Looking, learning, teaching, stealing

Florence from the Boboli Gardens

Florence from the Boboli Gardens

I chose this picture from our school trip to Florence back in February 2012 not least because of that amazing blue sky and the uplifting effect it has on me at this time of year.  There’s an interesting book by Ross King called Brunelleschi’s Dome:  How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, a title which begs a few questions but you get the idea.  We learn a good deal about how such a building is put together:  the scaffolding, the sacrifices and deaths of the builders, the workers feeding themselves on the pigeons they catch – and above all, the maths.  Oh, to be more numerate and to be able to grasp, yet alone explain to others, some of the basic calculations Brunelleschi used in translating a dome which amazed contemporaries from sketch to structure.

I assume that fifteenth-century maths is still recognizable, still works and is entirely valid in its own terms, just as medieval music can be sung and played today despite looking a little different at first glance. Similarity and difference intrigues me, as it must any History teacher, since barely a day passes without a student asking me explicitly or implicitly whether X [insert activity, feeling or belief] was the same in period Y [insert period, date] for Z [insert group,individual].  Interestingly, such questions surface less frequently from my sixth formers about nineteenth-century politics, for example, than from Year 7 about medieval castle garderobes, but they are just as valid.  How can we recapture what the French grandly call the mentalite of Pittite politics?  For historians, this  really wasn’t that long ago, but my contention is that it is just as hard to get into the ‘mindset’ of Whig and Tory politicians as it is to suggest some likely thought patterns of the faithful who donated towards, and physically laboured upon, Florence’s crowning dome.

Marcus Bull in his book Thinking Medieval coins the term alterity to suggest the sheer difference in the ways of past thinking.  However recognisably ‘similar’ we may think past actions and attitudes were to those of our own lifetimes and experiences, however many links and parallels we may try to draw between the past and our own times, we should constantly remind ourselves of that justly famous opening line from L P Hartley’s The Go-Between:  ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

Not that we shouldn’t die trying to reconstruct, reimagine and retranslate for ourselves and our students a few glimpses into the attitudes of Haig, or Florentine Renaissance architects,  or the women who protested on International Women’s Day about conditions in Petrograd.  And, in the effort, I’m struck by the array of exciting tools at our disposal as History teachers.  One of the first INSETs I ever attended was by Ian Coulson, then a History Adviser in Kent.  He produced a cantilevered toolbox which contained an array of realia, toys and paraphenalia  which helped enliven his lessons and explain points and principles.  It was a great idea then, and it still is now.    My metaphorical toolbox of techniques and ideas is slowly expanding as I look, learn, teach and steal.  Here are three quick random  thoughts about what’s on my mind at the moment as a Head of History:

  • Twitter works:  dozens of ideas daily, including many from inspirational English teacher colleagues.  Filters needed, of course.  ‘Select and deploy’ app needs to be in default ‘proceed with caution’ mode.
  • Drama works:  History students love sketches,plays and role plays, and I’ve observed some great examples recently among the sixth form, especially.  But time and effort need to go into the set up/script.
  • Big Ideas work:  when you have at least some pupils cleverer than you are at least some of the time, they need and can cope with -isms, -ologies and -ics.  As professional lesson attenders, willing or reluctant, they are pretty good at looking, learning and stealing themselves.  Oh, and they can teach, too, but more on that another time.

Alterity remains as the Mole Grips in my toolbox, the one piece of kit I wouldn’t want to be without.  From the Boboli Gardens you can see olive groves which must have been just as important to those who  lived and farmed there as the buildings in the distance which we regard as unmissable and iconic, and probably more so. Thinking medieval, or early modern, or nineteenth century, remains the best job in the world.  Just look at the fun and passion which Richard brings to it in his blog:


Richard, myself and many others  will be sharing thoughts, tips and expertise in  TeachMeet here in Bristol in May 2013.  Please sign up!



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