1. Why has the Department of History decided to introduce the third-year module History Education?
The idea for History Education arose from two coincidental events in mid-January 2011. A message landed in my inbox calling for applications for Faculty of Arts and Humanities ‘Think Space’ funding for curriculum-development projects to enhance student employability. Earlier the same day I had seen media coverage of league tables ranking secondary schools by the number of students gaining GCSE passes at A*–C in English, maths, two sciences, a classical or modern foreign language, and either geography or history. With this new EBacc (English Baccalaureate) measure of performance raising the profile of history in schools, the ‘Think Space’ scheme seemed an ideally timed opportunity to consider a new initiative to help some of our students enter careers in history education. Having close links with the Historical Association (the subject association for history at primary and secondary level) as past president of the local branch in Reading and a current member of the HA Council, I was also keen to offer some practical support for history in schools. I knew that the university’s Chemistry Department already offered its students credit-bearing placements in local schools. I wanted the History Department to do this too, ahead of any similar moves within BA History programmes at competitor universities in the south of England.
2. You are a Medievalist, specialising, among other topics, in Anglo-Irish relations in the fifteenth century. Why were you asked to convene History Education for the department?
This arose directly out of my report on the ‘Think-Space’ project in July 2011. I felt it would be interesting to develop a module that was significantly different not only from my own area of interest but also from most modules offered by the department—with the exception of Historical Themes in Practice (HS2TPH), convened by medievalist colleague Professor Lindy Grant. This second-year module was planning to introduce real group placements alongside simulated group projects in the museum and heritage sectors from Spring 2012. Getting the new, 20-credit, third-year History Education module up and running in time for 2012–13 was quite a challenge. Achieving this would not have been possible without the support and encouragement I received from colleagues in History, Chemistry, the Institute of Education and SEECC (now the Careers, Placement and Experience Centre). Equally vital was the much appreciated offer of placements by eight local schools.
3. Tell me about the academic content of the module. What are the aims of the module and what are students expected to do to fulfil its requirements?
Overall, the module aims to increase choice and enhance personal career-development opportunities for students within the Part 3 History degree programme. One more specific aim is to enable students to test and develop their interest in teaching careers by applying their skills and communicating their knowledge of history in local schools. Another is to give students a chance to gain, and reflect on, the practical work experience vital for successful applications for postgraduate teacher training. After pre-placement training (delivered jointly with the Institute of Education), History Education students spend two full weeks in summer or early autumn in a local secondary school. They observe a wide range of different lessons, mainly though not necessarily exclusively in history, from a variety of observational foci. The student’s observation timetable is put together by a mentor on the school’s history staff who also gives the student support and feedback on placement. Students independently research and plan a lesson for a specific class for shared delivery with their mentor. Assessment in the Autumn Term of their Part 3 year is partly by the mentor’s report of performance on placement and a post-placement oral presentation by the student at the university, but more weighting is given to two pieces of written coursework—a reflective placement log and a report on the independently planned lesson.
4. Can any students in the Department of History take this module and what sorts of students do you think will be best suited to taking it?
With places limited by the number of placements offered by our partner schools, students are selected for the module by CV, letter of application and interview. We look for students who have a keen interest in teaching and some aptitudes for this, but are not necessarily certain at this stage that education is the right career choice for them. Observing lessons and trying out their teaching skills gave the first cohort of students on the module a good understanding of what it would be like to be a history teacher. It allowed them to make an informed decision that yes, it was a suitable career for them, or no, it wasn’t. Meanwhile, the varied skills they developed were transferable, so valuable, whatever their career choice.
5. Current from this academic year (2012-13), the module is now recruiting again for 2013-14. How much interest has it attracted from students?
We have had plenty of interest. As in 2012, we emailed the invitation to apply for the module to all second-year History students. This year the message included a link to the short piece I posted about History Education on the History Department blog last summer, when the first cohort of students attended their pre-placement seminars and began going out on placement. For 2013, we have had almost double the previous number of applications. Fortunately, schools have offered more placements too.
6. Skills training and development and enquiry-based learning are so important for our students in this difficult economic climate. What particular set of skills does the module train our students in and help them develop?
The module aims to develop a fuller understanding of the primary and secondary school system, of the place and content of the history curriculum in schools, and of the needs of individual pupils. The demands of the school environment develop adaptability, tact and quick-thinking. IT skills are extended through using online resources and different presentational technologies. The module further develops a range of other presentational, organisational, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, transferable to a wide variety of types of employment besides teaching.
7. A lot of universities are encouraging ‘placement’ modules, so it’s great to see the Department of History in the forefront here. What are the assessable learning outcomes of the module?
By the end of the module students are expected to be able to identify and evaluate critically a range of different teaching approaches and methods suitable for the delivery of the history curriculum at secondary level. They are expected to be able to select and adapt some of these for their lesson plan, also research and adapt subject-specific knowledge, design supporting presentational materials, and reflect critically on the outcome. They are further expected to be able to explain what they have learned from their placement in a ten-minute oral presentation and respond effectively to examiners’ questions.
8. It’s really important that our University and our School provide a wide variety of work and placement opportunities. How does this module fit into that wider picture?
It’s just one of a wide range of undergraduate work and placement opportunities within the School of Humanities, such as, for example, the highly successful Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme Scheme. Our students also go into local schools through the university’s well established Student Tutoring Scheme, but these two-hour, weekly placements are not subject specific. History students have not been able to access the subject-specific placements offered nationally through the School Experience Programme and Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme. Both focus on other subject areas such as maths, science and foreign languages. The History Education module was a way of filling that gap.
9. ‘Employability’ has become even more important these days and training students for engagement with employees and partnerships within the workplace is crucial. What personal career-development possibilities can be developed through this module?
On this module, the selection process itself gives all students who apply personal career-development experience, and we offer feedback to those not given a place. For those who are, the History Education placement experience will enhance their CVs, strengthening their applications for a wide variety of future employment options, especially those relating to work with young people, or requiring presentational and interpersonal skills in other fields. The 2012 History Education students who decided to apply for postgraduate teacher training found that the knowledge, experiences, reflective skills and professional contacts they had gained were a real help—especially in what proved to be a more than usually difficult year, with an unexpected reduction of PGCE places and the launch of new School Direct training route.
10. Some critics might say that such a module ‘dumbs down’ the study of History since it is more practical rather than academically-based and is an alternative to perhaps more traditional methods of study. How would you answer those critics and how have you ensured that the module is a rigorous academic qualification?
On this module students are not studying history in the same way as they would on other third-year optional modules. But History Education is rigorous and academically challenging in other ways. The professionalism and teamwork expected of the students in dealing with pupils and staff in a new environment on placement is demanding in itself. Analysing observed lessons in respect of classroom management, literacy or differentiation, for example, is an unfamiliar task. In researching and formulating a rationale for their lesson plan, students are expected to get to grips with pedagogic literature. The reflective writing required in the coursework is different from essay writing and not necessarily easier. The students who took the module in 2012 found it testing—but also exciting and rewarding. Those who applied successfully for teacher-training places are, of course, particularly delighted.