Discipline and mavericks. A tribute to Mr Wilkes.

“Let down your buckets!” Mr Wilkes shouts at window-shaking volume. It’s 1993 or 1994 and I am in my Earth Science class, a subject I think would be called geography today.

Mr Wilkes paces the front of the room red faced and miming semaphore. “The becalmed ship flagged back its reply. We need fresh water! We need to drink!”

We all lean forward, the front row not caring in the least about the spray of saliva as Mr Wilkes barks back the reply. “Let down your buckets!” He pauses, his chest heaving as he catches his breath, and then rounds on me “You, Newmark! Why did they say that?”

“Don’t know, sir!”

“Think, Newmark! Where did I say the ships were?”

“Off South America, Sir.”

“Yes! That’s right!” He turns to another boy. “Samra! Which river empties out in the Atlantic from South America?”

“Amazon, sir?”

“Right! So the ship does as it’s told and let down their buckets and when they pull them up the water is sweet. This sailors are saved! They’re in the ocean! Why was it sweet?” This time his tone makes it clear his question is rhetorical and he pauses only a moment before plunging on. “It was sweet because the Amazon was pumping out fresh water miles into the Atlantic. How could it not? A fifth of all the world’s fresh water is in that river. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Amazon is worth learning about.”

To this day I don’t know if he’d made up that story or even if it could ever happen. But I do remember that a fifth of all the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon.

Mr Wilkes was great teacher. Great for different reasons than what we, those fortunate enough to attend the first Dixons CTC in Bradford, were used to. We were, of course, used to excellent. It is only quite recently that I’ve really begun to appreciate how remarkable my experience of school was.

Excellent at Dixons CTC usually meant ordered, calm and purposeful. It means strict discipline. It meant high expectations of both personal behaviour and quality of work. It meant well organised, clear lessons in which the learning was clearly ordered and made both explicit and tangible. Lessons were consistent. The teachers all rowed together. The biggest compliment I can pay my old school is that until I left it I did not know that not all children in all schools learned almost all the time, or that at other schools it was unusual for students to go to university.

Mr Wilkes was different. Mr Wilkes once gave a boy, who bragged about losing his equipment and so not being able to write, a five pound note. He made him go WH Smith at lunchtime and buy a pencil case. He wrote ‘Mr Wilkes’ on it and told the boy that he was loaning it to him and if he lost it, he’d be contacting parents to get his money back. He checked on ‘his property’ every lesson.

He taught us plate tectonics by telling us all he didn’t believe in it. “Load of rubbish this is,” he said, “scientists will have changed their minds next week. Giant plates of rock floating on melted rock. Rubbish. But I better teach you what everyone is saying.”

As a ‘student manager’ (our term for a prefect I suppose), I learned a bit more about him from our Principle Mr Lewis. Apparently Mr Wilkes had been hired after he’d returned from living abroad for years. He wrote a letter to the school, got an interview and was hired after giving Mr Lewis (later Sir John Lewis), the impression that he was worth taking a risk on.

And he was. In addition to our memorable Earth Science lessons he organised two musicals which people still talk about. “If you can tell it was made in a school, I’m not putting it on,” was how high he set expectations. And we rose to them. How we loved him. How we hung on every word. How shamed we were when we didn’t learn our lines, or if we dared laugh at someone who fluffed theirs.

Mr Wilkes was no avuncular Mr Chips figure. He could rage. When things went wrong, the man could shout. “Oh laughing are you!” I remember him screaming at a sniggering classmate. “I suppose there’s lots to laugh at. I’m old! I’m fat! I’ve got white hair. Anything else you want to say?”

Like Father Christmas in the Narnia books, Mr Wilkes was both frightening and kind.

Mr Wilkes seemed ancient to me when I was at school, but then again so did most teachers. But, even for a teacher, he was unusually old. Looking back, it probably wasn’t much of a surprise that he wouldn’t teach us for very long. When the end came it was sad.

Mr Wilkes became very ill and left. We only saw him one more time.

Just before I left school he came back to visit. I don’t know why but perhaps it was to say goodbye. He arrived at reception. Thinner. Older looking. Tired. And the whispers began. Word got out. From class to class the news spread. “Mr Wilkes is here. Mr Wilkes is here.”

