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History

Making History

Daniel Guiney
Daniel Guiney (1 post) History Teacher View Profile

Most people won't read beyond the first 650 words of an Internet article. Including this one, which is all about extended writing in History. Oh, the irony!

Twenty-four words in and you're still here though. Great. But don't sweat it if you are ready to move on, I don't blame you. After all, we live in a digital age when information comes at us from all directions, in such numbers, and at such speeds that brevity is commonplace. 

Think clickbait.

Think tweets. 

Think 23 billion global SMS messages each day. 

So why write essays when you could be scrolling down, swiping left, or skipping ads? It can certainly sometimes feel that the skills of old-fashioned extended writing in History are of ever-diminishing importance.

But to think so would be a great mistake.

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Examination boards all ultimately assess History students on their ability to produce at least one longer written account and mastering the mechanics of a good essay is of course crucial to examination success; 90%+ of the young Historians at NAIS Pudong habitually achieve A*-A grades at IGCSE.

Even more importantly, however, extended written work really is intrinsic to the very building blocks of the society we live in. A bit grandiose? I don't think so. History in its extended written form teaches young people to structure, to analyse, and to support a breadth of intelligent viewpoints on important issues. Imagine what a playground/workplace/parliament would be like with more individuals who could master this particular toolkit of skills? Yes, a lofty goal but one that's fundamental in these increasingly polarised times. Encouraging thoughtful, articulate young people who can participate in intellectual discussion and reasoned argument seems a worthy cause to me and it is what we aim to achieve in our road map through History.

Yet, if we are to believe the old Malcolm Gladwell adage, mastery of any given discipline takes 10,000 hours to achieve. Most History teachers will get around 130-200 hours with their examination classes - a bit of a shortfall I'm sure you'd agree. Moreover, the seemingly ever-increasing knowledge bases required by examining bodies means teachers often struggle to get through syllabus content and ultimately opt to cover every event and date as their primary goal. This in turn can lead to thinner coverage of writing skills - which is dangerous. 

It is for these reasons that employing a formulaic writing structure has a crucial place in the History classroom and there will be many teachers and parents out there familiar with similar techniques. To PEA (point, evidence, and analyse) or not to PEA? That is the question. There are those like Mark Wiley who will argue that it can limit a student's freedom to express themselves, particularly amongst the most able students. And he’s right, in part. Most students do benefit from a bit of scaffolding, however.  I always use the instructions in an IKEA manual, but I'm sure my father, a carpenter, would not. The same principal applies to formulaic writing in History. This approach is coupled with students being given access to regular additional writing opportunities including the Julia Wood Prize and the Historical Fiction competition. As such our students’ written development across their NAIS career measurably shows phenomenal progress in depth, conceptuality, and critical thinking skills.

I hope that the infogram below can add something to the body of fine work which already exists out there. I especially recommend looking at the Jane Schaeffer method even if you’re not a History teacher. Using techniques like this helps us to continue to deliver outstanding academic results whilst creating thoughtful, reflective and knowledgeable young adults.

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Grace, a member of our History Bee and Bowl after school club, recently won a certificate of commendation from the Historical Association for her exemplary essay on the First World War and such achievements are the culmination of a graduated approach to History essay writing skills across the Key Stages.

Ok, that’s my 650 words. Check.

The more our young people are encouraged to write and to think and the greater depth in which they do so the greater will be the benefit to the world we all live in.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Anyone can make History … only a genius can write it.”