Questions, Answers and the Teaching of History

What is it, above all, that a good teacher of history is aiming to do? Is it mainly a question of successfully imparting correct or relevant information? Most, I imagine, would say that more – much more – is at stake than this. Is it, then, primarily about developing in pupils a capacity to see patterns of cause and effect, thus enabling them to isolate the important influence or set of factors which lies behind a significant event or occurrence?

What, though, about the interrogation of source materials and the development of a sense of the shape of the surviving documentary record: is it a focus on this, and the development of a keen awareness of its nature, scope and deficiencies – together with an ability to probe and analyse the evidence – that should constitute the key focus of a good teacher’s activity? The chief aim of the teacher, from this point of view, might be to produce pupils with a keen eye for detail, and an ability to shoot down overly-ambitious theories which claim too much on the basis of what’s (not) there.

Maybe the good teacher will emphasise also that reconstruction is the historian’s primary goal. If so, then their main focus is likely be on developing pupils’ capacity to make excellent use of the medium of prose; on knowing what it is to communicate details about the past attractively and cogently, certainly; but with a sense also, perhaps, that a big aim of historical writing might be to perform something like a necromancy. For the historian as necromancer, successful writing will somehow manage to bring back into being for readers things that have died and disappeared. (Why, after all, should this be an aim only of historical novelists?).

But perhaps the truth is that history teaching that really hits the mark, and indeed much of the best historical writing too, will contain something of all of these elements.

I’ve been thinking about these issues over the last couple of days chiefly because I’ve been re-reading the autobiography of RG Collingwood. Collingwood was a renowned philosopher and Roman historian. His autobiography is a subtle and amiable account of its author’s experiences of learning, teaching and writing in Oxford in the first half of the twentieth century. Collingwood was fully aware of the idiosyncratic character of many of his philosophical views, as seen in contrast with prevailing trends among his philosophical and Oxford contemporaries. This only adds to the book’s interest.

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One area in which Collingwood’s views became well-known was his philosophy of history – an area of philosophical enquiry neglected by many of his colleagues.* And Collingwood is particularly interesting, I think, on the topic of historical method, on what it is that historians should try to do when they approach the past.

For Collingwood, it is all a matter of asking the right questions. In short, the idea is that dealing well with historical evidence – Collingwood uses the example of an archaeological dig – is all about refining the questions one poses in relation to it. At a dig, you might begin with a question like ‘was there a Flavian occupation on this site?’ That question can then be divided into sub-questions, like: ‘are these Flavian sherds and coins mere strays, or were they deposited in the period to which they belong?’ And so on.

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In Collingwood’s discussion, the intellectual activity of the historian in formulating problems and solutions is crucial: the historian must pose good questions, and refine them and answer them well, while making due allowance for any problems presented by the evidence, at the same time as they offer their argument.

What I particularly like about this way of seeing the business of historical research is that the onus is very much on the historian to generate their own avenues of approach, their own web of questions (and – hopefully good – answers). It is a way, that is, to cultivate subjectivity and a habit of free enquiry, informed by one’s own growing sense of how to approach the material.

This, I think, is what successful history teaching can be about. Pupils should find that they have been invited into a world of free-spirited debate and enquiry, in which individuals can begin to form and articulate their own ideas about matters of interest and substance. The centrality of posing, refining and answering one’s own questions in that process matters.

At the same time, Collingwood’s approach isn’t in the slightest complacently presentist, in the sense that it requires the historian actually to engage with the thoughts and ideas of past people seriously. The historian should try to see these ideas in context and make sense of them in their own right. It simply won’t do, he thinks, to dismiss past thoughts on the basis of contemporary opinion or prejudice and (thus) to rule out their importance for understanding past action and behaviour.

For Collingwood, then, doing history is a fundamentally dialogical activity. He sees the process of posing and refining questions in relation to the past as an important ongoing activity, not only for the writing of good history, but also for the ongoing development of the historian as a rational being. This is a point of principle I find myself happy to agree with.

*Many, though not all. Collingwood acknowledges the influence of the philosopher TH Green in this area. He mentions too how many of Green’s pupils – including politicians such as Asquith and the social reformer and historian Arnold Toynbee – made a point of applying the ideas they had learned from their university philosophy tutor in the context of their future careers. Green was known to many as a Hegelian, though Collingwood does not call him this. Collingwood does however describe the widespread opposition to Green’s work among Oxford philosophers of his own time (‘Hegelian’ ideas were, for the most part, successfully repelled at Oxford).  He also indicates his own more sympathetic view of Green and some of his disciples. These descriptions feel measured and patient, and perhaps overly so. I suspect Collingwood is culpable of characteristically English understatement at times.

