“Why study history? It’s all in the past!”
“Geography is just colouring in!”
My humanities office can’t be the only one that has got used to hearing these tired old jokes. But the two disciplines have far more in common than they sometimes like to admit.
Over the past six years as a history teacher, I've taught a variety of topics that have required students to engage with both physical and human geography: Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the importance of trade to the British Empire; the Spanish Armada; and the French Revolutions.
Background: Memory: how trips boost recall
I make these lessons as engaging as possible, with excellent recreations (starring myself in the leading role), but there are undoubtedly limitations; a fake French accent and Napoleonic hat are no substitute for actually being there. Some students struggle to imagine the environment that you are attempting to recreate, and it goes without saying that is beyond the means of the vast majority of schools to visit these locations.
But that isn’t the case when studying local history. Giving students an opportunity to engage with the physical features of an environment they are familiar with – to see how it has changed history, and been changed by history – can really bring the humanities to life. So that’s what my students and I did, from a vantage point of 135 metres above London on the London Eye, local to my school in Beckenham, South London.
The London Eye offers a multidisciplinary educational experience that’s incredibly valuable to all humanities students. I watched 30 of my Year 9 students enthusiastically create their own birds-eye map of significant places such as Pudding Lane, where the Fire of London broke out. We revisited topics that they had focused on in the key stage 3 syllabus of the last two years; mapping the journey of Wat Tyler and his followers during the Peasants' Revolt and researching the scale and impact of the Blitz on London.
We prepared in lessons beforehand, enabling them to compare the skyline of London from a chosen time in history – such as the spires of Tudor London and the sprawling flea market of 16th-century London Bridge – with the gleaming, modern metropolis of London in 2019. Students worked out which buildings remained, those that were new and those that were long gone.
They were enthused by the subsequent discussion, based around key questions in their learning packs, regarding those that no longer stood and the motivation for the creation of new buildings. The fact that these discussions took place while gazing across at the city gave the conversations an excitement and vibrancy that is difficult to recreate in a classroom.
Through these discussions, students developed an understanding of how and why London has changed and is changing to meet the needs of its diverse population.
I was delighted to discover that my students were not just pointing at landmarks but truly interacting with their maps and the learning packs I had made for them, with images from the past and questions that linked to the key concepts within the subject – change and continuity, similarity and difference and significance – thus enhancing the teaching and learning that had already happened in the classroom.
In class, prior to the excursion, students had also been investigating a particular building or area of their choice from a range of options, all connected to what they had learnt via key enquiry questions since Year 7; questions dealing with democracy, empire, and the changing power of the monarchy (to name but a few). These included the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and London Docklands.
Students moved beyond the questions contained in their packs – such as “How has the structure of the building changed over time?” and “What do you think this demonstrates in regards to the growth of democracy?” – and began to focus on the history of certain communities within London and the drivers behind immigration and emigration both historic and current. I was particularly impressed when one student started drawing links between the emergence of industrial London during the Victorian period and increased demands for universal suffrage through the Chartists.
My students entered excited by the prospect of panoramic views of London but left with something far more valuable: a greater understanding of the city they call home and the stories that make up its unique character. And ultimately, as humanities teachers, both geographers and historians, isn’t that what we are trying to create? Global citizens.
Despite the jokes, history and geography are interrelated and interdependent. Opportunities to boost students’ understanding of topics across both subjects are always worthwhile and the London Eye experience is a particularly valuable resource for students who have, or plan to, take on the challenging combination of history and geography at GCSE. The transferrable skills are invaluable for students whether they are studying geography and the urban environment or the depth study on crime in Whitechapel.
In the London Eye, both geographers and historians have a building that is adding far more to the London skyline than glass and steel.
Lucy Jerry teaches history at Langley Park School for Girls in South London