Our well-ordered school, for just fifteen minutes or so, broke down. Children streamed from classrooms. To begin with our teachers tried to stop us but, wisely and kindly, when they saw what was happening, stepped aside. Our school was built around a huge central hall, with an amphitheatre at one end, with classrooms opening off it. In the middle of the hall stood Mr Wilkes, leaning on a cane, looking around. Looking at all of us. And hearing us as we shouted and cheered. Someone began a chant and it caught on. Nothing clever. Nothing fancy. Just his name. “Mr Wilkes! Mr Wilkes! Mr Wilkes!” And he looked at us and turned round and smiled.

That was the last time any of us saw him.

I suppose this somewhat rambling post is a tribute to our brilliant eccentrics. Those that do things differently. But it’s also a celebration of a well-run school. A school with rules and order and tests and high expectations and tough love. A school wise enough to know that, on rare occasions, it’s not a weakness to make an exception for the exceptional. A school that knew even rebels thrive best in orderly environments.

Thank you Dixons CTC. Thank you Mr Wilkes.

And, you know, for years it bothered me that such an intelligent, erudite and well-educated man didn’t believe in plate tectonics. How could he really not accept convection currents? Couldn’t he see how America and Africa once fitted together?

But he believed in it all along didn’t he?

(Salutes to heaven)

Oh, Sir. I hope you’re laughing. You clever, clever man. You got me. You got me good. You got us all.

Oh and wow. Just found him. Here he is. One hour and twenty minutes in.


Converting high potential into high performance.

Recently my team and I have been thinking about why some of our high potential students don’t always produce work that reflects their capability. After a fair amount of discussion we came up with this four phase guide as a starting point. Suggestions on what else we should include, or critiques of where our approach might be wrong welcome as always and gratefully received.

LEVEL 1: Making expectations explicit.

We must have and maintain high expectations of the class as a whole. Letting the small stuff slip is the first step towards low performance. We explain expectations at the beginning of the year. If children get to ignore one (e. g no shouting out) then the rest will soon collapse too, because it will appear as if we don’t really mean what we say. If one can be ignored, why not all? If enforcing theses becomes an issue, ask for help rather than hope the problem will go away on its own. Because it won’t.

Insist that all listen to every word said. Make expectations explicit and try to avoid assuming that students know what is meant by “pay close attention”.

“When I am speaking I expect you all sitting up with nothing in your hands, facing forward with your knees under the desk, and looking at me.”

Don’t ignore a child looking out of the window, or fiddling or generally not concentrating even if everyone else is fully attentive and you want to push on. If you do ignore it, it will spread because some children see a failure to challenge as a tacit acceptance of non-compliance. Insist on the same standards when students are speaking too; if a child is giving an answer, they have a right to be heard by everyone in the room.

Sometimes just a pause in your explanation or reading can be enough of a cue to get everyone back on track if a critical mass of children are meeting expectations, because children usually peg their own standards against those of others. When things are going really well a stern look might be enough.

If this isn’t working try:

 “We’re going to have to repeat reading that last paragraph because some of you looked distracted, which means you won’t be able to do the work when I set it.”

“This is the second time this has happened. If I have to stop again we will have to go back to our expectations so we as a team can all learn.”

 The same is true of completing written work. All students should be writing for the time period you have specified. In the first instance deal with a failure to do this in the same way you would with non-compliance over listening.

“Some of you are wasting time. This is a problem because the writing is planned to take ten minutes. If you only write for five your answers won’t be of a high enough standard.”

“We’re not writing in silence as I asked. This is an issue because this work requires really deep thought and if you are talking you won’t be able to do it right. Also, when you talk you distract others which means their work won’t be good enough either.”

Make sure that the criteria of success is really clear. Here modelled work can be a powerful. Show students what a really good piece looks like and spend time going through why it is good. If sample work isn’t available it may well be worth typing out sample answers. Do remember though, this will have little impact if children don’t understand what makes it good, so don’t be scared to spend time on this.

If any number of very disruptive children mean that you are struggling to establish a wholly positive climate for learning  they must be dealt with very quickly. Remove them if needs be and work on Level 1 separately. All further efforts are likely to be undermined if even one child is seen by the rest of the class to be visibly breaking your rules.

