‘It’s like this big, black hole, Miss, that’s dragging everything into it.’ Year 9 consider the impact of World War I on Russia by playing with the idea of consequence ‘shapes’ 

This is one in a series of weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show how an article by Pennell (2014) inspired me to try and improve my teaching of World War I with Year 9.

The problem

It is an unfortunate truth that, far from being inspired by a seminal work of innovative educational literature,  a great many of my lessons are planned in response to the needs of the timetable.In a move from 45 minute to 1 hour lessons, our history department lost some teaching time at GCSE. This meant that we needed to rethink our Key Stage 3 curriculum, bringing more background information about GCSE topics into Year 9. It wasn’t a wholesale change or an artificial bolt-on of unconnected topics; it was a sensitive exercise in enriching some schemes of work with GCSE-type content, building in more overview studies, and delicately shaving off time from other topics.

One opportunity for such enrichment was to look at fighting on the Eastern front during World War I, and to consider the impact of the war on Russia. I use the word ‘opportunity’ deliberately. The teaching of the Great War is bursting with opportunities. As the editors of Teaching History have observed, ‘the content itself is vast and the possible narratives, macro and micro, are legion.’ I reflected that teaching Year 9 about the impact of World War I upon Russia offered several opportunities:

  1. It would provide helpful contextual knowledge to the study of Russia in Revolution at GCSE;
  2. It would allow pupils to compare (albeit at a surface level) the impact of war upon Britain and the impact upon Russia;
  3. It would provide a welcome contrast to the study of war fought on the Western front, consequently broadening pupils’ understanding of the history of World War I.

The third opportunity interested me the most. Since the 1990s, the study of the First World War at university level has assimilated new cultural, interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to the extent that study of the war today is almost unrecognisable from what it was after World War II. However, this transformation in historical scholarship does not appear to have reached very much beyond university confines. Pennell,  a senior lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, outlined a common view of World War I in a fairly recent (2014) article in Teaching History: 

…the Great War was a tragic disaster, fought mainly in the muddied, rat-lled and lice-ridden trenches of the Western Front, by young, innocent ‘Tommies’, led by imbecile generals… (p.34)

Pennell was quick to point out that ‘the limited parameters of British popular perceptions of the First World War cannot be explained, solely, by the way the subject is taught.’  I am also convinced that this does not reflect the work of many forward-thinking, scholarly historical departments who are astonishingly fast to respond to new scholarship, such as Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers.

On the other hand, the study into teaching about the war in secondary schools that formed the basis of Pennell’s article revealed that work still needs to be done. This AHRC-funded study into the way the First World War is taught in secondary schools via history and English literature in England was launched in 2013. Despite the small sample (4.6% of all history departments), and the fact that respondents to the survey were necessarily a self-selecting group and likely to include only particularly motivated teachers, the study makes for interesting reading.

There are many positives. For example, when teachers were asked to to outline the ways in which they stay on top of up-to-date research in their subjects, many teachers cited the work of ‘academics who have contributed to the ‘regeneration’ of First World War studies’. The use of this research in the classroom helps to ‘push understanding of the war beyond the traditional post-Second World War view of ‘mud, blood and poppycock’, and towards new cultural, interdisciplinary, comparative and transnational approaches.’

Other results from the study are less rosy. Pennell goes on to comment that:

“There is a significant possibility that those teachers who, for whatever reason, are not that committed to First World War history may fall back on traditional tropes and clichés in their teaching of the subject.” (p.38).

The study found that whilst 85% of history departments involved in the survey taught about life on the Western front, only 21% of history departments studied ‘other fronts’ (including the Eastern front).  What Pennell fails to mention is time, however. Who has time for multiple fronts when history is taught as part of a depressing monolith called ‘Humanities’, as it is in some schools? This is what most bothered me about Pennell’s article. Whilst it serves as a timely reminder of the diversity of World War I history, the assumption that departments are woefully ignorant and narrow-minded about the war is unfair. One could argue that ALL historical topics taught at secondary schools require updating and broadening. Yet there simply isn’t TIME. When it comes to Reformation Day on 31 October 2017, when we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther pinning his 95 theses to a church door, what then? Will history departments be villified for failing to teach their students about Zwingli and the impact of Protestantism on social ethics and pro-market attitudes?

That being said, in the same World War I focused edition of the journal Teaching History, Jerome Freeman, the Programme Director for the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, commented on the lamentable fact that many pupils visiting battlefield sites remain ‘bewildered, overloaded and still unacceptably ignorant about the war.’ Perhaps something does need to be done in some schools.

So what is to be done, other than wage war on SLT to gain more teaching ground? Pennell has an idea:

More needs to be done…to help the latest research on the First World War penetrate the classroom. The onus, to a greater extent, is on academic historians with the backing of their individual institutions. (p.40).