The Languages that made Latin

Yesterday’s lesson with my twelve year olds involved a few interesting moments. At one point, I found myself explaining to the class that the Latin language is not unlike other languages (including English) in that it had a number of ancestor languages out of which it developed. This seemed to surprise most, if not all, members of the class: I think their assumption had been that Latin was something like a primordial language, or, at least, one which somehow hadn’t been subject to a process of development of comparable complexity to modern English and Romance languages.

Correcting this misapprehension was one thing, but having done so I quickly ran up against some rather large grey areas (ok – gaps) in my own subject knowledge when I was asked to elaborate. ‘So which languages fed into Latin then?’ came the inevitable question.

My answer to this (in hindsight, pretty much inevitable, if entirely appropriate, question) started with a classic hedge, though one which I *think* does approximate justice to the state of research in the field: ‘Well, this is an interesting question and scholars aren’t *entirely* clear on it’, I began. I hope this is fair!

I then mumbled something about how we have only a quite incomplete picture of a number of languages which are close relatives of Latin – like Oscan and Umbrian – before mentioning that the linguistic relative of Latin that we know best is Ancient Greek and that Greek did give Latin a few loanwords (I consciously avoided the word ‘cognate’ for simplicity’s sake).

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An inscription in Oscan

I then talked briefly (and, if truth be told, quite unconfidently) about Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical ancestor language of Latin and a whole group of other ancient languages (including Greek), before mentioning Linear B as the oldest known linguistic relative of Latin that we have evidence of.

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The Linear B script

So what did my mercifully brief and very scratchy attempt at philological exposition miss? Well, one obvious thing I didn’t mention at all is that the Latin language can itself be periodised and seen as a socially varied linguistic form. I think I am right in saying that philologists divide it (roughly) into early, middle and late forms** – and of course its character could vary profoundly depending on who was speaking it and where they were speaking. So an obvious example of what fed into Latin was, well, older, or socially varied forms of Latin itself.

Beyond this perhaps rather pedestrian-seeming (though important) point, there’s quite a lot more to say. And, from the cursory glance I’ve had tonight at a few pieces of research in this area, I realise my current knowledge-base is not even remotely close to where it would need to be to try to write any further with anything approaching conviction. So I’ve resolved to try to find time this summer to address this with some remedial reading (my intended purchase is James Clackson and Geoffrey Horrocks’ History of the Latin Language). More to come on this, perhaps, in a future post…

For the time being, I am going to present my 12 year olds with an extension task challenge: can they find any brief, interesting, accessible and reliable reading materials on the languages which influenced the development of Latin to share with their classmates (and me) to teach us all something new? I have no doubt that some of them are resourceful enough to succeed in this endeavour and I am looking forward to seeing their findings. This isn’t the first time a set of twelve year olds has led me to learn something new and it’s of course a teacher’s privilege that a good question from a pupil (however young) can help both fellow pupils *and teachers* find out new and interesting things.

*The featured image is of a Linear B inscription.

**I am referring here to Latin in antiquity, NOT to medieval and subsequent forms of the language.

Must Criticism be Constructive?

There has come into being a widely held view, writes the philosopher Raymond Geuss, that ‘merely negative’ criticism is somehow defective or inappropriate. It’s not so much that I constantly come across enjoinders about the need to be constructive in my life as an educator. It’s more that I sense it’s just generally pretty well assumed – both by myself and my colleagues – that if we’re going to be critical of a pupil’s behaviour or work, then constructive criticism (insofar as this is possible, and in whatever way we care to offer it) is the best way to go.

What, after all, is the alternative? For any educator to refer to a ‘non-constructive’, ‘deconstructive’, or ‘destructive’ criticism they had just made of a pupil or their work would likely provoke misgivings. Aside from being rather unlovely phrases (is ‘non-constructive’ perhaps the least worst?), each of them suggests the kind of negativity whose supposed defectiveness Geuss highlights. For teachers, being negative might involve offering the sort of comment that is not calculated to build up, inspire or encourage; that does not aim to offer any kind of praise at all; and that is concerned only to illustrate shortcomings or problems.

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I want to suggest three possible contexts in which, contrary to popular wisdom, criticism of a negative sort can make good sense. The first two will, I think, seem reasonably uncontroversial; the third, perhaps, less so. In each context it would be a mistake to assume (despite appearances) that the negative framing of a criticism – and its consequent lack of ‘constructive’ emphasis – is the end of the story. Behind any given ‘non-constructive’ criticism (at least, that is, along the lines considered here) lies a hidden positive intent.

