Being ambitious with the First World War: interrogating inevitability

Thanks to Alex Fairlamb, Assistant Head and SLE at St Wilfrid’s RC College in Newcastle, for continuing our series where colleagues reflect on how a Teaching History article has moved on their thinking. Alex has been inspired by Gary Howells work in TH 92 and here is the first part of her post…

‘Ambitious curriculum’.  This is a statement that we have, rightly, seen in frequent use over recent years as curriculum development has become central to our thinking. How to be ambitious with our history curriculums has been wonderfully explained by people such as Christine Counsell and Will Bailey-Watson, and it has been very much the focus of many face-to-face and online events, such as HA Online, TMHistoryIcons, vSHP and the Curricularium. 

What has Will identified as elements of an ‘ambitious curriculum’?

  • Local History
  • Beyond Anglo-Centric
  • Authentic – interpretations used in their pure form
  • Resonance
  • Global topics
  • Historians and scholarship – the pursuit of an enquiry, that changes
  • Diverse history
  • Historical methodologies

Having this list, it felt like a perfect opportunity to revisit some previous HA articles to find examples of ambitious history teaching throughout the years.  What golden nuggets can Gary Howell’s article from TH 92 (1998) give us in terms of being ambitious with the teaching of the First World War?

Don’t hate me, but I was in secondary school when this article was written.  Which is why I find it incredibly useful to dive back through previous editions to find inspiring teaching strategies and ideas that have stood the test of time and can ensure that I can develop effective schemes of learning (SoL), that can engage my students in the study of history, as my teacher was able to back in 1998.  Who knows, in twenty-two years’ time, maybe Howell’s article and this blog might be considered by a future history teacher as useful for their SoL development?  

For me, the First World War is a period that I specialised in at university, and it was a topic that I remember being fascinated by when I was in secondary school.  I was especially fascinated by the causes of the First World War, and this was the first time that I truly understood that events were not caused by one event alone, but instead a heady combination of many causes that interweave and culminate in the final event.  This is why I enjoy Howells’ article so much.  He encourages students to explore and interrogate the idea of inevitability and articulates how causation is not a rote-learnt list of causes and consequences.  This is delightfully ambitious and provides a range of opportunities to create an enquiry dripping in scholarship and sources.

