning, keep focusing on self-development, we are at risk of stagnating in our comfort zones.

Granted, these CPD opportunities come at a cost, but there is an element of self-investment that also takes place, not to mention self-development. I met people and had ideas sparked that would not have happened had I not been present at this training session. I know my teaching will develop as a result. For this I am grateful and look forward to my next CPD adventure. I can honestly say that I have never, until this point in my career, viewed professional development as an adventure. This is a rubicon for me and I am glad of it.

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