First, simple rule enforcement. The tie is not on; the shirt is untucked; the mobile phone is out; the teacher is being talked over; the chair is being rocked on. And so forth. Simple negative direct commands in such cases can be just that: negative. There’s nothing encouraging, uplifting or inspirational about telling a child to stop pushing into the lunch queue. Aside, that is, from a hidden positive intent: everyone will likely stand to benefit in some way from the relevant rule being followed; the child needs to learn about how to behave respectfully within a community. This point stands also in respect of more serious disciplinary matters.

Second, a sustained lack of effort. I think there must come a point when an alternative to positive encouragement and gentle supportiveness (most teachers’ default setting) is required in such a scenario. This need not take the form of the old-fashioned rollicking, but it could certainly involve pointing out repeated sloppy mistakes, false promises, opportunities missed, or a generally poor attitude – and doing so pretty pointedly. The general intention behind the criticism here will of course be to make clear that the individual in question could and should be doing a lot better. It needn’t follow, though, that an explicit statement to this effect is required. Leaving the point implicit might in fact have more of an effect.

Third, and finally, in the context of a given piece of written work that just doesn’t measure up (even though some effort may have been made and at least some marks have been awarded). This might seem controversial territory. Shouldn’t the point here be to build on what’s gone well and to suggest ways to address the less good bits? I wouldn’t at all wish to rule out the validity of approaching things in this way a good deal of the time – not least because I do just this myself! At the same time, however, I think something can also be said for adopting a more steadfastly negative line.

Sloppy errors of fact, culled from a notoriously unreliable source, that are presented without much care or thought in the context of an essay might deserve a negative response. So too might an assignment which has clearly been completed in a rushed or haphazard manner. So also work which simply sets down on paper a collection of irrelevant comments (or, for that matter, a slapdash summary of what a pupil happens to know already about a particular topic) which don’t engage with an essay question that’s been posed.

In each of these cases, a resolutely negative response often seems to me justified. I hope this doesn’t just show that I’m making good headway on the path toward an increasingly irascible old age. As already mentioned, the motivation underlying a negative criticism, even in this third category, can remain a positive one. Albeit implicitly, such criticism can make the point that better work could and should have been produced; that high standards need to be met and are attainable. Better this, surely, than airy comments that don’t take the trouble to pinpoint the clear shortcomings in a poor piece of work. Or a saccharine avoidance of any kind of reprimand. As long as praise is (or is known to be) forthcoming when exacting standards are met, it makes sense to employ the judicious use of negative feedback when they aren’t.

Completing any challenging assignment (particularly in arts and humanities subjects) ought to be, at least in part, about helping pupils to find their own voice, to wrestle with tricky and even intractable questions, and to read and write with clarity and insight. Negative criticism is a way of trying to jump-start this process. If a pupil is producing work that doesn’t offer anything by way of critical questioning, thinking outside the box, or self-aware thoughtfulness, the jolt of some negative criticism can offer a useful means of redress.

Oakeshott on Classical Education

In his 1975 essay, ‘The Place of Learning’, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes the character and influence of the study of Classical antiquity in the Renaissance (and thereafter) in the following terms: learning, he says, came to be ‘identified with coming to understand the intimations of a human life in a historic culture…[and] with the invitation to recognise oneself in terms of this culture. This was an education which promised and afforded liberation from the here and now of current engagements, from the muddle, the crudity, the sentimentality, the intellectual poverty and the emotional morass of ordinary life’. Oakeshott then adds: ‘And so it continues to this day…the torch is still alight and there are still some hands to grasp it’.

To state the obvious, there is a rather negative tone to this summary (not least in its rather glum final image of a dying torch being passed among a few dwindling hands: I hope this image, in particular, is quite wrong). Oakeshott’s words seem to betoken, above all, a profound disappointment with the present: indeed, the need for ‘liberation’ from the present seems, for him, to be the very thing that most underscores the benefits of a Classical education. And Oakeshott seems to assume that, when encountering Classical antiquity, pupils will inevitably find ‘a culture’ which produced the very opposite of muddled thought, crudeness, sentimentality, intellectual poverty and so on.

This is too optimistic. While it is true that the best of ancient writing can indeed offer much that is lucid and intellectually fascinating, this is by no means always the case: moreover, ancient writing can certainly be both crude and sentimental! There is also the issue of Oakeshott’s collapse of the markedly different (and internally diverse and ever-evolving) civilisations of Greece and Rome into the simple phrase, ‘a historic culture’. Certainly, this is a phrase that could – should – have been formulated more judiciously.