 LEVEL 2 – LEVEL 1 has been established with a critical mass of children. Expectations are explicit and clearly communicated, but some students are still not meeting them.

 Establish a clear sense of cause and effect; if work is not good enough it will need to be improved until it is.

If you suspect a child is not listening to reading, or your explanations, ask them a question on it. If they don’t know, don’t go nuclear immediately because this leaves you nowhere else to go. Get another student to answer and then ask the first student to repeat it back. Doug Lemov has lots more on this in the CFU section of Teach Like a Champion 2.0. This shows that you will not tolerate passengers in your room and should have a ripple effect on other students tempted not to pay full attention – even if they haven’t been targeted this time they will be aware if they don’t do work well they could be. What we’re after is an internal: “Phew! Glad Sir asked Johnny that one because I didn’t know either. Better make sure I listen hard next!”

Select one or two students you know aren’t producing work of the standard you expect and target them. In the first instance keep this to yourself and avoid a direct challenge in front of others. While working circulate around the class and move indirectly towards them to avoid looking as if they have been immediately singled out. Then read their work and quietly explain why it is not of the standard you expect. Be explicit. Avoid: “This just isn’t good enough” or “you need to write much more than this.”

“Taylor, you haven’t included the key words I asked you to, nor have you written in paragraphs. We covered this when we discussed the sample answer. Do this now.”

Then go back and re-check. Don’t stop until the work is of the standard you expect. Keep children back if possible, to get it right.

This should also have the ‘ripple’ effect on others as it becomes clear that you do not tolerate substandard work.

LEVEL 3 – LEVEL 2 has been tried but some students continue to produce work below the standard you expect.

 Move the child to a position in a room where it is very easy for you to check their work. Make it clear why you have moved the child but do this privately.

“Francis, I know you understand the standard I expect and I have made it clear to you that I won’t tolerate sloppy work but you don’t seem to be making the improvements you need to. I’m moving you to the front of my room so I can check all the work you do is right.”

If moving the child isn’t practical for whatever reason, or you feel you even more robust action is required, tell the child you will be checking their work at the end of every lesson and will be making them repeat it in their own time if it isn’t good enough. Again, do this quietly and privately. Doing it publically is likely to lead to arguments, the incredibly annoying “but I’m not the only one”, and also flags to the rest of the class that not everyone works hard in your class.

“Francis, for the next week I am going to be checking your work at the end of every lesson. If you aren’t meeting the standard I expect then you will need to repeat it during your break or lunch until it gets there.”

If this doesn’t work use your management. Ask your Head of Department to check the work of the student.

“Francis, I’m concerned that you still aren’t making the changes we discussed and this means that you aren’t learning as fast as you should be in my lessons. I’ve asked X to check your work at the end of each lesson, so you need to get into the habit of taking your book to him until he tells you it isn’t necessary anymore.”

 LEVEL 4 – LEVEL 3 has been tried but the student(s) still show little improvement.

It may now be time to involve others. This can be quite sensitive and make sure that if you are doing this it is because you think it will have an effect and not because you are taking revenge. A parental meeting may be appropriate if you think this will have a genuine impact but may not be if you are aware issues at home are likely to make this a wasted effort. If you do choose to involve parents make sure you have a plan for what you want to achieve from the meeting beyond just moaning about the child which, especially if a parent hears this a lot, will cause them to switch off:

“I’ve called this meeting today because ___ is not including key words in their work and isn’t revising for their assessments. I would like you to help by..”

 Try to keep agreed actions as simple and manageable as possible. It’s really tempting to say that you will email the parent after every lesson but unless this is for a very limited number of students and for a limited time period the workload implications are significant. Overusing sanctions like this also means they become too familiar and cease to be an effective incentive to work hard.

It may also be appropriate to now speak to Form Tutors, Heads of Year, Head of Department or even SLT. If you choose to do this make sure that just as with the parental meeting you are doing this to identify strategies that will work and not just because you are really angry. Go into each meeting with a clear view of what support you want, to avoid getting bogged down with “X never does what I say, he always talks back etc)


 Acknowledge improvement at each level but do not over-praise the meeting of basic expectations (and fine work should be a basic expectation of a high potential student).

“Since you have been showing your work to X it has improved. So from now on I’m going to be checking your work instead. Hopefully you now understand what’s expected in my room.”

