Getting students thinking again

An interesting post by John Taylor on the Guardian teacher network this week on the need to stop ‘teaching to the test’ and focus on developing pupils’ critical thinking skills.  As a philosophy teacher, he refers to the Socratic method of rigorous but non-dogmatic questioning, which aimed to show students ‘that they didn’t know what they thought they did and to goad them into critically examining their ideas for themselves’.

He helpfully points out the false antithesis between teaching ‘information’, the content knowledge required for exams, and teaching the skill of critical thinking.  It’s the skill that allows students to develop and then demonstrate the ‘real depth of understanding’ that impresses examiners (not to mention employers).  It can also be developed in any subject.  The debate is one that has particular relevance for history given the dissonance that has emerged between curriculum aims around developing ‘critically sharpened intelligence with which to make sense of current affairs’ and the ‘arrangements and systems for delivering them’ (see Haydn in White, 2004).  The knowledge vs skills debate is a costly distraction, if not diversion.  “Mass of content” and “dislocated skills” approaches are both inimical to critical thinking.

Maybe it is to do with assessment methods, which can more easily capture the completion of routine tasks than the complexity of real intellectual engagement and the wide differentiation in answers that result.  There are also more cynical perspectives that argue governments have an interest in the kind of citizens their education systems produce.  The lack of a proper public debate about history and history “in public” probably contributes.  We shouldn’t be satisfied as historians and teachers with the occasional  tendentious exchanges in the press about the state of school history and historical knowledge.  Maybe this is where we are feeling the lack of a strong public history field in the UK – a community of professionals who can lead an informed and ambitious debate about the role and purpose of history individually and collectively?

Postscript: Sam Wineburg’s Historical thinking and other unnatural acts is a good read on this topic (a hybrid like Prof. Wineburg of educational psychology and history)

Complementarity between disciplines 2: policy advice

In the domain of public policy advice, the case for an approach based on the complementarity of disciplines and professions should be a strong one.  Only very few policy problems lie within the domain of one community, as Macrae and Whittington emphasise in their work on Expert Advice for Policy Choice.  Cooperation and division of labour – involving reading each other’s literature, contributing jointly to technical debates and working together on projects – should be good practice in marshalling expertise, which can then be fed into an iterative process of formulating and assessing policy alternatives.

Economists, statisticians and social researchers have established specialist pathways in the civil service, suggesting that the range of professional inputs into policy development is rather limited.  Admittedly, it emerges that Macrae and Whittington have the quantitatively-oriented disciplines in mind, and so the structure would fit with their model in that sense.  However, the book does raise the question as to whether a broader and more genuinely interdisciplinary approach would be to the benefit of our public policy.

To give just one example, political mapping and scenario development would be greatly enhanced by a historical mindset.  In essence, they’re describing a version of Neustadt and May‘s “placement“: the development of a contextualised understanding of actors (both individuals and organisations) to enable their later positions and actions to be anticipated in a more informed and nuanced way.

There is much to be taken from the Macrae/Whittington book in terms of challenging the inclinations of the “basic disciplines” to regard “user” values and priorities as of less relevance or importance than those of their own communities.  The call for responsiveness and collaboration in addressing the questions posed by policymakers is well-made.  But there is much more to be done to convince not only policymakers, but also the specialist groups that currently have a privileged position with regards to policy advice, that historians have an important, complementary contribution to make.

History ventures: skills vs knowledge in the public history marketplace

“The skills of doing history are more frequently used, needed, and recompensed than the expertise of knowing history”

This is Darlene Roth, writing in the NCPH’s Public History News.  Roth goes on to talk about the successful model of ‘developmental history’ work her consultancy The History Group undertook for planners, developers and government agencies.  She also refers to corporate histories and museum curation.  These examples open our eyes to the range of tasks and projects that can done well – or best – by historians, whether academics working ‘across borders’ or the historically-trained working in professional contexts.

But for me it also suggests the need to open our minds.  Can we articulate clearly what ‘the skills of doing history’ are and be creative in identifying tasks that are not necessarily explicitly historical in character but would be done well – or best – by historians?  There are fields where there is often a ‘history gap’, such as in policy development, marketing or organisational strategy, but these should not constitute the limits of our imagination.

Working this out is not just a self-serving exercise.  Humanities applications for the first year of the new funding system are down in many institutions.  It’s too early to say whether concerns about employability in the context of higher debt are a major factor, but it’s a strong possibility – particularly for certain student groups – that we need to consider (league tables of salaries are rather unhelpful here).  More needs to be done to ensure prospective students and their parents understand the student finance system, but  universities have a role too, and not just their recruitment and marketing departments.  Open days and school visits are important opportunities for university staff to meet students and parents and discuss what studying a particular subject at a particular institution is like.  If, as historians, we can share with them the many ways in which the skills of doing history can be meaningfully and usefully applied in the world of work, and our commitment to helping students develop those skills, we can start to counteract the belief that a humanities degree ‘just equips them for standing in the dole queue’ (as one Tweeter said to me recently).