I thought this was an excellent idea: I took it, and I ran with it. As luck would have it, I am in contact with the lecturer at Nottingham University who supervised my dissertation on the Russian Revolution. Her name is Sarah Badcock, and she has written a book recently called  A Prison Without Walls? Eastern Siberian exile in the last years of Tsarism (Oxford University Press).  Most of my contact with Sarah involves ‘liking’ photos that she uploads about life in rural Russia on Facebook, however she rallied immediately to my cause of introducing my  students to life on the Eastern Front and provided me with a fantastic presentation on the topic, which is available here: russia-at-war-badcock

The lesson

I am aware that the content of this World War I lesson is more ‘run of the mill’ than innovative. All GCSE studies of the Russian Revolution include the war. However, I felt it was worth discussing in a blog post for two reasons. First, due to our decision to make it a Year 9 topic. Those students finishing their history career at 14 will now know something about another theatre of war. Second, it was a chance to work with an academic historian at the top of their game.

My plan was to introduce students to a short study of life for Russians on the Eastern front towards the very end of their study of the war (just before considering the causes for why World War I ended). Most students had already learnt about the Battle of Tannenburg on the Eastern Front in an overview lesson of the major battles that I had developed, and which is available here:

I then adapted Badcock’s presentation into a lesson that asked a simple enquiry question focussed upon historical consequence: ‘What was the impact of World War I on Russia?’ Whilst we could only skim the surface of Russia’s experience of war with such limited time, it was at least a beginning. My class and I were then in a position to compare the impact of war between Britain and Russia, bringing out the unique conditions for revolution that could be argued to have arisen from Russia’s experience of war (this may be a case of ‘retrospective wisdom’, however, as Badcock herself notes). Such a discussion would help prepare Year 9 for next year’s GCSE study of revolution.

Consequence: Causation’s forgotten sibling?

Helping pupils to make progress in their understanding of cause and consequence is a fundamental part of the history curriculum. Yet I nearly always concentrate on cause, and forget all about the happy ending (or unhappy aftermath). It appears that I am not alone. Michael Fordham presented a workshop on this issue at an Historical Association Conference in 2012, which was entitled “But have you not thought about the consequences?” Using causation’s forgotten sibling in the history classroom’. Fordham encouraged his attendees to consider consequence type, which at the time inspired me to help my students across all key stages to regularly reflect upon the type of impact of the events under study. For example, my Year 7s now grapple with different types of historical consequence very early on in their history career:

types-of-consequences-romans

For our study on the impact of war on Russia, I wanted to develop my students’ thinking further. Inspired by Fordham’s workshop, I devised a simple activity where I asked pupils to think about the shape of the impact of war upon Russia. For example, I asked them:

  •  Is it big or small? Why?
  • Is it wide or narrow? Why?
  • Is it thick or thin? Why?
  • Is it one big shape or lots of tiny interconnected shapes? Why?
  • Is it angular and spiky or soft and spongey? Why?
  • Are the outlines clearly defined or hazy? Why?
  • Is it symmetrical or uneven? Why?
  • What colour is the shape? Why?
  • Is it multi-dimensional or one-dimensional? Why?
  • Is it monstrous or mighty? Why? And so on…

Pupils were required to defend their ideas using historical evidence, to avoid an ‘I drew a sausage shape because I am hungry’ type of situation. They were asked to do this by annotating the shape. For my student Year 9 skeptics (who are legion), I modelled the type of thinking that I wanted by showing them the shape that I had created to illustrate the impact of World War I upon Britain. Here is my rather ghastly attempt (I am aware that this is extremely simplistic, but I decided that it was appropriate for my Year 9s as a springboard. I intend to update it with a more sophisticated version when I have time):

I didn’t think to record pupils’ responses to this lesson last time (although I do remember that they liked to give me regular status updates on their shapes), but I will this year and upload photos of them to this blog post.

The impact of Pennell on my teaching

What shape of impact did Pennell’s article have on me? It wasn’t huge, as my time for transnational approaches to the war is small, but it certainly left a small and indelible footprint. I decided it was a footprint because feet are longer than hands, and Pennell had helped me to widen my teaching of World War I to include other fronts and perspectives. It was definitely a fuzzy footprint (such as those my daughter regularly creates at nursery), as my opportunity to explore other fronts and other war legacies is limited by time.

The footprint is also uneven, just as my own feet are (the asymmetry of my toes is not one of my best features). It is uneven because it isn’t neat and complete. My reshaping of my World War I teaching will need continual refinement as new research arrives from the ivory towers. But so will all my other teaching. That’s what makes our subject so wonderful and so terrible: the job is never done.

Download my resources:

Main Reference: Pennell, C.(2014) ‘On the frontlines of teaching the history of the First World War’ in in Teaching History, 155: First World War Edition, pp.34-40.

Other References:

‘Editorial’ in Teaching History, 155, First World War Edition, p.2

Fordham, M. (2012) ‘”But have you not thought about the consequences?” Using causation’s forgotten sibling in the history classroom’, Historical Association Conference.

For an excellent lecture on Russia and the First World War, visit:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s