And yet. There is nevertheless, I think, an important truth which Oakeshott manages to give voice to in the words quoted above, even if he does so in a muffled way. The truth in question concerns the vital role of Classical study in opening up space for perspective – perspective which may allow ‘liberation from the here and now of current engagements’, as he puts it. This sort of perspective, argues Oakeshott, is important not only for students, but for the ‘civilisations’ of which they are members. It is a crucial ingredient, as Oakeshott saw it, of liberal learning.

As he puts it in his 1965 essay, ‘Learning and Teaching’, ‘to initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available much that does not lie upon the surface of his present world….much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. To know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance’.

Here Oakeshott is unquestionably on strong ground and he builds toward a provocative, if perhaps somewhat melodramatic, conclusion: ‘To see oneself reflected in the mirror of the present modish world is to see a sadly distorted image of a human being; for there is nothing to encourage us to believe that what has captured current fancy is the most valuable part of our inheritance, or that the better survives more readily than the worse’. In a number of respects, I think, this must be right.

The implications for teaching, he suggests, are clear: ‘the business of the teacher is to release pupils from servitude to the current dominant feelings, emotions, images, ideas, beliefs and even skills’. Doing so is not about ‘inventing alternatives’ but about ‘making available something which approximates more closely to a whole inheritance’.

The point being made here, then, is that a major aim – maybe the major aim – of teaching should be about allowing pupils space to gain a sense of perspective on their contemporary situation by allowing them to get to know the past (interestingly he is keen to exclude any kind of futurology from this process). In getting to know surprising or even mundane truths about what was, what could plausibly have been, and (by implication) what could still be, pupils are better able to appreciate contingencies and to think freely.

Nonetheless, Oakeshott is wary of offering unguarded optimism about the consequences of developing this sort of capacity. Learning of the sort he recommends does not, he insists, deliver a ‘clear or unambiguous message; it often speaks in riddles; it offers us advice and suggestion, recommendations, aids to reflection, rather than directives’.

Elsewhere he writes that ‘the engagement of liberal learning involves becoming aware of one’s intellectual and cultural inheritance not as a stock of information or knowledge to be absorbed and applied, but as living traditions of intellectual inquiry and understanding to which the learner is invited to contribute’. Liberal learning, he maintains, is about ‘learning to speak with intelligence the great languages of human understanding—science, philosophy, history, and art—in order to gain greater self-knowledge as well as to participate in the ongoing “conversation of mankind’.*

This perspective chimes directly with quite a lot of what I try to achieve and emphasise in my classroom. In a number of ways, I think, it neatly summarises what studying Classics – and, from what I can see, the humanities more generally – is like.**

*For a fuller outline of Oakeshott’s views on liberal education, there is a useful discussion here.

**Having said this, I find much of Oakeshott’s writing on the subject of education (collected together in a book, The voice of Liberal Learning, edited by Timothy Fuller) quite opaque. His analysis is often expressed in pretty general terms: for example, in relation to the above, the reader is left to wonder to what extent he thinks study in different fields like poetry, history, art, philosophy and so on succeeds in delivering his desired outcomes. The whole discussion proceeds at quite an abstract remove. And, as mentioned above, his tone can be pretty pessimistic, while his prose is sometimes quite dense. In spite of all this, he can be refreshing to read, not least because he is prepared to make unfashionable arguments.

Discovering some Cognitive Psychology

One feature of the history of Classics that I sometimes allude to in my classes is the crucial contribution which the stories of Classical myth made to the development of modern psychology through their influence on Freudian psychoanalysis. On hearing about this, pupils’ ears tend to prick up. Perhaps before anything else, it may be the very mention of the word ‘psychology’ that piques their interest. I sense that many of them have a clear notion that Psychology is the discipline, before any other, that can explain how people’s minds work. If I am correct about this, I would probably appear a bit unusual, if not something of a sceptic, to them, since I take it as an uncontroversial given that, alongside psychology, literature, philosophy, anthropology and the history of ideas (among other disciplines) all have equally important things to impart about the workings of people’s minds. I think this is the case because, rather than in spite of, the fact that my mother was for many years a practising child psychologist. Any temptation to assume a great deal about the overarching or ‘meta-‘ significance of her academic discipline and its methodologies was one to which she did not yield. My general picture of her approach to psychological research is one in which data and experiment can present interesting and important information, but that wider generalities need to be arrived at only tentatively – and provisionally.