Be very careful about over-celebrating short term improvement. This is performance not habit and can lead to a peaks and troughs pattern. The aim is that these students develop the same habits and scholarly attitudes of high performing students in their class and that these habits become automated. This is less likely to happen if the process and not the work becomes the focus of our interventions.

Also be very careful that you are not introducing any new consequence out of anger. This doesn’t work. Doug Lemov puts this very well in saying “if you are mad, you waited too long.”


Moving on

Five years ago, almost to the day, I walked out of the British International School in Addis Ababa for the last time. I left proud. Working as Deputy Headmaster and as part of a close, committed team made up of both local and expatriate staff I had helped turn the school round. Behaviour was incomparably better and improving. Exam results were up. Children, parents and staff were proud that the BIS was part of their life.

Later that evening, at the end of year staff party when almost everyone else had gone home, I sat with the Headmaster who was also leaving. As we laughed and reminisced about all we’d achieved, and the joy the school had brought us, and the inevitable sadness we felt at leaving it, it suddenly occurred to me that we might be making a terrible error. “We should be staying.” I said.

But no. While my reaction was understandable my reasons to leave were good ones and, in the cold morning light of the next day, I knew it was the right time to go. The school had taken three years to turn round and the result of the changes we’d made was that it was now a different place altogether, with different strengths and different challenges. The Headmaster and I could have stayed but, had we done so, there was a very real danger we’d be too comfortable, too willing to accept where we were because of how far we’d come. The school needed us to either reinvent our jobs or step aside for someone who didn’t know the school’s history, someone who saw the school as it was and wasn’t distracted by what it had been. And, for lots of reasons both personal and professional my friend the Headmaster and I were too tired to reinvent ourselves. It was time for us to step aside.

I have been thinking a lot about leaving the BIS because, five years later, I am moving on again. At the end of this academic year I am leaving my job as a Head of Humanities to work for the Institute for Teaching as a Secondary Tutor in the Birmingham area.

Some of the reasons I am leaving are similar. I will again leave proud of what my team has achieved. Results are on the up. The subjects are now popular. Behaviour is better. Our move to a knowledge based curriculum is proving even more successful than expected. On the face of it, and I can’t help feeling this sometimes, it may appear foolish to leave just as the fruits of our labour ripen for harvest. So why go?

The answer, I think, comes in two parts. The first is very similar to the reason I left the BIS. I have finished one job. I know the changes we have put in place mean things will continue to improve, but the next big step will need us to shift up a gear again. Staying would have meant committing to another block of time to see this through and, for reasons I’ll go into next, this is something best left for someone new.

The second reason I am leaving is more selfish. Not too long ago I wrote a blog, called Plugged In, which described how much Twitter had improved me as teacher. It was well received by some and was even quoted in speech given by Nick Gibb in Australia. The blog explained how ideas I encountered challenged what I had thought to be a universally accepted orthodoxy around teaching and learning, and led to me wholeheartedly searching for different answers. It was these answers that I brought into my Faculty. One of the things I most regret about the early years of my career was that I wasted so much time on methodology that was sometimes just not right for me, and sometimes actually conceptually flawed.

It was because of this that I found an opportunity to work for the Institute for Teaching such an exciting prospect. I am looking forward to helping teachers progress faster than I did, by using evidence informed practice and hope that this means many children, particularly those disadvantaged by their circumstances, learn faster than they might have done otherwise.

I hope I will do this with some humility. Twitter took me on a journey through the Dunning-Kruger curve. To begin with, what I read made so much sense that I began to assume all answers could be found in a small handful of places. But the great thing about Edu-Twitter is that it is made up of such a diverse network of teachers and educationalists that the complexities of teaching and learning become apparent unless quite a concerted attempt is made to avoid them. First, I didn’t know there was even a debate; next I began to think I was becoming an expert in it and now I am increasingly aware that there is so, so much I have yet to learn. In my new role I will be making sure that I listen more than I speak, that I read more than I write and that when I have something to say it’s based not just on my own personal experience, but on a wide range of views, evidence and research. I will be asking a lot of questions. And, the wonderful thing about the network I am now so deeply plugged in to, is that I am certain that when I inevitably get things wrong they are plenty of people ready to put me right.