Students come to university for many reasons.  To further their job prospects may only be one reason, but it’s a legitimate one, and one with which we need to engage.  We shouldn’t give in to the cynicism that divides knowledge and skills and denigrates the latter as empty, instrumental or devalued.  Nor should we section off ’employability skills’ in the curriculum; by teaching students to be historians, we are developing skills needed for work – we just need to bring awareness of that connection to the surface (see my earlier Parallel Tracks blog post).  I hope the emerging field of public history can provide a context to help us frame the terms of the debate rather differently.

Roth goes on:

I am saying that it pays to look at how you do what you do as a historian, and how you think as a historian, and follow those routes to marketability, not just the standard one of equating historical knowledge as the thing being sold.  Ergo: “I am an entrepreneur, and history is my product” becomes “I am an entrepreneur and history is the source of my products”… If history is the answer, what is the question?  Who needs it and why?

We may prefer a somewhat different language in this country, but I think we can take on the idea of entrepreneurship and interpret it for our own context.  Can we be entrepreneurs for the discipline, for the practice of history, but also for our students so that they can see history as their future?

Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

Updated: I enjoyed speaking today about the Wilson Review alongside Trudy Norris-Grey at the Westminster Briefing event on graduate employability.  One interesting question from the floor followed up on Trudy’s comments about the mismatch between the skills developed by students at university and those needed by employers.  What did she think higher education was for?  By way of explanation, the questioner suggested that universities were trying to do many different things at the same time, and that maybe the development of employability skills and intellectual capacity were two such parallel tracks.  (I don’t quote her exactly but hope I have captured the essence of her contribution.)

I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that is often raised in discussions about the role and purpose of higher education as preparation for the world of work.  But can we see employability and intellectual capacities as overlapping domains rather than parallel tracks?  I’m interested both from a research and from a teaching and learning perspective in the skills and cognitive capabilities history students learn through their academic training.  Is it the case that those skills and capabilities are separate from, and therefore need to be supplemented by, employability training?  Or is it that it’s difficult to recognise and articulate the ways in which they have value and applicability in both academic and work-related contexts?

It may be that a mix of both is required, but I wonder if we do enough to help students really engage with the processes of academic training and the implications for their future careers.  Can we ourselves explain well what that training is equipping them to do, whether it’s history, philosophy, life sciences or economics?  I put down these initial reflections in one of the ‘thinkpieces‘ we wrote as a way of getting going on the Wilson Review.  I hope that the spirit of trying to see past potential dividing lines (such as between employability and academic training) came through in the final report.

Policy advice in higher education: a historical pathway?

At university, I remember being faintly jealous of fellow students who had a clear sense of the path ahead (a medic and a lawyer being among my housemates).  Even if they weren’t sure of where they’d specialise, they knew there was a thing called medicine or law, and that they’d find their places in time.

It’s far less easy as a student to identify a ‘thing’ called history outside the confines of study, much less imagine all other other things that touch on, connect with or are enlivened by history.  (I hope to help my students do such imagining but that’s for another post).  So like a lot of graduates, it took me some time to find a path I wanted to follow, which mainly involved taking opportunities as they arose.

Policy advisers have been around for a long time in different guises but are relatively new in universities.  As a result, I wonder if they attract those, like me, who didn’t have a ‘thing’ but rather fell into the role with a commitment to higher education and a bundle of skills, experience and interests we hoped would be of use.  Many universities now have someone in a policy-related role and it’s great that a network has now been formed under the auspices of Universities UK to allow the members of a new profession to connect.  (I try to resist the term ‘wonks’ as embraced by Mark Leach of Wonk-HE in the Times Higher but have unfortunately failed to come up with a neat and catchy substitute as yet).

Maybe as roles develop and become established in university structures and advisers gain some profile in their own right, students will be able to identify them as part of a new career path, a new ‘thing’ to work towards.  Placements and internships can play an important role here but there’s also some advocacy to be done here.  Occupying as I do a strange world between the professional and the academic domains, I hope to be a double agent: exposing students to policy work as something that’ll make good use of their historian’s skills and then bringing them into my team for some practical experience.

In a 1984 Public Historian article, Avner Offer calls on historians to ‘stimulate demand; supply will then take care of itself’.  Policy advisers (wonks, historians or otherwise) could usefully adopt the same mantra.  Stimulate demand, from students, from universities, from government and stakeholder organisations, and we too will have a clear path ahead, and a ‘thing’.