Exploring and Teaching Medieval History – an introduction by Ian Dawson

Exploring and Teaching Medieval History has just been published by the Historical Association. A copy of the shorter, 96 pages edition has been sent to every secondary school in England and Wales. The extended 140 pages edition is available open-access on the HA website – www.history.org.uk

Where did this publication come from? In summer 2017 the Agincourt600 organisation gave the HA a sum of money to pay for the printing and postage of a publication on medieval history for schools. There were no other guidelines, which was both a boon and a problem because deciding how to fill a large number of blank pages created uncomfortable choices. The central issue was whether to be conservative (focussing articles on new GCSE topics and teaching material on the much-taught KS3 ‘classics’) or radical (publishing articles on topics teachers aren’t used to teaching and asking questions which challenge some or many of the assumptions about our approaches at KS3).

One other important context was teacher’s knowledge – as planning began, I asked a hundred teachers how they would describe the extent to which medieval history was part of their degree studies. Half said they had studied no meaningful quantity of medieval history at all, another 30% said it played only a minor role. So clearly new teachers have a lot to learn about medieval history just to teach at KS3, let alone with older students. They do build confidence quickly but only have time to do so within limited areas, especially those time-hallowed KS3 topics we’ve all taught multiple times.

In the end I decided, as editor, to take the more radical route. There’s plenty of material available in schoolbooks and online on the standard topics, even if some could do with significant up-dating. In contrast this publication is a one-off opportunity to spread a range of potentially new ideas about teaching the period and to give non-medievalists a broader base of knowledge. Perhaps above all I wanted to challenge the use of ’medieval’ as a synonym for bigotry, violence and ignorance when such facets of life have been as present or more so in the last 120 years of ‘modernity’. Hence the triple focus in the publication on the sophistication of life and ideas in the Middle Ages, that the people of the period deserve greater respect than often accorded and the need for a more rounded representation of their lives than is often the case. The trouble was that the list of ideas kept growing and what was originally a 64 page publication ended up at 140 pages!

The result – section 1 contains articles by historians introducing the period and its sources, three central issues of medieval life and thought, four topics now widely taught at GCSE and, finally, two probably unfamiliar topics that reveal a great deal about the people of the fifteenth century. The articles on the teaching of the Middle Ages deal with broad issues linked to planning for KS3 and GCSE, how work on the Middle Ages can help students understand more about the process of studying history, ways of developing a more representative coverage of the period and finally articles showing how teachers new to the period have been able to tackle teaching medieval history at A-level successfully.

I hope it’s useful but I’m still not sure we got the choices right!

For a more developed and subjective introduction see www.thinkinghistory.co.uk

At www.history.org.uk you will discover other ideas and resources that can help you with subject knowledge and teaching. Why not have a look? The Historical Association is on Twitter @histassoc


Thanks to Ian Dawson for this post introducing the TMH edition. 

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