At the beginning of May, I was privileged to be asked to speak at the Historical Association Conference in Manchester.  It was an excellent weekend with a wide range of lectures and continuing professional development opportunities. This is the second in a series of blog posts about the various lectures and workshops I attended.

After the opening Presidential lecture on the Friday morning, mine was the first session on the General Pathway.  I really enjoyed giving my paper on Singing the News in Tudor England, which went down very well.  I did lots of singing myself and, as usual, persuaded the audience to sing too.  I got some excellent feedback from the audience and it certainly seemed to provide a talking point over the rest of the conference.

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As I do quite a bit of teaching at all sorts of different levels, I decided to take advantage of some of the continuing professional development sessions on offer.  The first one that I attended was

Making History Stick – Robert Peal

Peal opened his session by commenting on why students should study history: not jsut because they need it for exams but it because it is important for citizenship and simply for making the world a more interesting place.  In the debate over knowledge and skills, he emphasises knowledge-based teaching.

He pointed out that novices and experts think about a subject in different ways because experts have much more long term memory on which to draw.

Peal identified three different types of knowledge:

  1. Declarative knowledge (pub quiz facts)
  2. Conceptual knowledge (ideas)
  3. Tacit knowledge (the leaps and inferences you need which are difficult to explicitly teach.  They are difficult to write down or verbalise)


He suggested 4 different techniques that help teachers to help students remember and understand what we tell them:


  1. Think about what pupils are thinking (not doing): Memory is the residue of thought, so you think about what they are thinking about through the activities that we give them to do. If passive learning is thinking, then it works.  Whether the thinking is from hearing, seeing or doing is of secondary importance to thinking itself, which helps us to remember and understand.  At West London Free School, reading lessons (comprehension, speaking and asking questions) and writing lessons (talking and extended writing) alternate.  The interest is in the content not the activity.  Teachers therefore should think carefully about how they explain and unpack the facts and ideas.
  2. Use direct instruction: Make the ideas clear.  Tell the students what should they be finding in sources or by comparing different historians views. ALthough this sounds like classic ‘chalk and talk’, he emphasised that he did not just mean teacher instruction.  His lessons use discussion, questioning, modelling, pupil tasks, quizzing, feedback, not just lecturing, BUT this is never led by the pupils deciding what to do next, it is always done with the teacher directing the activities.
  3. Use concrete examples: Teachers should almost always avoid asking a question where they haven’t already taught pupils the knowledge they need to be able to answer. He suggested doing so only with something that is really clear in their existing conceptual knowledge.  Kingship is one of the few examples of existing conceptual knowledge that most students have.  His lessons build abstract knowledge by revisiting several concrete examples.  Peal argues that this is why pupils love stories – they illustrate abstract concepts. Analogies are also great, especially when the concrete example itself (eg political infiltration; monopoly) is really difficult to understand.
  4. Quizzing: – Retrieval practice helps pupils to remember because every time we retrieve a fact it becomes more active in our memory.  Testing should for the most part, however, be divorced from assessment so that it does not become feared.  The West London Free School uses quizzing every other lesson. It can be used as a starter activity, homework, or for revision sessions.  His pupils have picked up the key facts needed by the end of the year. It automates the important information that they need for writing extended answers.  Peal recommends basing quizzes on the core knowledge and that the questions are repeated.  You can change the orders.  Later the teacher can ask the students to use the answers to work out the ‘question’ – ie the important information in the stem is what they are forced to think about. For example, after asking ‘In what year was the Battle of Hastings?’, you can ask ‘What happened in 1066?’  The pupilss are given the questions/answers at the start of the unit and stick them in the back of book. The method is also useful for a glossary of important subject specific vocabulary.



The first session after lunch was

Marios Costambeys – Charlemagne and Europe…and Britain.


Dr Costambeys argued that we need to have an understanding of the full sweep of history in order to understand the present. Charlemagne is used as the name for an international prize for service to European unification because it symbolically looks back to the Carolingian empire for unity in Europe and provides a way of looking forward to the future.

Anglo-Saxon England was beyond the frontier of Charlemagne’s realms but still absorbed several characteristics of Carolingian politics culture.  Charlemagne conquered his empire at the same time Offa was exploiting divisions to take control of large parts of England.  They worked on different scales but were similar in that smaller kingdoms were being overtaken by larger hegemonies.

Europe’s past was the Roman Empire and the future of Europe was Charlemagne – the location of the signing of the Treaty of Rome was significant. Charlemagne’s empire was prescient of the EU not just territorially but in the conception of Europe as a whole: multiethnic and multilingual, with a willingness to co-exist with those kingdoms it absorbed; it was a combination of public face and private interests.  The king or emperor sat at the top of a system of law courts which recognised that government and citizens were to recognise each other’s rights.  Dr Costambeys suggested that although Charlemagne was not the father of the qualities in modern government, but his empire was a ‘hazy blueprint’ both for his contemporaries and his successors.

