I was once privileged to witness the most marvellous history lesson…taught by a drama teacher.
It was in a comprehensive school. The students, a mixed class of girls and boys, were taking GCSE History, and the theme was England in the 17th century. The ‘teacher’ was Dorothy Heathcote, the eminent and inspirational drama education specialist. (For those who have never heard of her, do read this http://www.mantleoftheexpert.com/community/about-us/dorothy-heathcote/.)
One of the things Dorothy used to say was that the most powerful word in education is the word ‘might’. Ask a child “what IS the answer to this?” pre-supposes there is a single ‘right’ answer. It’s a closed question. But ask “what MIGHT be the answer to this?”, then you open up the possibilities, the curiosity, the imagination.
The environment was a standard classroom, with melamine tables and plastic chairs.
The session started with Dorothy hanging three large blank sheets of paper on the wall. On the top of one she wrote: ‘I know this about the 17th century’. On the second she wrote ‘I think I know this about the 17th century’. On the third she wrote ‘I’d like to know this about the 17th century’.
She then asked the students to fill out each paper. Not a great deal went on the first one. A bit more went on the second one. A quite a bit more on the third one.
Dorothy then quickly went through each one, checking to see if there was any more to be added.
She then asked the students to get into groups of two or three, and gave each group a set of photocopied sheets of paper. They were taken from one of those guides to antique furniture, and contained images and information about 17th century tables and chairs
Dorothy asked each group to look at the images and read the information, and then to select one – either a table or chair.
She then announced that from that moment on the classroom was now Heathcote’s Expert Antique Restoration Workshop. The students were now all experts at restoring antique furniture, and she was in charge. She then, pointing to the classroom tables and chairs, asked the workers to start restoring the piece of furniture they had selected.
Notwithstanding a bit of embarrassed bewilderment, the students started to ‘work’ on their chosen item: inspecting it, discussing what might be wrong with it, what needed repairing, starting to repair it, etc.
Dorothy walked round inspecting the work, and would ask questions. A typical exchange would be as follows:
Dorothy: What have you got there?
Student: It’s an oak dining chair, Miss.
D: Where’s it from?
S: Something Hall, Miss. I think it’s one of those big houses. [they’d read that on the sheet]
D: What’s wrong with it?
S: Er…it’s got a big split. [that wasn’t on the sheet]
D: Any idea how that split might have occurred?
S: Not sure, Miss. But there’s some scorch marks around the split, so we reckon it was in a fire and perhaps got chucked out of a window. [definitely not on the sheet!]
D: And how do you reckon that might have happened?
And you could see the students’ imagination switch into gear, and out came stories about corridors, and candles, and late night trysts, and a chase, and a dropped candle, and the panic, and the servants being woken up and being ordered to save the furniture, and the chair being thrown out of a high window….
Each group created and shared its own story, using what they knew, what they thought they knew, and what they imagined. And slowly but surely, a real sense of 17th century life began to be created and understood.
After a short break, the session re-started. Now two new characters were introduced along with a set of typical everyday ’17th century’ artifacts e.g: a ring, a quill and ink, a bell, a hand written letter, a pamphlet, etc. The characters – played by actors – were the lady of the house, and a male servant. Each sat at each end of the room, and the students – moving between the two – could ask them questions about their lives, and about the various artifacts which they could touch and examine, each of which had a story attached to it.
As in the first session, layer upon layer of knowledge and understanding gradually was created.
At the end of the session, Dorothy returned to the three sheets of paper, and once more asked the students to fill them in. This time round, what had been the sparsely filled ‘I know this…’ sheet was now filled – confidently and, in some cases, passionately – with information.
The obvious lesson, from this history lesson, was that it’s our natural curiosity about people, our ability to imagination the world through a different pair of eyes, and our love of stories, that powers our understanding of history. Facts and chronologies, of themselves, do not an understanding of history make. But engendering curiosity, imagination and, indeed, passion, might well encourage the pursuit of the factual.