Keep squeezing those testicles: why knowledge isn’t everything

We used to have a joke, my previous HoD and me: she did scholarship and I did presentation.  Of course it did both of us something of a disservice: she – the mighty @EG_Carr – was perfectly good at presenting material in interesting and accessible ways, and I’ve got an MA in History.  A real one too, not one of those Oxon or Cantab jobs.  But at its heart the joke, at least it applied to me, has an uncomfortable kernel of truth.

I’m a pretty good teacher, I reckon.  Not as good as some, better than others.  That’s fine; I’ll keep trying.  If asked, I’d say that my main skill is an ability to think of good ways to get information across with verve, a sense of excitement, and in a way that makes sense.  And therein lies my problem.

You don’t have to have followed edu-twitter very closely, or read very many blogs, to know that there is increasing support for the primacy of knowledge as the bedrock of teaching.  Within reason, I think this is excellent.  It means that teachers need to know their discipline inside out; to keep up with the latest subject-specific developments; to devise deep, challenging, knowledge-rich curricula and/or schemes of work; in other words, to use their expertise to foster and inspire a love of their subjects for what is unique about them.

This is bad news for teachers like me.  My subject is History (and Politics at A-Level) but I don’t class myself as a proper historian.  My undergraduate degree is factually irrelevant and all my MA means is that for a time I knew an awful lot about Polish demands for reparations after WW2.  That’s pretty niche and it was sufficiently long ago for me to have forgotten pretty much all of it.  Further, I’ve spent most of my career in the Civil Service, where knowledge of history was not especially relevant.

What I can do though is make difficult stuff accessible.  Often this has gone hand in hand with deliberately seeking to make things interesting (though not so much in the Civil Service, if I’m honest).  This is not the same as being a “fun teacher” – regular readers (ha!) will recall my views on that –  but it does entail a belief, which seems to be ever more unfashionable,  that imaginative presentation of material is important.

Here’s an example.  During the Cold War, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said, “Berlin is the testicle of the West.  When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”  For a teacher like me this is too good to miss.  It inspired a worksheet giving details of key Berlin-related events and inviting students to rate how hard Khrushchev was squeezing at any given moment.  That seems (is) lighthearted but is also quite intellectually taxing: how was Khrushchev applying pressure to the West?  What would be the impact of his actions?  How much would the West have cared?  All good questions that require students to think hard about the information before them, which will increase their knowledge (memory being the residue of thought, and all that) and promote scholarship.  Yet it’s also a fun exercise.  Win win.

It seems though that my methods and I are in danger of going out of style.  There is much twitter-love for Michaela’s knowledge organisers; for teacher talk; for teaching that is more overtly intellectual.  I’m not against intellect:  I’m proud of my (very good) undergraduate degree and, partly because I recognise the centrality of knowledge to teaching, I read a lot of historical and political books.  One of my favourite Politics lessons is when we get to grips with the language and contradictions of the Federalist Papers.  But I also love the lesson outlined above.  Through it and others like it I can show a different kind of energy, enthusiasm and joy.  From what I have seen and experienced it’s hard to generate excitement through a knowledge organiser; certainly some of my most tedious lessons are the ones where we read over notes, even those prepared with love by yours truly.

So I’ll keep using Rick Perry’s “Oops” moment as a precursor to a highbrow Atlantic article on the invisible primary, and playing George Jones’ White Lightning as a way into a study of prohibition.  I’ll also keep reading and researching so that my own knowledge grows.  If I’m out of step with the purists, so be it.  And if it seems to you that this whole blog has been an exercise in self-justification, I agree.  I thought it was going to be a lament but it’s turned into a celebration.  Thank goodness for that.

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