The 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (think social contract theory and impressive Roman nose) once wrote that ‘curiosity is the lust of the mind.’ Lust speaks of desire and I have always found that the best learners, irrespective of ability, are those who are naturally desirous to know and understand more than they do already – and those who are naturally curious enough to actively do so.
I try and keep this somewhat grandiose thought in mind whenever I have the following conversation with one or more of my Key Stage 3 or 4 pupils. The conversation usually runs thus:
Me: “Can you remember what the word history means?”
Pupil: “History is the study of the past.”
Me: “Yes, it is. That’s certainly one of the things it is. But I didn’t ask you what history is. I asked you if you can remember what the word history means.”
Me: “Any more thoughts?”
Pupil: *Incurious silence*
It’s all Greek to me…it really is
So, I remind them what the word history means. For those of you whose knowledge of Ancient Greek is as indifferent as mine, the English word history ultimately derives, via Latin, from the Ancient Greek word ἱστορία (historía) meaning ‘inquiry’.
The word does have other meanings, but when there’s a double lesson with ‘that’ class (we’ve all got one, they’re generally Year 9) to get through on a hot Friday afternoon, it doesn’t do to overcomplicate matters.
Although I have a passing interest in etymology, I’m more interested by the fact that, in this etymological context, history is a verb and not a noun. In other words, history is a doing word – the study of the human past is something which is actively done. And I’m a great believer that if something is worth doing (and studying the past certainly is), it is worth doing well.
I match this with the fact that most children, certainly when they start secondary school, are naturally quite curious (the same may not be said when they finish). This being so, I try and tailor some or all of my history lessons towards letting my pupils explore the past through the medium of their curiosity.
Above all, I tell them that to be a good student in general and a good history student in particular, it pays to be curious – as curious as a cat.
So, why did King Henry VI ban kissing in 1439?
Every good teacher knows the importance of trying to capture their pupils’ natural curiosity and harnessing it as a vehicle for learning, but how many of us actively plan for it on a weekly basis? Like all good history teachers I usually start (most) of my lessons and (almost) always my schemes of learning with an over-arching, historical inquiry question.
Sometimes these inquiry questions are in lieu of a learning objective, sometimes they are not. Either way, I do so in order to capture my pupils’ imagination and to draw them into the subject.
For example, when teaching a lesson on the consequences of the Black Death (there were many), I always start the lesson with the question: Why did King Henry VI ban kissing in 1439?
To a bright Year 7 class the prospect of discussing why a mad king (the last of the Lancastrian kings suffered from prolonged periods of insanity) didn’t want his subjects to kiss each other is a far more engaging way for 11 and 12 year olds to explore what daily life was like for a peasant in 14th century England than if I had asked them to write, ‘What were the socio-economic consequences of the Black Death?’ at the top of the next blank page in their exercise books. I would have lost them at the first hurdle.
Killing Bloom’s taxonomy with two bullets
I don’t like Bloom’s taxonomy – I never have done. I was force-fed a pedagogical diet of it in my teacher training year and the taste has stuck in my mouth ever since. While I accept the need for some kind of structured categorisation of cognitive and metacognitive thinking-skills, I strongly believe that, as a profession, we teachers place far too high a premium on the sanctity of Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy.
Also, Bloom’s taxonomy has not aged well with the passage of time since its first appearance in the 1940s and 1950s. Those of us who completed our teacher training more recently than some of our older colleagues will know that Bloom’s model was subsequently revised by other American educationalists into its current incarnation.
One of the key revisions was to re-order the higher-order thinking skills. At the very top of the pedagogical pyramid sits the skill of creating. Somewhere towards the bottom sits the skill of understanding. This structure lends itself very well to inherently creative curriculum subjects such as art, music and drama but it lends itself far less well, I feel, to the academic study of the past.
One of my professional hobbyhorses is cross-curricular learning – I’m a great believer in the value of it. I was recently talking to a maths teacher who agreed with me that understanding is far more of a higher-order thinking skill in our respective subjects than the feted pyramid allows.
Take the First World War for example. The underlying, long-term causes of the First World War are as numerous as they are complex. Europe was plunged into total war in 1914 in no small part because of a tangled web of political, diplomatic and military alliances between numerous nations, some of which dated back to the mid-19th century.
Most of my pupils are capable of creating colourful A4 mind-maps on the causes of the First World War but for a Key Stage 5 pupil, let alone a Key Stage 3 pupil, to genuinely understand the significance of the link between Britain declaring war on Germany on the 4th August 1914 and a diplomatic treaty signed two years after the accession Queen Victoria (the Treaty of London in 1839), would be for them to show real mastery of this subject.
I find with the First World War, as with the majority of historical topics, the more curious a pupil is, the more likely they are to have that lightbulb moment. When a pupil tells me ‘now I get it sir’ and I know they mean it, I am immensely satisfied.
As with the Black Death with Year 7, I use an inquiry question to explore the causes of the First World War with Year 9, again to try and capture their curiosity (never any easy task with this year group).
I begin the first lesson with the question: ‘How did two bullets cause nearly 20 million deaths?’ Most readers will know the two bullets in question were fired by the Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, killing the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary, his wife the Archduchess Sophie (it was their 14th wedding anniversary) and along with them the prospect of peace in central Europe.
This fateful event sparked the July Crises which led to the outbreak of war a month later. By the end of the First World War in November 1918, nearly 20 million people had been killed or wounded (even 100 years later, the exact number is still unknown).
If a 13 or 14-year-old is not curious as to how and why these two bullets caused the deaths of so many human beings, then it’s a safe bet to say they’re probably not curious about much at all.
In order to really understand something – whether the origins of the First World War or why the sky is blue – it immeasurably helps if you’re genuinely curious about it in the first place. Perhaps the thing I dislike most about Bloom’s taxonomy, both the revised and un-revised versions of it, is that it does not lend itself to curiosity. Pedagogy is all the poorer for it.
So, whatever subject you teach and to whatever year groups, please try and allow for curiosity in your lessons. Where curiosity in the classroom leads, your pupils’ enjoyment of learning will follow… perhaps.
King Henry VI tried to ban his subjects from kissing in July 1439 in a futile attempt to try and prevent the spread of the plague in England. More specifically, Henry tried to ban it so that his knights didn’t kiss him when performing an act of homage to him, thus apparently reducing the chance of the king and his courtiers catching the plague. Like the vast majority of attempts by successive governments throughout history to try and control human nature (the Roman emperor Tiberius tried the same thing in the 1st century AD), the law simply didn’t work.