the box’. The benefits to students
Teachers have adjusted to the new examination and the third cohort of students have started the AS course introduced in 2000. The current specifications are noteworthy, compared to earlier syllabuses, for the detailed description of content, key issues and assessment objectives. Specifications, with all options, run to around 150 pages. Teachers, aware of this detail, study the specifications with great care and, conscious of the need to proceed from unit to unit, fashion courses to follow closely exam board targets. All this is admirable but it tends to induce tunnel vision by teachers and students alike.
There has been a huge shift in emphasis in A Level from ‘what’ and ‘when’ to the ‘why and consequences of change’ over two generations, a widely applauded development. There is, however, less attention on the ‘how’ that can powerfully illuminate the past. As an example, from the world of books rather than articles, the Editor understood the workings of early-modern states, despite reading accounts of government structures, only after reading J.E. Neale’s Queen Elizabeth I. It was this volume that fostered an understanding of ‘how’: the importance of personal influence, that is informal power, in politics.
Understanding, as well as skill, is transferable
A fundamental assumption of modern schooling is a belief in the efficacy of transferable skills. Apart from elements in vocational courses, students do not learn that which will be copied in their working life. For History, understanding is a key capacity that can be transferred. Reading ‘outside the box’ (of the detailed specification) can reap rich rewards for student progress in exam work. First, context and perspective is gained, notably for AS period study units. Second, examples of how history happened can be used as a model against which to assess events within the examined period. Third, an understanding of people, politicians or members of society in any period, can help an appreciation of the ‘examined past’.
Core texts, especially, and to a degree topic texts, are admirable in many ways, not least their comprehensiveness. They are, however, heavily processed productions and provide little flavour of historians’ work or the historical enterprise of the exploration and depiction of the past. Articles in new perspective, short essays by specialists, are succinct ‘tasters’ of varieties of history writing. Readers can note a primarily descriptive, analytical or argumentative approach and the way an author uses evidence to further an article’s themes, as well as a range of writing styles.
Reading articles outside a studied period is not heavy work but a more relaxed activity, and note-making is unrequired, merely a skim read of the summary and the body of the article. The rewards may be great.
Students readily resort to being collectors of information and assessments, a quantitative approach. The trick is to achieve a qualitative jump in historical understanding and thereby increase the benefit of study time spent. In brief, we have suggested that the current and next issues of new perspective, in common with all issues, have the potential to enhance historical understanding and subscribers have access to a further 100 articles on our website. Teachers can be likened to magicians as they seek to transform raw student ability into refined academic performance. Breath of reading, leading to depth of understanding, reaches towards the alchemist’s endeavour.
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