The history man who made it all fun

9th January 2004 at 00:00
John Fines's enthusiasm, scholarship and humour brought the past to life for many. Rosie Turner-Bissett remembers him - and his lessons

One of the most important qualities for an educationist is a sense of fun.

I have worked with some remarkable people in teacher education since I moved into this sector in 1990, and they have all had this trait of profound enjoyment in their teaching, research and scholarship.

My inspiration was a person who in every sense of the word was playful, and whose teaching, thinking and writing have had a major impact on the way I perceive my work as a teacher and a historian.

There are a few very special people we meet in our lives, who, when they depart this world, leave us feeling they have gone too soon. John Fines was one of these people. He was widely recognised as Britain's leading authority on the teaching of history in schools.

I met John in a small hotel in Bristol, where the Nuffield primary history team was staying prior to running a one-day conference for teachers. His humour and vitality were much in evidence over dinner and I resolved to watch him teach the following day.

Along with teachers who had attended his in-service courses on primary history, I went to the large classroom where he was teaching a demonstration class of seven and eight-year-olds about life in medieval times. We settled down at the back of the classroom to watch a terrific lesson.

He settled the children, a large group from a variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds, on the carpet. It was his first encounter with this class.

His materials were some scrap paper and the story of a medieval peasant who had a problem. His son wanted to get married, but first they had to build him a house. He sold his crops, eggs, milk and surplus animals and saved hard for the building materials. But the local tax collector from the church came around wanting a tenth of all the peasant made to put towards the repair of the church and the new chapel.

John told the story in a way which had the children (and teachers) spellbound, using different voices, body language, gesture and movement.

For the follow-up, he had them create a medieval marketplace, using the paper to "make" their goods to sell. The room was swiftly re-organised as a market by the children. Bartering proceeded briskly, and John drafted in some teachers to come round as tax collectors, to take a tithe from every stall.

I was a tax collector, and as I approached one stall, the seven-year-old boy scooped up most of his paper butter and cheese and looked for somewhere to hide it. Sitting on it seemed handy and appropriate, and I played my role of being duped by his telling me it had been a bad week.

In the plenary, John asked the children what they had learned. Hands shot up. They had learned what it meant to trade goods and to barter. The children used these words independently; he had not used them earlier.

Above all, they had learned what tithe meant, in literal terms and to a peasant whose hard-earned cash was in danger of disappearing.

I, too, learned much from this lesson. I understood for the first time the enormous power of story telling and drama as ways of teaching. The children had learned concepts from first-hand experience of acting them out, the drama consolidating the story he told.

To watch John working with a class of children was a formative experience.

Seeing the children learn with active enjoyment taught me an immense amount about learning and teaching.

He had a glittering career that included obtaining a doctorate; being a teacher trainer at Bulmershe College, Reading, and at West Sussex Institute of Higher Education; carrying out pioneering work that brought children face-to-face with eyewitnesses and evidence through drama and story telling; more than 30 years as a teacher-trainer; work for the Schools Council history committee; author of numerous research and curriculum innovation projects and books; and presidency of the Historical Association from 1994 to 1996.

Although John's achievments were many, it is, to quote Jon Nichol, his "infectious joy and enthusiasm" in studying and teaching history, his fundamental humanity and insight into learning and teaching, that have a lasting impact.

He reached people of all ages and backgrounds - children, students and teachers. John Fines was a truly great educationist.

Dr Rosie Turner-Bissett is a fellow in learning and teaching at the University of Hertfordshire'Letting the Past Speak', a collection of John Fines's writings, has been published in electronic form on The University of Exeter website: Click on International Journal, choose volume 2, number 2, July 2002

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