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!


Today marks the launch of the University of Oxford’s ‘Lest We Forget’ project aimed at saving and preserving material owned by the public related to WW1. WEW are seeking to donations to fund the pr…

Source: Launch of the University of Oxford’s ‘Lest We Forget’ – and how YOU can help

At the beginning of May, I was privileged to be asked to speak at the Historical Association Conference in the luxurious surroundings of the Mercure Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester.  It was an excellent weekend with a wide range of lectures and continuing professional development opportunities.  I came away with lots of great ideas to work on, but for now, I thought I’d write a series of blog posts about the various lectures and workshops I attended.

The weekend opened with the Presidential Lecture, given this year by Association Past President Professor Chris Wrigley:

Inventing Tradition – British and European May Days 1890s-Present

Professor Wrigley commented that May Days had been left out of mainstream text books for many years.  For example, the Thatcher-era poll tax riots were described as the biggest demo in London since 1890 but didn’t say that what actually happened in 1890 was the May Day parade.


There were, though, plenty of contemporary accounts in the press. It took place on 4 May, the closest Sunday to 1 May.  According to these reports, it “seemed as though the whole population of London poured parkwards in a huge mass”.   The parade was so long that it arrived in Hyde park after the speakers had finished – Engels was one of them. Estimates put the crowd at at least quarter of million, but most thought there were half a million people there. In fact, there had been a huge turn out for about 5 years.

Eric Hobsbawm described it as an invented tradition, arguing that it started only in 1890 even though it was portrayed as if it went black hundreds of years.  But Wrigley argues it rested on tradition rather than being newly invented, because it followed routes of the saints days. There had been parades for the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Chartists too.

Walter Crane‘s colourful images of May Days were reused all over the world with different languages.  They were very powerful in France in particular.  Trade unions also began to look internationally in the late 19C.  The biggest unions, such as the Durham miners, had their own parades with union banners.  The most prominent trade unions were the new ones –  the less skilled ones – such as match girls and dockers.  Much of it was therefore to do with the upsurge in trade unionism.  Trade unions like these were always at their strongest when there was an economic upturn because they had more bargaining power.  The parades drew on the traditions of French radicalism, with many bands at the marches playing La Marseillaise, while people wore liberty caps.  The May Day parades were therefore associated with the labour movement.

Prof. Wrigley compared the British experience with that in France, Germany and Austria.  In Austria the workers were told that there would be severe consequences if they came out ‘on strike’ on May Day 1890.  The middle classes were scared.  They fled Vienna on April 30th and didn’t come back for a couple of days.  Factory owners prepared to defend their factories.  Despite the threats, the workers failed to attend work and marched round Vienna anyway.  Troops, including lancers and cannon, were in the park and ready for the demonstrators.  When the families arrived, the troops did not fire; the people sang and walked through the cannon.  Revolution and bloodshed were avoided.

He suggested that in London, the 1890 parade was very effectively organised by Eleanor Marx and her partner Aveling.  So they were partly ‘red’, but not entirely so – the crowds returning from Hyde Park cheered Gladstone as he went past.  They also highlighted divisions between elements in British socialism.

A few weeks ago I was trying to work out how to liven up the teaching session on the Civil War for my first year undergraduates.  I decided to check out Emma Kennedy’s really useful teaching and learning advent calendar for ideas, as it was me that suggested that she could source teaching ideas for it from an appeal on Twitter in the first place.

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Now, several of the teaching strategies are things that I use routinely, like ‘Get Students Talking First’, or at least fairly regularly, like ‘Use Visual Art as a Way Into a Period of History’. Furthermore, as the course is not mine in the first place, the work itself and the questions to be discussed are set by the course leader.  But I wanted to do something a bit different with the week’s material and I did manage to find a couple of ideas.  I have reproduced their work here with their permission.

The session objective was to understand the causes of the civil war and some different interpretations of it, so I started with an art activity.  I asked the students to work individually to draw a picture which represented their understanding of the causes of the civil war.


Next, they were to discuss their drawings in groups of four and come up with a composite drawing, which they were then to transfer to the white board using different coloured markers.

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A spokesperson from each group was then asked to explain their drawing to the rest of the class.

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Next, I used my slideshow of images of Charles I, carrying on the artistic theme of the evening, before we moved over to a discussion of why Barbara Donegan’s interpretation of the civil war in the set reading for the week was different to the other interpretations that they were familiar with.  We looked at the difference between the rules for foreign war and civil war, and talked abotu various civil war atrocities. I gave the groups different examples to work on an asked the other group to identify what specifically was outrageous about each event.  This led us on to discussing breach of contract.

Returning to the theme of imagery, we looked at the images from various civil war pamphlets and talked about how they might have affected their audience.  Finally, I asked each individual to write in big letters on a piece of paper the one or two words which for them summed up the difference between the first and second civil wars. They folded them in half, swapped them randomly among each other and then read them to me. I wrote them up on another whiteboard and we looked at which themes dominated those words.

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All in all, it was a very successful evening, as it stimulated a lot of informed discussion while taking the pressure off individuals to answer questions.  It combined individual, group and whole class work and used a variety of techniques to get the students talking, both to me and to each other.

Historical Association Bolton Branch

Branch secretary Jenni Hydechatted to Kevan Williams of community radio station Bolton FM on Friday 19 May about the work of the Historical Association nationally and in Bolton. She invited everyone to join the branch at our special event on Wednesday 24th May 2017 10.30am-12.30pm at Bolton Museum, Le Mans Crescent:

Dr Henry Miller: ‘Political caricature and satirical prints in Britain, 1700-1840’, followed by hands-on workshop in the museum.

You can listen again to the interview for the next seven days.

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This is a well thought out post on dealing with the dips in the PhD journey, that I think applies whatever the research project. Personally, my advice would be to watch out for “Deep cleaning the bathroom.” I know it’s a piece of advice that works and at the root of it is a need to change the scene and do something physical that takes your mind off it, but with all of these things, you need to watch what’s happening carefully. At the point where that becomes the only thing you feel in control of, there’s a major problem that’s much bigger than the PhD blues. I know. I’ve been there.

The Thesis Whisperer

While many people will suffer ‘the blues’ during the PhD, in some cases the problem is more serious and can lead to or trigger clinical depression. In those cases, all the practical advice in the world won’t help and you need to seek medical attention. If you are worried about how you feel, and nothing seems to help, please visit your GP for advice. The website Beyond Blue has many excellent resources and information if you are worried about another colleague, family member or student and are not sure what to do.

If you are suffering from the blues, here’s some practical advice that might help. I’d like to thank Ümit Kennedy for sending in this post. Umit is a PhD candidate with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. You can connect with her via email at or on social media using @umitkennedy. Although the…

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I spent much of Easter in a frantic attempt to edit my book to submit it to another publisher.  Over the years, I have come to realise that my way of writing tends not to suit publication.  I tend to write as I go along, developing my ideas throughout a paragraph until I reach the point I was trying to make. This means that people who like to see ‘signposting’ get a bit frustrated, as my point sometimes gets buried at the bottom of a paragraph.  So I took the text apart.  I split it up into paragraphs, and sometimes even individual sentences, and reordered them so that it was clearer where the text was going. This involved putting all the extra leaves in my dining table, using lots of post it notes and coloured pens and paper, and an awful lot of tea.

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I think it’s better for it, so keep your fingers crossed that the readers approve.