Problems in preference to periods; or, how I build knowledge as a new teacher

Lord Acton’s 1895 dictum that historians should ‘study problems in preference to periods’ still holds water.[1] Key Stage 3 curricula and undergraduate courses are often structured around questions that ‘capture’ certain historical debates, problems and concepts. As a Newly Qualified Teacher, I have continued to find studying ‘problems in preference to periods’ helpful when building my own subject knowledge.

At the end of this post, there are three sets of questions and accompanying ‘listening lists’ that have helped me this year. To find these problems, I began by looking at undergraduate reading lists and past papers, as well as the blurbs that accompany each episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’.[2] This took me a very long time (more than I care to admit), so hopefully these lists will save other new teachers some of their time.

I have found that listening multiple, overlapping episodes of ‘In Our Time’ with a single question in mind has given my note-taking focus and my new knowledge form.[3] Moreover, knowing authentic historical questions as well as stories has enriched my curricular thinking; having a sense of ‘where the debate is’ for certain periods has enabled me to plan more nuanced and interesting enquiry questions.

Of course, listening to podcasts with a single question in mind is not the only way to build knowledge as a new teacher. Reading historical scholarship or historical fiction, browsing the Historical Association’s extensive website (with its podcasts, pamphlets and Polychronicons), visiting museums and galleries, completing ‘Future Learn’ and ‘Open Learn’ courses and watching documentaries are all worthwhile and enjoyable endeavours.[4] My ‘In Our Time’ method is just one of many ways to build subject knowledge – I hope that some people find it helpful.[5]

‘In Our Time’ listening lists


[1] Unlike his dreams of history ultima… (Arthur Chapman’s explanation of Lord Acton’s ‘epistemically naïve’ project is excellent https://youtu.be/rkNv9wQZmbc?t=835); The phrase ‘study problems in preference to periods’ comes from Lord Acton’s inaugural lecture as the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge (1895).

[2] Anyone can view the University of Cambridge’s Historical Tripos’ undergraduate reading lists. Many of the lists include sample weekly essay questions: https://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/hist-tripos/part-i/part-i-papers-current/part-i-2019-20-reading-lists

[3] In Our Time has been broadcast since 1998; there are now nearly 900 episodes available online and on the BBC Sounds app. In my opinion, this format is a perfect way for teachers to stay up-to-date with current scholarship and learn about different periods, places and problems: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01dh5yg

[4] The Historical Association’s website is an incredible resource and well-worth the membership (£72 for two years as a trainee teacher). The ‘Polychronicon’ feature of Teaching History is especially helpful. https://www.history.org.uk/;
This course from the University of Exeter about the British Empire is excellent: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/empire, as is this one about nineteenth-century reform and radicalism by Royal Holloway’s Citizens Project: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/peterloo-to-the-pankhursts-radicalism-and-reform-in-the-nineteenth-century

[5] N.B. In future, I plan to add more lists covering the history of ideas, literature and the classics.

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