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Rich questions in history

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Andrew Savage, as HOD History at Wellington College, discusses how his department decided to place ideas at the centre of their courses rather than content. Andrew explains that history is a contested topic and there are multiple ways of understanding the past. Therefore, they engage students with rich questions that offer no answers, incorporate complex ideas, and ask the students to make decisions based on investigating the past and their own interpretations of the past.


In our planning in the history department, we decided a few years ago that we wanted to make ideas the centre of our courses, as opposed to content. That history was a contested topic and there were multiple different ways of understanding the past. So to encourage that we decided our planning would focus around having what we ended up calling ‘rich questions.’ These were questions which offered no answers, had complex ideas incorporated within them, and asked students to make decisions and those decisions were ones they had to come to based on investigating the past and their own interpretations of the past. So the junior school we started this with questions such as, “Was Stalin the worst tyrant of the 20th century?” or “Was Russia better off under the Tsar or Stalin?” And that was the whole focus of the course. Or maybe “How civilized were the Romans?” So having to decide what civilization is, and measure civilization based on their own expectations. And it was fantastic because we were able to bring the ideas into the present. So touching on rugby and comparing it to gladiatorial sport. Whether it was just a veneer of civilization that we’re talking about here, things like that. 

The whole purpose is to get students to generate arguments and contest those ideas. My job is not to tell them what the answer is - it’s to give them the resources, and the information to engage with, and then see what they can come up with. That’s far more exciting and then the end for instance using the Israel example we’ve asked the boys to suggest solutions as their assignment. That involves critical thinking, participating with other people, to discuss their ideas relating to different perspectives huge amount of different skills they can draw upon, but the course wasn’t the history of the Palestinian problem or the Israel-Palestinian problem, it was: “What are the ideas behind this?” It’s risen the level of our critical thinking through the roof I think. 

The way we support students to do this is by not avoiding traditional teaching completely. There has to be a content base for this so we provide, I suppose, a foundation knowledge for students through teaching in classes using documentaries and resources that are available to us. But it’s about stopping at the right time and giving them a taste for it so that they could then follow it on and by creating tasks and assignments which will become individually self-managed. An example would be at level three, one of the rich questions we asked was “To what extent was the Kīngitanga a radical or a conservative movement?” So we had to teach the Kīngitanga first about where it came from, where its ideas were, and then the rich question, “Is it a radical expression or a conservative expression?” The students have to prove their idea based on the evidence and how they interpret it. Which once again leads to great discussions about how we learn about history and what we bring to those discussions. Then I often spend a lot of the lesson talking about how did you come to that conclusion? What is it that you bring to it from outside of the class that helps you interpret the evidence? That way students become self aware of their own lenses and perspectives and they come to those conclusions. 

Role modelling is really important in class and I think that’s part of the teaching - is the participating in the process. So these are questions - because I don’t know the answer to them myself or I have inklings, but I haven’t really come to conclusions. I’m part of that every year and every year I sometimes change my mind about what I think the answer is and I really encourage the students to see me as one of the learners so I’m on that path with them. I want them to convince me one way or another. I’m prepared to be wrong and prepared to be challenged and shifted in my thinking by their research and it’s kind of a challenge to them to trip me up or to change my mind. So I suppose - the question that I was asked was “Do I use examples of other people doing this to give them a framework?” And I say I would probably try and be it, be that example myself as opposed to just pointing to something. Because that’s developing a relationship as well.

Published on: 08 Mar 2013