Contributed by Stephen Roberts, Queen Katherine School, Kendal
In our department, we take the Great War very seriously indeed. It has been a strong personal interest of mine since 1990 when I first taught it to secondary school students. We paid a visit to the National Army Museum in Chelsea. Andrew Robertshaw was the education officer. He answered a question I asked about Robert Graves. That was when I realised that most of our understandings about the Great War were based on myths. I became determined thereafter to teach the subject in a critical way, enabling students to question traditional interpretations.
We used to do a GCSE coursework assignment about Douglas Haig. Students were presented with a range of sources and asked to make their own judgements about his skills as a general. GCSE specifications have since been changed. The Great War now features in Controlled Assessment tasks which focus on civilian experiences. The questions are provided by the exam board and are usually tedious, focusing on the reliability of sources.
Our exciting learning takes place in Year 9. All our work is enquiry-based. For several years, I got students to research soldiers on Kendal War Memorial. Later we got them to explore the question “Why did soldiers carry on fighting between 1914 and 1918?” We now ask “What was the Great War and how did it affect the British people?” This enables consideration of civilians as well as soldiers. We go through a series of subsidiary questions (such as why did stalemate occur in late 1914? and How did the war affect Women?) offering various contemporary sources as we go along. Students pick those that interest them and finally present an answer to the main question based on their selection of sources.
Children are encouraged to explore as many primary sources as possible in order to gain their own understandings of the Great War from the inside. Naturally, they need guidance, but we aim to make them as independent as possible. If young people can study contemporary sources for themselves, they are more likely to be able to question the old myths which perhaps are still believed by their parents, grandparents and even some teachers.
Many of the sources we use are local, especially articles from The Westmorland Gazette, such as the one which describes reactions to the declaration of war in August 1914. We juxtapose this with items from other parts of the country or with traditional accounts of 1914 and ask “Did the British people really welcome war?” Virtually every aspect of the war can be studied using such sources. For example, trench life can be investigated using soldiers’ letters which were published in the same newspaper. Students are encouraged to pursue personal interests. One girl found a medal in her garden and has been guided to research its owner. Due to my subscription to Ancestry.co.uk, I am able to provide census returns, medal cards and service records. We also use battalion war diaries, obtainable online at the National Archives.
What we do is very ambitious. We aim to challenge and stretch students. The amount of knowledge they gain is not as important as the independent, nuanced, enquiring and critical thinking skills which this work helps to engender.