Why do my students confuse the Berlin Blockade with the construction of the Berlin Wall?
Actually I think a more useful question to ask is why I, as a teacher, don’t confuse the two. Of course it helps that my knowledge of history ensures the word ‘blockade’ means more to me than simply a barrier. More significantly I’m not capable of confusing the two because I know each is rooted in a different set of complex events. I know that the wall was built to solve Khrushchev’s problems due to refugees and mounting tension with Kennedy, especially after the U2 spy plane incident. For me that can’t possibly be confused with Stalin’s blockade to outmanoeuvre the other Allies at a time when Germany had not yet even been formally divided into GDR and FDR.
Appreciating this helped me explain why our Edexcel International GCSE students performed relatively poorly on their Paper 1 last summer. This paper has a brief chronology question. Students simply have to put events in order. They are then asked one effect of an event on superpower relations and the causes of another event from the course.
Our students followed the general trend on this paper, scoring worst on the first simple question that only required them to put events in order. I felt this widespread failure in an ostensibly easy task was indicative of a deeper problem. I began to wonder if our students did not have a decent sense of the flow of events and the complex interrelationship between those events. They had learnt and revised each event in isolation but they had a weak grasp of ‘the story’ – they could not draw upon an internalised narrative to put events in order. This would also explain why they struggled to come up with causes and effects of events named in exam questions unless they were obvious ones which had been identified in advance by the teacher and specifically taught.
To check if my suspicions had some foundation in late September I set this task to the new Year 11 who had nearly completed the Superpowers topic.
- I listed a series of events on a page with an empty box between each event.
- I asked the class to use the blank boxes to explain how the previous event led to the next on the list.
My goodness they hated this task! It was interesting just how much they struggled, even with a textbook available to fill in those blanks. Sometimes they had learnt some causes of named events but not necessarily the necessary details to link that event back to the previous one listed on the sheet. Even when they had vague notions they found it really hard to articulate these into a causal explanation.
This was fascinating (but also more than a tad depressing). Perhaps I had just done a bad job with my teaching but I suspect many GCSE students would find this task hard. I would argue this is because in our teaching too often we downplay narrative in favour of emphasising analysis and this is counterproductive. If you teach a class the causes of an event they learn ‘some analysis’. They are not equipped ‘to analyse’ those events. In the exam my students struggled with some questions because it was impossible to revise developed explanations in advance for the vast range of possible cause and effect questions that could come up. To be able to nail the ‘events in order’ question and cope with any named cause or effect would require students to have a grasp of the complex web of events for themselves. Such a student could spontaneously think of causes and effects of events even if these had not been specifically identified in advance by the teacher. I am not saying it is wrong for a teacher to identify causes for students but that we must be aware that they are not practising ‘analysis’ when they regurgitate this shopping list of factors, even if they have a decent understanding of what they are writing about. Of course, I had referenced more complex causes as I explained each event to my students – I had never thought that was unimportant. However, I had to admit to myself that I had not been as successful as I had previously thought!
Since that epiphany I have made a number of further adjustments to my teaching with my current Year 10:
- I have realised that students struggle to realise just how one event leads to another when events are taught in a confusing order. (Many of my students were actually unaware that the textbook does not explain the events in order. This discovery was a bit of a shock to me!) For example, the students needed to appreciate how the ongoing take-over of Eastern Europe by Stalin influenced Churchill in 1946 when he wrote his Iron Curtain speech but that takeover then continued, explaining the Truman Doctrine and the decision to send Marshall Aid. However, although my class did know what the ‘Iron Curtain’ was referring to, the students had been taught the ‘The Soviet Takeover of Eastern Europe’ as a discrete topic after the Marshall Plan (following the format of the board textbook). This year, with my year 10, I have changed this and taught the unfolding story. It has been tricky to plan but worth it.
- I have paused at the end of key events in 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949 and taken time to set a proper written question about reasons for growing tension that requires students to draw upon all the events so far. I did, sort of, do this before but it has become central.
- I have set starters at least once a week in which the students have to put events into order that they have studied so far. When we go over these I have pushed students to explain back to me (where relevant) why it makes sense for one identified event to follow the previous one on the list.
On Wednesday my Year 10 had a whole class debate and I was chuffed. I felt that there was evidence of much better ongoing acquisition of knowledge than in previous years. There was much more confident use of events to justify arguments, even in the heat of discussion. I will be curious to see how this class perform in their summer exam. I currently think they are shaping up nicely!
I don’t think I taught the Superpowers topic badly in past. Rather I think this topic, by being particularly problematic, highlights a common weakness in history teaching. How well do we help students to build a complex narrative rather than just helping them learn some causal explanations?