A similar approach to psychological research to that espoused by my mother was evident yesterday, over the course of a day of training at the Quarry theatre in Bedford. Some recent findings in cognitive psychology were presented and its relevance for school education discussed. The presenters go by the moniker ‘The Learning Scientists’ and they had travelled from the US to speak to about 200 of us (which they did, very engagingly). The Learning Scientists introduced cognitive psychology as a relatively new field of research with roots in cognitive science (by no means an ancient discipline itself!). My familiarity with the latter field is pretty much limited to my having read a couple of Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker books (one of which – The Blank Slate – I particularly enjoyed), and to the fact that the philosopher Bernard Williams expressed severe misgivings about some of the bolder claims made by cognitive scientists like Pinker before he died. It was safe to say, in any event, that Cognitive Psychology was pretty unfamiliar territory for me.

The emphasis of the day’s session was on enabling pupils to retain information better, and we were introduced to a series of techniques which can be used over the course of a period of study (a school year seemed to be the model we were working with) to achieve this aim. The big three techniques were Spacing, Interleaving and Retrieval Practice, to use the appropriate terminology. By contrast with these, ‘Mass Learning’ was introduced as a technique which different studies have shown leads to comparatively poorer pupil memory retention.

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Massed Teaching was the first concept to attract my attention: this is where pupils are presented with information, all in one go, or over a strictly delimited time period and then tested on it. They will only encounter it again in the context of the exam room at the end of the year. I asked if this style of learning, which we were assured has serious drawbacks, in fact works best for some learners: from the limited data available, I was assured, it doesn’t! It was impossible not to reflect as I found this out that my own preparation for exams in the past has very likely been sub-optimal in just this way – particularly in the context of my legal training, where short-term ‘memory dumping’ was the norm (at least for me).

Happily the technique of Spacing – which involves returning to topics already covered on an occasional basis, and reaffirming what has been learnt – is one I already employ in my classroom. I cannot claim any great insight here: it’s more a matter of necessity. I find it difficult to imagine a version of effective language teaching which does not involve returning periodically to grammatical concepts and vocabulary that have already been introduced. Still, it was interesting to learn that this is a technique that seems to hold clear benefits in other settings.

Interleaving has a similar underlying idea. It involves incorporating material that has already been covered alongside material that is currently being covered as part of the learning process. So, in Maths, it might mean putting a simultaneous equation next to a differential equation as part of the same piece of classwork, even if the two are covered formally as separate topics. This again is something that language learning more or less necessarily involves as a matter of course: however, I came away with some thoughts about how I might try to incorporate this technique into my teaching of historical subject matter.

Retrieval Practice is buttressed by the finding that the more pupils are asked to attempt the task of ‘retrieving’ information they have encountered over the course of a given time period, the more likely they are to remember it. This has implications for testing. Lots of small periods of study and practice testing leads to better memorisation than do long periods of study and only very few tests. Long periods of reading, or taking notes on exactly what is written in a textbook, is also not an effective approach. ‘Retrieving’ effectively entails picking out core ideas, which involves having done this multiple times previously and (ideally) in a range of ways.

A key overall aim of the session was to enable teachers to help pupils remember more of what they’re taught, so that they are more likely to perform well in their end of year exams. This is surely a laudable aim, given how many children struggle to do just this. At the same time, however, I think there is room to question the extent to which certain kinds of memorisation (particularly rote-learning) are being required by our current exam systems.

In some subjects, there may be a perfectly good argument that a lot *more* rote learning might be desirable (the geography pupil who can score top grades without knowing their capital cities comes to mind here). In others (and here I think primarily of the sciences, given that cutting edge science is increasingly focussed on niche areas), less memorisation might be an attractive way forward.

More might be done, perhaps, to test general knowledge across broad areas of a whole academic field (and this necessarily involves at least some rote learning), rather than focus exclusively on a few key topics, at school level.  It might be that school pupils would be more enthusiastic about their studies if more *general* knowledge of this sort, and less memorisation and testing of applied understanding of specific topics, were required for their exams. I wonder how far this sort of proposal might find wider support in the UK.

Certainly, the extent to which children (and university students) should be – and are – expected to remember detailed compendia of information for their exams is an area of debate which is not going to disappear from sight. Within this debate, the kind of remembering pupils are doing (and the Learning Scientists made clear that we see very different *types* of remembering happening in our schools) surely matters a great deal. It matters, for example, whether students are remembering in a certain way (like the brain-dump, in which they are primarily learning in order to leap hurdles, and then forgetting), or whether they are learning to retain information more permanently with a view – eventually – to becoming members of an informed adult population. I anticipate that the insights of Cognitive psychology may help pave the way toward a more satisfactory future status quo in this regard.