So, from the colleagues I’ve worked with to those I know only as pixels on a screen, thank you everyone. I am excited about my next step and it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for you. The attainment gap between our richest and poorest children yawns as wide as ever and there’s lots of work to do. I can’t wait to get started.


A strange sort of love

By the middle of June 2017, our Year 11 history students will have finished their GCSE course. Controlled assessments in, marked, moderated and samples sent off. Two exams written. Pens down for the very last time.

I will be waiting for them in the café area outside the exam hall and will scan every face. Some will be jubilant and some will be distraught. Most will be apprehensive which, if every previous year is anything to go by, will be how I am feeling too.

Then, a few handshakes, perhaps a selfie or two and they’ll walk blinking into the sunshine and out of my life.

I am not the sort of teacher they will thank with cards, chocolate or flowers. I am not expecting a mug with ‘world’s best history teacher’ printed on it.  It isn’t who I am. I am not the teacher they come to when they have fallen out with a friend. I have never done relationship advice. I don’t know much about them personally; I couldn’t name their favourite bands, or sports teams, TV programmes or computer games. I did not give out handwritten good luck cards, or give them sweets on their birthdays. They soon stopped bothering to ask me when we were going to do a ‘fun’ lesson.

But none of this means I won’t remember them. Driving home, I will think of them all. I will think of them often to begin with, then less and less as the waves of time wash them from my daily thoughts. But they’ll still be there, tucked deep into what might be called my long term memory, or schema, or heart.

In years to come, when I am teaching a new class, a child will give a plausible explanation as to why medicine regressed in the early medieval period and, suddenly, an old class will explode back into my consciousness with a breath-taking vividness. “That’s what Adel said,” I will think, “I wonder what Maryam would think about that?” And for just a moment, imperceptible to the class I’m teaching, there will be a pause as I rearrange my thoughts, as I wait for the ghosts of Adel and Maryam to fade away, waiting for time to move forward again.

This will happen because my care is so closely entwinned with my subject and my teaching it can’t be separated. I may not know who their favourite singer is, but I know what parts of the course they were good at and which they weren’t. I know their handwriting. I know the swirls and the loops and the children who’d never stop putting irritating circles over ‘I’s regardless of how much they were nagged. I know which parts of the course they missed because of mysterious absences and I know what I did to try and fill the gap. I know when a ‘don’t know’ means ‘don’t know’ and when it means ‘can’t be bothered today.’ I know when to push and I know when to ease off. I know when I made mistakes. I know that I planned the course meticulously and  that I revised my plans when things went awry. I know I never threw a lesson on bubble writing because it was hot and near the end of term. I know when my class wasn’t learning fast enough I voyaged out into the educational world to find uncomfortable truths and solutions.

So I won’t be waiting for fluffy toys, or engraved watches, or bottles of wine from grateful parents. I never gave presents and don’t expect to receive any. But, as a teacher, I gave my best. If I am to be remembered at all I hope it’s with a satisfied nod, a wry smile at my appalling subject related jokes and a thought that goes something along the lines of “Mr Newmark, he was alright really. He did right by me.”


Why the tail should not wag the dog.

I have been reading Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion 2.0” over the last couple of weeks. The mainly US settings, combined with what Daisy Christodoulou wrote about in “Making Good Progress?”, has got me thinking about problems caused by standardised testing, though I remain a firm supporter of it.

Schooled exclusively in England, I took standardised testing for granted until I began work in an international school. It was there I met American teachers who graded their own students and were allowed to decide the criteria on which these grades were awarded. I was sceptical to begin with, because I thought that this would lead to inconsistency and varying standards. This may be true, but I now see that it also had its benefits.

Allowing teachers to develop and apply their own grading criteria means they are able to break down complex, lengthy and involved tasks into smaller steps and give pupils credit for achieving each. For example, while a teacher may want students in a class to eventually write analytical essays, they might feel expecting a Y7 to do this in their first half term is unreasonable and that grades derived from attempts to do so would be meaningless. Instead, the teacher might sensibly teach children to write one really good paragraph and then grade this.

The American teachers I know also typically grade children on ‘softer’ elements that we don’t usually assess, at least formally, in England. For example, participation and attitude might make up part of the grade that appears on a child’s end of term report card. Of course, effort and attitude also often appear on a child’s report in England too, but these are usually separate to the academic grade not components of it.

