Not a question of answers

12th July 1996 at 01:00
A Devon school is taking a fresh approach in history to that most dreaded of tasks, the essay. Joanna Snicker reports. Twelve-year-old Jason loves history. His favourite topic is the Black Death of 1348 because of the "horrible boils on their arms and legs".

He has much to show for his enthusiasm - pages and pages of his own writing covering key historical topics such as the Battle of Hastings, the Roman invasion of Britain, the Black Death. Jason has in fact mastered that most academic of disciplines - the essay.

It is a skill steeped in images of tradition. Sixth form and even university students often dread the essay and long for its demise. But traditionalists will naturally applaud Jason's teacher Jamie Byrom, head of humanities at Tiverton High School in Devon, who has developed a scheme of work based on essay writing or, as it is fashionably called, extended writing.

The history national curriculum also stresses the importance of essays in lower school. It says that children should "communicate with increasing independence in a variety of ways, including extended writing".

But a closer look at what is happening at Tiverton reveals that it is not essay writing that is being taught but something much bigger, a new set of history values, even a new culture.

The history classroom at Tiverton is spacious and well-resourced. Desks are in neat rows. A computer sits in one corner, a television and video in the other. The wall is covered with displays all labelled and laminated.

The new culture is disseminated via a prominently displayed wall-chart listing four golden rules of history: "If you want to do well: keep to the point, include good details, think for yourself, and organise your work carefully. "

When Mr Byrom teaches he constantly refers to the rules. "I don't like just answering questions. We think about answers to questions," he says. "If you're studying the Olympics in Ancient Greece I want you to think about Olympics today. Even if there is not a question on the worksheet, I want you to think. I don't want anybody to settle for just finding the answers."

Why did William win the Battle of Hastings? What are the effects of the Black Death? Describe a journey through Rome; these are key essay questions tackled by Tiverton's youngest pupils to tie in with the national curriculum's Medieval Realms topic.

Jason and his 11 and 12-year-old classmates have all produced two impressive A4 pages' worth of writing for each essay - well structured and relevant to the question. This is all the more remarkable as some of these children have learning difficulties. The writing may be untidy but they have produced real essays - something more advanced students in sixth forms and at university often find difficult.

Mr Byrom, who has been a teacher in Tiverton for 16 years, was prompted to evaluate his teaching during the first stages of the national curriculum in the early l990s when he was asked to comment on the proposals. He developed his four rules which ultimately led to a scheme of work based on extended writing introduced last September for the first three years, aged 11 to 14.

Pupils' historical skills have been increasingly emphasised with GCSE and the national curriculum asking more conceptual questions than the O-level, which concentrated on essays structured around learnt facts. Now, to some extent, the pendulum appears to be swinging back with schools such as Tiverton demanding essays instead of the short answers typical of the history worksheets and textbooks of recent years. Next month, sees the publication of a new Longman textbook based on extended writing. Mr Byrom is one of three co-authors, (as is Christine Counsell, who argued the case for extended writing on this page two week ago, June 28).

However, Mr Byrom is adamant that this is not a return to the values of the past. He welcomed the curriculum changes of the 80s and 90s - Tiverton still uses the Schools History Project, one of the most progressive GCSEs.

Rather he sees what he is doing as a necessary development from the changes. "It is neither extended nor writing. I have taken to calling it 'joined-up thinking'.

"In my experience the biggest thing is how to find the words for something. I find that lots of history recently has encouraged reactive thinking. Here is the question what is the answer? Here is a proposition, is it true?

"There are lots of short snatches at answers, one idea at a time. What we don't seem to do anymore is to pull that together and to feel that you know what you know, you've actually got something coherent - it makes sense to me."

Part of the problem, he thinks, is the fragmented nature of national curriculum textbooks which has led him to write his own.

"There is a danger that pupils' experiences of history are atomised as shown in the diverse range of unconnected tasks set in text books. The kaleidoscope of sources on the pages offers no model for good historical writing."

"There are many different reasons why William won the Battle of Hastings, " writes Jason. "In this essay I am going to say what these were." In his second paragraph he continues, "I will begin by looking at the strengths of each leader and his army."

As the whole class has been carefully instructed to write in this way, the essays can look similar. Is there a danger of the teacher hindering the child's independence?

Mr Byrom admits that some pupils do simply copy from the worksheet: "I am fully aware that will happen. But those are the children who probably wouldn't have produced anything any other way.

"They are modelling this use of language so that, next step, they have more chance of doing something on their own at the very least."

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