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Teaching A Level History using British History Online

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256px-Cardinal_Wolsey_Christ_ChurchThis post was kindly written for us by Alex Porter – Head of History, Parmiter’s School

The paradox of teaching A Level history is that you know very well your students’ education would be better served by studying topics in greater depth but unfortunately this has the potential to hamper their achievements in examination. Nowhere is this more apparent than in textbooks.

An A Level textbook can be a comfort but the range of sources provided in textbooks is very limited. This limitation is for two reasons, the first being the examiners need to hold onto some sources to base examination questions on, but also because the textbook is supposed to be just enough for the average student to get by on. In theory you could use it all on its own and get the top grade. Yet this doesn’t necessarily help make the best historians, and the best students know this. The high achievers need to be stretched and this means more sources.

As a result, many history teachers will punch phrases into Google on a regular basis in the forlorn hope that there will be some magical archive of sensibly arranged contemporary information that could be mined for use in lessons. Those that teach courses on Henry VIII will likely have found solace in the comforting embrace of British History Online. I am one of them.

I was initially searching for contemporary accounts of Henry VII in order to put together a lesson investigating the circumstances of Henry VIII’s accession. What I ended up finding was Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1: 1509-1514, an extremely rich seam of court papers and accounts from the reign of Henry VIII. It included a missive apparently from the Venetian ambassador dated 8th May 1509, in which Henry VII was described as ‘a most miserly (miserissimo) man but of great genius, who has accumulated more gold than that possessed by all the other Christian kings’.

This was perfect material. The provenance was such that it afforded the students an opportunity to consider how Henry VII might have been considered outside his realm, but also gave real meat to the idea of his wealth in comparison with others around Europe. It wasn’t long before I was reading details of the condolence note to Henry VIII from Ferdinand of Aragon.

Such information is invaluable to me in the delivery of this course. It provides me with a deeper understanding of the affairs at court in the period and allows me to drop anecdotes into lessons that pique the interest of my students. It also gives me the material needed in the delivery of lessons that go beyond the narrow confines of the set text.

Since this happy find, I have been back on British History Online more than once and not alone. My school has developed a “Bring Your Own Device” policy allowing students to safely use their phones and tablets in lessons, so I was able to encourage my students to undertake their own research in a subsequent lesson. It wasn’t long before a number of them were trawling through these records, attempting to establish the use of the term Alter Rex for themselves to see if it only ever applied to Wolsey.

With the use of websites such as British History Online and the assistance of a progressive ICT policy it has become possible not only to find extremely useful resources for myself but to encourage students to develop their learning independently. In ordinary circumstances I would be harvesting their finds as Wolsey gathered tithes but we have to change our A Level for next year and no doubt there’ll be a new set of narrowly focused textbooks to use. At least this time I’ll know where to look for some sources.

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