One significant advantage of this approach to assessment is that it allows teachers to teach and then hold children accountable for scholarly attitudes and behaviours likely to lead to greater academic success in the future. For example, in Teach Like A Champion, Doug Lemov describes how effective teachers create the conditions for good discussion in their classrooms by teaching listening, and how students should build their own responses on the ideas of others. In an example in the book a teacher incentivises this behaviour by reminding students he was giving credit for contributions made this way. In such systems assessment can be truly formative in that a grade is made up of multiple components that should, in the end, lead to better academic performance.

There is nothing to stop similar systems being applied in England but few school-wide assessment policies allow for it. GCSEs, which are standardised tests, mean many schools have developed systems that attempt to mirror England’s national standardisation on a micro-level. Assessments often take the form of a standardised test, which uses GCSE style questions and is marked using a  GCSE mark-scheme. The opportunity presented by the demise of National Curriculum Levels has not been taken advantage of, with most schools choosing to develop models based on eventual examination performance.

This is unfortunate for two reasons.

Firstly such systems, by attempting to measure the end product before children have had enough time to develop it, emphasise the final result over the process of reaching it. A 16 mark essay question in history, for example, is designed to test a range of second order concepts that might take years to develop. Children in Year 7 are likely to perform very poorly on such a question. It is likely that systems that expect children to do this or similar tasks in exams won’t devote sufficient time to breaking the big task into smaller steps because children aren’t graded on them. This is also likely to affect the development of discursive techniques I mentioned earlier; children might well ultimately develop more nuanced and sophisticated ideas if they listen better to their peers but, as this is not a component of the standardised test, teachers may well come to the view they don’t have time to waste teaching it. This is also very true of basic knowledge tests – simple retrieval is not generally tested in GCSEs, which could lead schools to leave such tasks off assessments. This would be a mistake though, because knowledge is the water in which everything else swims and neglecting the development of it is perhaps the single most significant reason children underperform in standardised examinations.

Secondly, systems that align themselves completely around standardised tests do students a disservice because, regardless of how good a rubric is, it is still a rubric. If this rubric is applied right from the start of their secondary schooling children are in danger of coming to believe that the rubric is the subject. To them, being good at history might come to mean “evaluating evidence for two interpretations and then making a judgement”. This, while perhaps a workable way in which to assess how good a child is at learning history at fifteen or sixteen, is not a definition of history and systems that create this implicit assumption is misrepresent the disciplines being taught. It also leads to mechanical, dreary writing, which I wrote about here.

None of what I have written here means I don’t believe in standardised testing. I do. It isn’t perfect, and I would like improved versions of it, but I can’t think of a better in which to consistently assess the performance of large cohorts of children. But the tail shouldn’t wag the dog and nor does it need to. Sensible assessment systems shouldn’t be based on GCSE criteria at least until Year 11 and should test the component skills of eventual success without expecting children to necessarily demonstrate the final product in each test. None of this, of course, is new thinking. Daisy Christodoulou said it first and better and Christine Counsell’s “messy markbook” way before this shows that practical solutions to this issue have been around for years. I don’t know whether that’s more encouraging or depressing.


Never live like common people; the problems with trying to empathise with those who lived in the past

Years ago a friend and I were travelling through the Ethiopian countryside in a rickety old bus. It was sunset and each village we chugged through was full of farmers returning from their fields. The air smelled of burning wood and spices as women prepared evening meals. “I love this time,” I said. “It’s when everyone’s at their happiest. Work done for the day, time to eat, talk with friends and then rest.”

My friend, himself an Ethiopian from an agricultural background, said nothing for a long time. Then, kindly but firmly, in a tone that ended the conversation; “Ben, you know nothing at all about it.”

He was, of course, quite right. Although I had thought I was, I was not empathising at all. The seemingly idyllic scene was only so in my eyes. Knowing nothing about what it was like to farm in Ethiopia, knowing nothing about what it was like to live at the whim of the seasons and knowing nothing about what it means to worry about your children starving I had simply plopped myself, as I was, into the villages we were passing and created my own happy fiction. What I had not understood was that if I lived in an Ethiopian village, I wouldn’t be me.