His was the first dynasty to use ‘deo gratias’  (by the grace of God) on coinage. Likewise,   Christianity infuses the Carolingian dynasty, for example, biblical quotations litter Carolingian legislation.  It  was revolutionary for kings to have a programme of government.  Dr Costambeys pointed out that at the time, a plan of government was unheard of but it’s clear from Charlemagne’s documents that they restate the same principles, with each performing a function as part of a whole.  Even the script used during the period takes the name Carolingian print – it was more legible to the masses.

This programme, however, was not all his own work; he was a great ruler and therefore delegated much of the work to his advisors.  Those advisors came from other places and then wrote home, spreading Carolingian ideas. Alcuin, Charlemagne’s advisor, was the connection between Carolingian empire and England.

Charlemagne matters now because he’s a source of knowledge and developments that were rolled out over the following centuries. He’s an archetype with applicability across the generations. But he also has 21st century relevance, for example, in graduated levels of assembly politics and his interest in education.

The Association AGM took place before a new departure for the HA conference:

Round Table: Parliament, people or privilege: Do we need a better understanding of constitutional history?

The round table was chaired by Association Deputy President, Michael Madison; there were four panelists, who were each asked to give a short opening statement setting out their view.

2017-05-12 17.55.54Dr Alix Harvey suggested that it was more important to ask how historians add to the resources available to everyone. She called this ‘historical capital’ – a term for the ways in which history helps us understand our present.  She pointed out that there are respected scholars who are capable of talking to a wide audience about complex ideas.  She cited Mary Beard as an example of someone who assumes that her audience has the intellectual capacity to understand her arguments.  So we need more constitutional history as part of a wider historical capacity.

Retiring HA President, Prof. Justin Champion, pointed out that we need to think more carefully about how and when we teach constitutional ideas, such as what is sovereignty or consent, and claimed that ideas are easier to teach than the details of what actually happened.  He reminded the audience that the HA has close links to constitutional history through the presidents.  Even Geoffrey Elton pointed out that understanding the past allowed citizens to think better about past present and future.  Although Elton concentrated on government, for him it was about how people governed themselves.

Nick Hillman heads a higher education think tank and claimed that the short answer is yes.  His, however, is a policy-making world, so he suggested that there were other forms of history that were even more important to improving the way the country is governed.  People, and ministers in particular, need far more knowledge of the history in the areas that those ministers actually deal in.  The problem is symptomatic of a much wider lack of history – excessive churn and excessive wideness rather than specialisation.  He revealed that ministers and civil servants have no direct access to academic output.  Therefore, he argued that each government department needed a chief historical advisor (like the scientific ones) who could put the latest relevant research in front of the ministers.


The incoming HA President, Prof. Tony Badger, was the final panellist to give his views. He said that it had taken him a long time to realise the importance of the American constitution at the root of his work on US history.  The US has one of the lowest participation rates in elections in the world.  The battles of civil rights, however, are won in the courts and the legislature not on the street so the ballot really matters in people’s day to day lives.   Lack of the vote had very real consequences for individuals.  It meant, for the blacks, being subject to violence.  We have little concept of how the vote really matters and people should have more understanding of its importance.

Following their opening statements, the panellists responded to questions from the audience, then they were opened up to the floor for audience debate.

One such question was whether we need a better understanding of EU history rather than constitutional history, to which Justin Champion pointed out that we as a nation are not insular – our traditions of citizenship are Italian and French.

2017-05-12 18.35.48Another member of the audience asked if the problem was based on a failure of democracy rather than our lack of knowledge of the past? Tony Badger suggested that the current difficulties of democracy in the US are based on the feeling that the democratic system was not responding to their needs.  Such problems usually happen just before extraordinarily fruitful periods of government with novelty in the progress of legislation.  Nick Hillman pointed out that it was his belief that current political situation in Britain cannot be described as a crisis. It would have been if the government had ignored the referendum result but they didn’t.

Justin Champion closed the round table by claiming that the referendum on Brexit was a downward movement of democracy.  He challenged the assembled audience to spread the word that people need to get involved in their own self-government for the good of all.

The round table was followed by a wine reception and then dinner in the opulent surroundings of the International Suite.

The dinner saw a presentation to the outgoing HA president, Prof. Justin Champion.  This led to a short discussion over what was the collective noun for a group of HA presidents.


A gossip of presidents: Justin Champion, Anne Curry, Chris Wrigley and Tony Badger

The view from the hotel window was impressive too!