Monday, 10 December 2012

Stones: Teaching

I feel a bit rotten putting a post about teaching into the "Stones" tag list for this blog- it's not really a grumble or groan subject for me, to be honest. Teaching is one of my favourite aspects of academia- I can honestly say that in spite of having put in some horrendous essay marking time over the years of my PhD, teaching students is my favourite part of the week. I love the moments when suddenly, someone gets the hang of a big concept, or becomes confident enough to make links between their own archaeological interests and scary looking theory. When someone makes a really strong point in class, or in an essay, I want to leap in the air and dance and hug them. (I don't, of course- it's strictly non toccare with students, and I don't want them to think I'm nuts). I feel the same way about teaching outside the classroom- when I supervise my trench workers I am delighted when they work out pottery from rocks, or spot a piece of iron slag, or bring me a teeny bronze fragment smaller than their fingernail- that glow of achievement, that pride in doing something really well- it works both ways. I get some of my best ideas for research from teaching- and I stand by the idea that you only really understand something if you can teach it coherently to an undergraduate class, or better yet, a school class.

Some beautiful British stones...

So, when there was a bit of a hoo-ha around Twitter, and a kerfuffle on the Today programme about teaching history in schools, I did get grumbly. I did get ranty. I shouted at the radio and huffed and puffed around the house. Basically, the debate is that Michael Gove wants to make British history the focus of school history syllabi, while his opponents think that this will create an inward looking nationalist curriculum. Both groups have a point- British history is intensely relevant to living in Britain today- but it is USELESS to work on British history without its wider, global context. There is no argument to be had here, and the dichotomy is, frankly, stupid. Its existence illustrates the real problem inherent in both views- that students are being taught to know things, and not to use them. Whether this is old fashioned knowledge of dates and kings, or new types of knowledge about skills for historical analysis, or causes for events, the system rewards knowledge. Knowing what you need to know gets you through the exam. Independent thought is not required. Gove seems to want everyone to know (for example) the dates of a particular event, while exam boards want students to know the "key causes" of particular moments, broken down into a format that can be fed into a 6-mark GCSE question. Neither party think of the student in all of this: they are a drone, to be fed knowledge and prove that they have absorbed this knowledge by regurgitating it onto an exam paper. It makes me want to vomit myself.

What I would love to do is get university style teaching into schools. Give students the primary sources and objects, and get them to see historical events in context. For example- a good old nationally relevant event like the Dissolution of the Monasteries. You can't understand that (very British) phenomenon without a grasp of European politics at the time. You need to know about the Spanish Empire and Martin Luther, Erasmus and the knock-on effect of the Renaissance on religious philosophy, Henry VIII's relationship with France and the history of Anglo-French relationships. You need to recognise the motivations of English protestants who became star ministers- Cranmer, Cromwell. It's not just about Henry VIII getting off with Anne Boleyn, but the entire world of circumstance that made their world as it was. Breaking down the influences and discussing them together- encouraging students to talk about their primary opinions- setting reading for homework- then re-engaging to get a considered view of their ideas. Helping them put together the tools for an argument. Teaching them to see the world in context, and then argue coherently in an essay, not make a 6 mark list of causes. The exams would have to change too- more open ended discussion questions, focused on demonstrating the ability of the student to make an argument, rather than recite a list, whether of dates or "impacts."

My entire goal as a university teacher is to give my students the skills to think for themselves and trust their own judgements- giving them raw information and the tools to process it through reading/listening and then discussion. When I teach first year students, they are horrified by the concept of originality- many don't have the confidence to think for themselves, they are too used to repeating back knowledge, and doing this will still carry them through to a 2:2 or a low 2:1 if done well. But by the end of the course, they are making connections themselves- going off and doing independent research into things that interest them, then bringing their ideas and case studies back to me. This is exactly the same principle as teaching in an archeological field school- I show my students how to identify their finds, then encourage them to speculate as to what they mean for the archaeology of the trench, getting them to put together an interpretive argument. In the age of the internet, shouldn't we be able to use the same teaching methods as this younger and younger? Encouraging not only independent learning, but independent thinking? It doesn't matter if the focus is British history in schools- if taught in this way, it will connect the student to an inter-connected past, and a world of interesting influences on Britain will be brought in as a matter of course. If narrow, traditional teaching practices continue, islands of knowledge, whether about Britain or not, will continue to restrict and restrain the schoolchildren of another generation.

This post is still a "Stones" post- the issues that I've talked about here will surely not be to everyone's taste- there is no simple answer to the best way to teach. It's bloody hard to know what is right. But I know what works- and I know what my students enjoy. I'd rather be challenged and pushed to think for myself than bleated at and bored stupid- no matter how hard it is. Anyone who thinks students aren't bright enough to try independent thinking just hasn't tried hard enough- it's often a real sod to get that first breakthrough. But if we give up, we let them all down, and we let the difficulty of active teaching swamp the potential of our students and our own joy in teaching them. I'll stop ranting now, but I'd love to know- positively or negatively- what you think about this debate. Do you teach too? What do you think of independent learning in schools or in universities?

The shut door to knowledge?
Disclaimer: I know LOADS of good teachers who DO encourage their students to think for themselves- I am NOT having a go at you. I just wish the system was designed to encourage this and the great work you all do.

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What do you think? I'd love to hear what's in your head.