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Alternative approaches to teaching Y7 about the Middle Ages

Introducing the Classroom Resources

Someday we’ll find it, the Rainbow Connection
Kermit the Frog

It may sound impossibly romantic but in creating these resources I’m seeking a rainbow - helping Y7 students see the Middle Ages in a more balanced and positive light, identifying the intelligence and resilience of the people as well as the very different circumstances in which they lived.

Developing different resources does, of course, have its problems – they may not fit into existing schemes of work and they may not suit your students. Even so, I hope they will prove of value, if not for direct use with students but as a source of ideas and purposeful stories that will stimulate thinking about how to approach teaching about the Middle Ages. Articles have their value but teaching resources usually provide the best way to exemplify ideas.


Download a PDF of this introduction HERE …

Some Objectives

These resources build on the ideas in the HA publication Exploring and Teaching Medieval History. I didn’t have space in ETMH to explore how the ideas could be put into practice so that’s what this resource is about – providing teaching material which helps students understand:

• that the Middle Ages was a period of change and achievement when people strove to improve the quality of their lives, just as people have in any period of the past.

• that the problems and issues medieval people faced were complicated and difficult and they were capable of complex, thoughtful solutions.

• the need to respect the people of the past and see them as being as intelligent, resilient and sophisticated as people today. Without this respect we cannot understand their lives and actions.

• a broad picture of the period and major themes within it to contextualise individual events.

• the importance of beginning work on any period by exploring the feelings, ideas and ideals of the people. Such work prepares students for understanding and explaining events more deeply.

• the importance of students identifying their preconceptions about a period before beginning work in detail. This is fundamental to success in developing their understanding of the period.

• a broad sense of the process of studying history i.e. the nature of enquiry and of sources, the concepts used, how we can draw on the work of historians and the need to accept that answers may never be certain.

• the Middle Ages is a European concept. Other parts of the world have different periodisations but in this period interesting and complex developments were taking place in other cultures too.

This resource is therefore offering an alternative approach to the Middle Ages with Y7. I can’t claim it’s ‘better’, just that it accords with my own thoughts about how to study history most effectively and particularly about what is most valuable for Y7 to understand about the Middle Ages. The usual event by event coverage does not, I think, build an overview of the period and certainly does not enable students to appreciate the sophistication of many aspects of the period nor develop respect for the intelligence and priorities of the people. Hence I’m starting in chapters 2 and 3 with an exploration of emotions, attitudes and ideals because I think that if students already have a grasp of these they will study individual events more effectively and in greater depth.

Alongside all that, I’m writing this simply to enjoy the creativity and the challenge of solving the problem of how to achieve the objectives above and to share my enthusiasm for learning about the people of the Middle Ages. I’ll be happy if the resources prompt reflection about how we approach teaching the Middle Ages – I won’t be evaluating it in terms of the number of downloads!

Note: This seems a good place to say to thank you to Dale Banham for the many valuable conversations we’ve had about this material – which is much stronger for those conversations.

Structure and Practicalities

There are two sections to this resource:

1. Medieval Minds Mattered – classroom resources divided into chapters aimed at helping students achieve a deeper knowledge of the Middle Ages.

2. Medieval Readings – factual stories, biographies and other writings which provide, well, just loads of other stuff for students (perhaps of all ages) to read!

Both sections are being invented as I go along – and I anticipate writing other kinds of resources such as scripted dramas. I will build up the resources slowly. I don’t have a publishing schedule or a final contents list. There will be in the end (in 2 or 3 years’ time?) far more than any teacher will use.

Now for some practical points:

Initial content – The opening chapters don’t contain anything in depth on 1066, Magna Carta or other classic Y7 events. They will come later but they’re not my initial priority as everyone has material on these topics. Instead I’m starting with topics which I think are important to teach early on and which are not so well resourced (or not resourced at all).

Style – I haven’t tried to hide my enthusiasm and sometimes write in the first person to convey my enthusiasm and thoughts. I could claim this is in keeping with developments in current writing by historians (which it is) but I’ve done so when I feel this is the best way to communicate effectively.