Of course, there are things I could have done, and indeed did do, to make more sense of what was happening in the villages we passed. I spoke to my friend. I asked questions. I read. I learned about the motivations, fears and beliefs of people who lived in agricultural Ethiopia. None of this led to me to empathy. The more I understood the less I believed I could ever understand what it’d feel like to be an Ethiopian farmer.

If this is true of people in the modern world, I think it is also true of the people who lived in the past. It is simply impossible to really know what people felt. Even seemingly straightforward physical sensations are more problematic than they might superficially appear to be. Take the burning of Nicholas Ridley in 1555, which was by contemporary accounts particularly agonising. Even if were capable of empathising with some of this pain, this empathy would be myopic because Ridley was likely to have been certain of heavenly salvation after death. We don’t know how he felt because most of us lack the certainty of his belief system.

The inner thoughts and emotions of past people remain a mystery to us and the best we can ever achieve is to gain something of an understanding of what their motivations, fears and beliefs were through their words and actions. Anything else is fiction.

It is because of this I don’t think the building of empathy, as defined as knowing what it felt like to live in the past, is a legitimate aim for history lessons in schools.

Why then is empathy so prominent in history in schools?

A recent Twitter poll (yeah, yeah, know not scientific) I ran suggests that there isn’t consensus over whether or not empathy has a place in school history. I find this puzzling, especially as there does seem to be a consensus among historians that empathy, at least in the way I define it, is not an aim of the discipline. Those kind enough to comment and even blog in response to my poll have given me some ideas as to why this disconnect might exist. As always, I encourage anyone who thinks I have got something wrong to point it out to me.

We define empathy differently.

The definition of empathy I have used so far (to know what it felt like in the past) is not shared by everyone. Some history teachers understand the term to mean understanding motives and aims, which gives insight to understanding the past better. To me this distinction, while apparently subtle, is actually profound. Ian Dawson’s canonical Je Suis le Rois lesson is a good example; after completing extensive knowledge based study, students take part in a scripted role-play on the Norman Conquest. By adopting roles students gain a deeper understanding of the likely motivations of the key players. It would be very easy to read this sort of activity as an attempt to know how those involved felt, but this misses the point. The lesson is scripted. Students are not encouraged to try to envisage how they would have felt had they been there. They do not improvise based on their own emotions.

I don’t disagree with teachers who define empathy this way and run activities like this one but do feel this isn’t the only conception of empathy helped by history teachers, and may not even be the most common.

Some teachers think history should be morally instructive

Lessons on slavery, segregation and the Holocaust invite moral judgement about the attitudes of people in the past. How could they not? As thinking, compassionate humans we respond emotionally to such atrocities. Such events, from a modern perspective, are incomprehensibly barbaric and it is natural to try and make sense of them by creating a narrative in which each event becomes a lesson for us in the present day. This has become a trope. We talk easily of ‘learning the lessons of history’ and I’ve seen Santayana’s ‘those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it’ up on the walls of many history classrooms, including mine. For curriculums with this ethos empathy is a useful tool; encouraging children to imagine what it felt like to be the victim of an historical injustice makes it more likely they will be on the look-out for its recurrence and less likely for the event to happen again.

As controversial as this may, or may not be, I think history lessons in schools should fight this.

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, as I tried to demonstrate in my story about Ethiopia, it is impossible. Nobody can imagine what it was like to be Ann Frank. In the attempt to do so we graft our own internal, private thoughts and emotions onto a shadow. If we were Ann Frank we wouldn’t be us. When we try to empathise with her we imagine us as her. Any conclusions we draw by doing so will inevitably be flawed. Some might defend this approach by saying that while perfection is impossible, we can better empathise with past personalities by learning more about them. I don’t think this is true. I find the more I learn about someone the more they slip away. When I knew nothing about Ethiopian villagers I thought I could empathise with them; the more I learned, the more unfamiliar their world became and the more I realised I couldn’t.

The idea of moral instruction as a purpose is also flawed in that the jury is very, very much out on whether societies learn lessons from the past at all. We now rightly regard slavery as morally indefensible, yet human trafficking is rising. The teaching of slavery as immoral, perhaps by encouraging children to empathise with the enslaved, has not ended it. This is important. If we don’t learn from the past then having this as a stated aim of history in schools is to set ourselves up to fail.