  1. Being ambitious with causation.  ‘However, history carries with it (to coin a Birtist phrase) a ‘mission to explain’, to make comprehensible, somehow, a past which is selective and whose record is unreliable. Old style history teaching would have presented events as having distinct causes and distinct conclusions.  We might have written down lists from the board and soaked them in, to be regurgitated as needs be in an examination.  The student would have absorbed the tablets of stone uncritically.  and would have sought only some clarification.  We no longer view such approaches to the teaching and learning of history as tenable.’  Exactly this.  The causes of an event are complex and far reaching.  They do not exist for us to repeat verbatim and see as static mono-causal phenomenon.  They are messy and spill into one another – they are entangled.  This is not about level criteria on an examination mark scheme, it’s about thinking and writing like an historian.
  2. Big Question/Scholarship first and foremost.  ‘The first step is to identify the issue and the question.’  Absolutely this.  What is the big question or issue that we want our children to explore?  The foundation of any great enquiry.
  3. Summarise to strengthen and take forward.  ‘Activities requiring mini-summaries or mini-analyses of long-term factors displayed on tables and charts work best when they attend to both of these aims. Such activities keep the students focused on the big question and encourage the students to link in their minds the different factors.’  I love this.  Distilling the long term factors into mini summaries, linking back to the big question, which enables them to then attack them in depth – how do they link?  Assessing, is there any one cause contributing more than another?  What arguments have historians put forward about these long term causes?  Are these causes enough, or is there something else at play?  Was this war inevitable from what I can see summarised before me?  Rich Kennett gave a fantastic talk at TMHistoryIcons 2018 where he championed tables as a tool and his battle cry was, “I bloody love a good table.”  I for one agree with him wholeheartedly – useful, pithy and enables a student to summarise.
  4. Linking the long with the short.  ‘By suggesting ebbs and flows of opinion, the teacher creates an ideal opportunity to introduce students to the notion of inevitability, which is central to an appreciation of causation in any meaningful sense.  Central to any sophisticated appraisal of causation is the ability to formulate an idea of not just why something happened, but why it happened when it did.’  Howells explains clearly how at the start, the children should know the language of long term and short term causes and a trigger event, so that, as they navigate their way through the enquiry, they are continuously reassessing how each cause contributes and whether there seems to be an inevitable crescendo.  This enables them to thread together all of the pieces of the story, and as Howells states, to grasp the idea of ‘the ebb and flow’.  This would certainly help to knock on the head the ‘it came last so it must be the main reason’ pitfall some children fall into, and instead immerses them in a river of discussion and debate.
  5. Writing causation essays.  ‘Even more significant is the acknowledgment that writing historical essays is not a one-step process.’ I have to give credit to Ben Walsh for this approach; ‘train like Usain.’  If you watch clips of Usain Bolt preparing for running competitions, you will see that he spends the majority of his time completing exercises such as planks, weight lifting etc, rather than spending his time sprinting over and over again.  Just like sprinting, writing causation essays is not a one-step process.  If we dissect a causation essay, there are many components that make up this body.  Each require considered and meaningful practice.  Let’s not jump to the final end outcome and make it a robotic IKEA assembly item with each following a set, monolithic process to the same end conclusion like a Ford assembly line.  That’s not how historians work.  Instead, let’s engage in the components and craft of history, and build our knowledge and expertise with each. What evidence has weight to explain this cause, what have historians argued about this, how can this be explained (can it?), and within the context of what environment and other contributing causes?  By adopting this approach, by including modelling and scaffolding of the process of essay construction such as quality explanation and interlinking causes, alongside examples from historians of how they have engaged with the issue, the outcome will therefore be a well written, and meaty essay.  For my part, this is my similar approach with assessment – let’s focus on the components, not the ten second dash and finishing line.
  6. Broader perspective.  ‘The circumstances surrounding the outbreak of World War I offer the opportunity to interrogate the notion of inevitability.  By constantly returning to that one question, students are encouraged to explore an identical question in different contexts which provides the opportunity for rigorous thought and, ideally, a sophisticated notion of causation which extends far beyond classifying events or factors as short term, long term or trigger.’  Howells suggests how the Fischer thesis can encourage students to see things with a wider perspective, beyond the long term, short term and trigger event model.  He argues how this enables them to see things as ‘complex and shifting’ – and that’s what history is.  It doesn’t fit into next boxes.
  7. Progression model, and compare and contrast. understanding.  ‘As with all historical skills most students do not learn by osmosis.  They need explicit direction and the opportunity to develop their thinking through concrete examples and over time.  Furthermore, in teaching new concepts or developing thinking on concepts we should not expect total success, amenable to easy measurement, in terms of conceptual understanding.  Yet that is no reason for not attempting to encourage an appreciation of those ideas.  We persist, and return to those same concepts at a later date. ’Throughout the article, Howell refers to the English Civil War, and by doing so he highlights the opportunities for students who have engaged in his type of approach to then compare and contrast with prior and future events.  He highlights how we can’t expect children to produce the perfect causation essay first time, nor necessarily second or third.  However, by revisiting the skills and using concrete examples (alongside modelling and scaffolding, as well as questioning) these skills will build and develop over time and improve.  Additionally, it provides exciting opportunities to compare and contrast events in their previous and future studies about the interplay of causes.  For example, we could compare in later months how World War Two and the Cold War were linked to territory and militarism, and connect this back to previous conflicts throughout the past to see where they also played a role.

There is a lot to take away from this article.  At the centre of it, I love how Howells argues this is not about low attaining and high attaining students and their ability to engage in causation.  This is about high expectations alongside our subject pedagogical craft that provides the necessary scaffold, examples and practice of components, that means that all children can develop their causation skills at a high level.  I fully recommend taking a dive through the Teaching History archives to find further golden nuggets.

Part Two of Alex’s post is coming soon. Would you like to delve back in the archives, read a Teaching History article and share how it is shaping your practice? If so, please send ideas to:

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