Vocabulary – I haven’t avoided ‘difficult’ words though I have occasionally included a definition to help understanding. Difficulty, of course, depends on context and on the culture of language that’s maintained in the classroom. Finding the ‘right’ level is impossible and I believe in the necessity of expanding students’ vocabularies – I can still remember my glee at using ‘internecine’ in an essay when I was in Y12 and getting a tick in the margin!

It’s OK to half-understand – I have the feeling that publishers are afraid of material that all students do not understand completely and quickly. This approach is impoverishing education. Most of us only half-understand things at first but those glimmers of understanding are OK, they lead to curiosity and investigation. So I haven’t worried in writing these pages if some of the ideas are only half-understood by some or a lot of students. Having half an idea or even just a glimpse of an idea is better than not being introduced to it at all.

Historians and interpretations – I have mentioned historians and their work when it’s seemed natural to do so and I’ve included the covers of historians’ books. Children in PE lessons know what a professional football match looks like – they should know what professional history looks like. Later there’ll be more specific material on the work of historians but to begin with I’ve just tried to keep historians visible.

Second-order concepts (what an ugly phrase!) – I’ve tried to help students see the broader process of how we study the past, rather than leaping into the minutiae of work on second-order concepts. There are two reasons for this. Firstly I don’t think students appreciate the purposes of working on evidence etc unless they first have that broad picture of the process of studying a period or topic. Secondly I don’t believe that answering GCSE-style questions in Y7 or similar ‘exam preparation’ is at all necessary to ensure students’ success at GCSE. It’s far more likely to distort the history and kill students’ interest. Learning about the period and people should take pride of place. The joy of History comes before the tyranny of long-term preparation for GCSE.

Tasks and questions – I have included relatively few tasks and questions, only when I have a specific task in mind (e.g. diagnosing students’ preconceptions). I’ve left setting them to you though there are suggestions in the teachers’ notes. Sometimes I’ll include two pages which offer different ways of approaching the same issue – these will be identified in the teachers’ notes.

Notes for teachers – these are provided for each chapter and set out briefly what the material is trying to achieve and anything else that feels relevant!

PowerPoints – I’ve provided PowerPoint support, mostly including material that’s in the text but occasionally different material which wouldn’t have worked on the pages.
Illustrations – I haven’t tried to replicate the highly illustrated nature of modern textbooks because of material being copied in black and white and because of copyright issues.

Illustrations – I haven’t tried to replicate the highly illustrated nature of modern textbooks because of material being copied in black and white and because of copyright issues.

Why is it called ‘Medieval Lives Mattered’?

Why have I used this title? I confess I’m still slightly uneasy about it but (a) a title is useful for reference and (b) if you have a title it’s best to have one that’s meaningful. I chose this because I believe that history is the study of individual people and their experiences, people very like us in their everyday humanity. Each medieval life mattered to the individual, their family and friends, just as each life matters today. Everyone in the Middle Ages (as in every other period) faced the same existential puzzles about why his or her life mattered, what values they thought important and by and large their answers were the same as ours, embracing their family and emotional comfort, the welfare of their community, a sense of duty and morality. There have been ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in every period but I don’t think we study enough goodies in any period.

This is one of those important areas where the study of the past can link with students’ own lives. In my mind the study of history should enhance students’ understanding of their own world and of themselves as individuals. It’s therefore vital that students should learn about individuals in depth, about their ideals, principles and motives, their dilemmas and choices and relate these to their own thinking and attitudes. If they can come to see similarities between themselves and the people of the Middle Ages and respect those people, despite the obvious differences in the practicalities of their lives, then there is the opportunity to widen this understanding to consider how they see other peoples today whose lives are, on the surface, very different from theirs.

If students can respect people of a time as different from our own as the Middle Ages, then perhaps there is more chance of them respecting people from different cultures today rather than instinctively interpreting difference as being inferior or a threat.

These last paragraphs touch on the reasons for studying medieval history. I was tempted to discuss this in depth but that would have extended this introduction to insufferable lengths. I will add a discussion HERE … where there is a series of articles exploring the ideas underpinning these resources.

‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’

I seem to have spent the last 30 years proving how right Iris Murdoch was when she said this. None of the books I’ve written have ever lived up to my hopes. Given that I’m starting this resource without a complete plan I don’t hold out any greater hopes this time either but it’ll be fun trying.


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