Secondly, encouraging empathy as a tool for moral instruction is dangerous in that it implies the values we hold now are both universally accepted and correct a priori. This is sort of reverse Whiggish. History taught this way is a tool to emphasise our past mistakes and to highlight injustices where they still exist in the modern world. We teach children about the suffrage movement so they are better able to spot modern sexism. We teach them about the issues with National Insurance so they will value the National Health Service. There is evidence of this in the sorts of perspectives children are asked to take when empathising with those in the past. Writing a letter as a Great War soldier, yes. Writing a letter as a general, no. Writing a diary entry of a slave, acceptable. Writing a diary entry of a slave owner, unacceptable. By encouraging or allowing this we create a narrative that fits our own views and reduce interpretative scope, valuing some perspectives over others because we find them more palatable, not because of stronger evidence and argument.

I, of course, understand that some will say that this is all quite right and proper. It was wrong that no women could not vote before 1918. It was wrong that soldiers were made to fight in trenches. It was wrong that people were enslaved. With my history teacher hat off, I agree. But for me this comes with a significant cautionary note; if we accept the use of history to teach moral lessons, we open the door for those with very different morals to do the same. If we are to accept that a purpose of history should be to teach what is right and what is wrong, then we need give extremely careful thought as to what these morals are and where they come from.

History is regarded as different in schools to how it is at higher academic levels.

I’m quite sure some will read this and come to the understandable conclusion that I have a stick shoved firmly up my arse and am being fussily quasi-intellectual and pedantic. I think I get the point; what does it matter if children aren’t completing historical essay work in Year 7? They’re only bloody eleven! Aren’t they more likely to learn the basics if they deeply and imaginatively immerse themselves in the past? If imagining being a Saxon warrior in the shield wall on Senlac Hill helps you remember what a shield wall is better than just answering a question, then why not?

This sort of thinking is pretty widespread. Recently I heard of a history teacher told by an Ofsted inspector (also a history teacher) that the lesson she’d taught had not been successful because she had tried to teach them different interpretations. “They just need the Horrible Histories stuff in Year 7,” the inspector said, “get them hooked in and the rest will come after.”

A while back, someone sent a tweet which said something along the lines of “I want to engage children with history, not just in it.” I think it identifies the difference in approach clearly.

Engaging children with history, if I understood the tweeter right, is exposing them to a whole range of resources and activities set around the past and not being constrained by whether or not they fit with any scholarly definition of history as a discipline. This could mean showing films such as Saving Private Ryan or reading classic literature such as “The Eagle of the Ninth”.  If these are accepted as valid historical activities, then encouraging children to take part in empathetic activities is entirely logical. Both Stephen Spielberg and Rosemary Sutcliff, to at least a degree, had to imagine themselves in the past to make the productions they did.

Personally I am not comfortable with this in my own classroom. For me, ‘doing’ history should mean being concerned with the same issues that l historians are, and communicating this knowledge in a comparable style. Historians don’t write in the first person. Historians communicate their ideas through essays and articles and don’t write novels, make films or (generally – #1066 historians I’m looking at you) act.  Even when historical fiction is at it very best as it is, in my view, in Mantel’s Wolf Hall series it still is not history. Some historians may present documentaries, but these documentaries will almost always be based on more formal academic work. This is, of course, not to say I expect Y7 students to write full essays each week (Daisy Christodoulu explains why this would be a mistake), but does mean that I wouldn’t choose any activity, including an empathetic one, that wasn’t of the same genre.

I suspect that different attitudes towards what schools history is and for might be at the crux of disagreement around all activities that aren’t classically scholarly. This division, if indeed it exists to the extent I suspect it does, might well be unbridgeable; some teachers believe it is to teach moral lessons and to give children an interest in the past generally, which makes empathy a legitimate aim. Those of us who disagree with this see no purpose in even making the attempt.

So, having already written far more than I intended to when I started this, I won’t try. Instead I’ll finish with two quotations that I think illustrate the fundamentally quixotic nature of attempts to get children to empathise with people who lived in the past:

“For whatever we lose (like a your or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

                                    e e cummings


“But still you’ll never get it right

‘cause when you’re laid in bed at night,

Watching roaches climb the wall,

If you called your Dad he could stop it all”

You’ll never live like common people.”

                                    Jarvis Cocker.