Supporting creativity in history education

Supporting creativity in history education. In response to Professor Todd Lubart’s questions (Aug 2023) about supporting creativity in education, I wanted to offer my thoughts from the perspective of a history teacher. Contrary to the stereotypes that persist that history is a subject full of dates, kings, and a few more dates… I am striving (as many other practitioners are) to try and insert more creative opportunities into lessons. History is, in fact, a subject that lends itself well to this venture. My vision, as a subject leader, for this is on centered on students getting the chance to explore history through new lenses and mediums, such as stories, and designing tasks that don’t just test writing or knowledge retention (which is vital and has its place) but also does allow for other forms of creative expression.In a subject like history, we have to be mindful that the events we study actually happened. I know this sounds obvious but unlike in English, we do not have that ease of saying ‘it’s only a story!’ and equally, we must be careful we do not attempt any empathy type exercises with certain topics. For example, ‘write a diary entry as if you were a Victorian workhouse child’... These kinds of activities can foster problematic thinking that suggest we can truly know what it was like. Alas, we cannot truly know – and some topics are so horrific that they are beyond comprehension. However, what we can do is create a sense of period – and give students a sense of place, and in turn, a sense of the life that came before. Our creative vision has grown out of this belief.One of the primary ways we create this sense of period is through stories. Stories and story-telling help us to bring the distant past the life. For example, when we teach students about Mao’s China, we use Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. Hearing Chang’s testimony is our way of making the far-off, impossible to imagine, communist China seem a lot closer. Chang’s clear and gripping words about her childhood in 1950s-60s China is entrancing. Moreover, when we teach about the witch-trials, another very foreign (and misunderstood) concept to students, we use evidence from real-life cases. In this instance, we try to keep it local too and when teaching in East Anglia, we have a large array to choose from. Another example is the case of the suffragette, Constance Lytton – a women who exposed the shockingly classicist attitude of the Edwardian era through her proof that working-class women were treated more harshly than upper-class ones. In all cases, we bring remote ideas to the forefront – and humanize them – making complex events accessible, interesting, and memorable. It should be noted that students do not suddenly go into these stories blind, we build up knowledge in the lessons prior to ensure that students are equipped with the understanding of the events or key words (e.g., Cultural Revolution in the case of Wild Swans) so they can make sense of the stories.In a similar vein, we also use historical fiction and scholarship, aimed at young people, to help create a sense of period. The collection of work by Ian Mortimer is a prime example of this. His work entitled ‘A Time Traveler's Guide to…’ are excellent in helping all your senses(from sight to sound to smell) visualize and experience life in the past. His medieval period one is fascinating in that it says, for example, life is so quiet that people could recognize which dog was barking. Utterly wonderful reading. Other examples include Peter Frankopan’s work on the Silk Roads for children. The illustrations in that book are a masterpiece, including the map of medieval Baghdad and its unique circular design. Using these works in the classroom, or setting them as homework tasks, are another way we help to impart our creative vision and allow students to really develop that sense of period.Another way we are attempting to foster greater creativity in history is through assessment tasks. In addition to more conventional assessments, such as essays or knowledge tests, we have trialled tasks that involve designing memorials and museum exhibitions. For example, in Year 9, after studying the Holocaust, we ask pupils to design their own memorial. We instruct them in what memorials are for and present examples to them and with that, they have creative licence to do what they wish. It is a very moving task and allows pupils to reflect upon the past in a new way. Moreover, another task is in Year 7 when, following an enquiry on life in Pompeii in the Roman period, where pupils are exposed to lots of different primary sources, we ask pupils to produce their own museum exhibition. How would they present a display on life in Pompeii? What message to they want to convey? This is like a task in Year 8 which is centered on exploring the concept of Empire through multiple sources of evidence. We give students the information they need in terms of what museum displays look like, especially in light of recent calls to decolonize Empire displays and collections, to help them in their own task. This ties into wider discussions about commemoration and memory more generally too.These are just a small first steps in fostering a creative vision in history, but it is a start. There is still much to work on as we finesse our work on the above as well as continuing to explore new ways in which we can support creativity in the history classroom.