Imagine it, History nerds. One day, on your lockdown walk in the woods, all of a sudden darkness drops on top of you as if someone has flicked a light switch. Next, you hear an eerie whispering and a melodic humming.
Then, suddenly there is light, so much light it dazzles you. And when you regain your senses, standing in front of you is a bearded, magical wizard-like creature, holding a mysteriously large ancient book. After the usual babblings, blowing off dust and casting of spells, they give you one opportunity, one chance to do something truly incredible.
You can go back, they say, to one moment in the past and experience it first-hand. You can see it happening, really happening there in front of you, the sounds, the emotions, the smells, everything.
The Holy Grail, for History enthusiasts!
And then the bearded, supernatural being disappears in a puff of smoke and you are left in the woods, contemplating.
I know what some of you are thinking :
This all seems a little bit unlikely, or
If you really were to travel back in time, you would catch some horrible disease and die, or
Why do wizard-like creatures always have beards?
I know it seems impossible but this is 2020. Anything can happen.
So, come on! Where would you go?
Perhaps you’d go back to 1599 to see the very first performance in the newly-built Globe Theatre, which was probably either Henry V or Julius Caesar.
Or, if you don’t like Shakespeare, maybe you’d travel to June 1613 when the Globe went up in flames during a performance of Henry VIII after a theatrical cannon misfired and set fire to everything.
Imagine being in Westminster Hall in January 1649 to watch the King of England, Charles I, on trial and eventually condemned to death.
Or in Lancashire, October 1829, where you could witness the fastest steam locomotives in the world competing along a newly-built section of railway track between Liverpool and Manchester. You could be in the crowd as George Stephenson’s Rocket defies all understanding and achieves a top speed of 30mph, claiming the hefty £500 prize.
We read history books, we sit in history classrooms, we watch history documentaries and listen to history lectures. But there is always a distance between us and them. Just think what it would be like to actually be there, to actually be able to watch William Shakespeare watching his own play performed, to see Oliver Cromwell glaring at the stubborn king, to hear the belching of The Rocket as it speeds along. We’re all allowed to dream!
So, where would you go?
I’d be tempted to transport to Italy, 1592. Naples, more precisely. An architect called Domenico Fontana has designed an underground aqueduct and the works are in progress. There are men digging, everywhere.
Then, you imagine, one of them sees something in the earth, something he doesn’t expect to see. A flash of colour. He calls his mate over. They dig a bit more and they reveal more colour, a picture. A wall with a picture. And what are these? Words engraved on the wall. An inscription?
Eventually, Domenico himself appears.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “Carry on!”
It wasn’t nothing, of course. What they had discovered was the Roman city of Pompeii, a city largely forgotten for a thousand years buried by a volcanic eruption in AD79. The diggers had hit upon ancient walls, covered with paintings and inscriptions, as the course of the underground aqueduct passed through, and under, large parts of the ancient city.
But Fontana himself kept quiet and nothing came of it. Proper excavations didn’t really get going for another couple of hundred years. The UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site we know today, that attracts millions of tourists every year, is largely the result of the last 150 years and indeed continues to be dug, still revealing treasures and insights into the ancient world.
To see the first glimpses of a hidden city, though, a site that would in the centuries to come progress our understanding of the Roman world so significantly, to meet the workers whose spades breathed life into Pompeii for the first time in 1500 years, to be part of that discovery, this is where I would go.
But would you tell them what, in fact, they had discovered and how important their discovery would become? Or would you just let them get back to building their aqueduct?
So, history nerds, on your woodland walks this Christmas, keep an eye out for bearded wizards offering time travel services and make sure you’re ready to give them a quick answer.
Where would you go?
The year is 2155. Margie and Tommy have found a real book, one that’s printed on paper. Margie can’t believe what it says about school.
“ A man? How could a man be a teacher?”
“Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.”
“A man isn’t smart enough,” Margie says.
Isaac Asimov’s short story The Fun They Had was first published in 1951. In the story, children learn at home using telebooks and instruction from a mechanical, robot teacher, a system far removed from Margie’s grandfather’s day when children learnt together in schools and classrooms from a human teacher.
What a far-fetched idea for a story, you might have said in 2019. But now?
So, has the pandemic changed the way we should approach education now? Is online education the future of learning for children and young people?
What are the arguments for online learning?
Of course, we have to take into account the differences between a Year 1 pupil and a sixth-former. But proponents of online learning point to advantages that can benefit all ages.
It’s easier to learn in chunks, at your own pace. Classroom learning is crammed into longer segments and you have no choice when you do it.
You can encourage deeper thought in learners. After all, you are not limited by the confines of a physical classroom. The world is your classroom. Well, the internet, anyway.
Teachers have to make resources more clear and accessible as they have less time to interact with learners. This means pupils make more progress.
And even though you lose out on physical interaction, discussion boards, breakout rooms and chat forums can provide useful opportunities for collaboration, even enhancing the experience for quieter pupils who might not have participated in a classroom discussion at all.
But do these arguments hold up in the real world? Teachers perhaps have a more evidenced opinion at the end of 2020 than they had at the beginning of the year!
What do the teachers say?
Like in any profession, there are lots of different opinions. The only thing they seem to agree about is that parents’ meetings are better online! As for the experience of learning, the picture is less clear.
Learning at your own pace can be beneficial, especially in secondary settings, and it is good for independent research. But learners who work more slowly just get further and further behind and their experience of live lessons, if there are any, is less good because of this.
Pupils do have the time to think but equally they don’t have the buzz of a live classroom discussion to inspire deeper thinking. The clunky mute, unmute, mute scenarios do not come close to the momentum generated by a lively classroom debate.
Teacher resources do need to be more thorough and clear. However, that takes time which is not something teachers have an enormous amount of. Voice recording lessons and instructions, creating all new resources, one experienced KS3 teacher described it as “being like an NQT again.” And it often comes down to teachers’ IT skills and the support available in schools as well as the access learners themselves have to reliable IT equipment and wifi.
And there is a bigger question prompted by this debate. The biggest question of all, actually.
What is education for?
The criticism of online learning is that it is sterile, dull, unsociable. Surely learning should be exactly the opposite?
Online learning can undoubtedly focus teachers and students to stick to the point, to avoid unnecessary conversations that divert from the focus of the lesson. But where’s the fun in that? Education must be more than the acquiring of knowledge and skills that can be applied to a particular subject. And in the hands of good teachers, smart teachers, it is.
One primary teacher spoke to me of the importance of pupils being “socialised while they’re learning.” And this requires a good teacher, a human teacher, to be able to read the room, to know how to deal with issues that arise and to care for the needs of the whole child. In the virtual world, that does seem more challenging to do. A happy child will learn better and that is perhaps why one primary school deputy head told me, “I think most primary teachers just want children in the classroom.”
So, in 2155 will the real life Margie and Tommy look back fondly on post-2020 education and marvel at “the fun they had” in physical classrooms? Or is online education the future and can that provide the excitement and thrill that learning always should?
Human teachers, I can’t imagine you’ll have time but if you do, leave your thoughts underneath! And keep your eyes out for those robots!
As any child in a school History lesson will tell you, people living in the past were clearly clueless. Of course you can’t get rid of bubonic plague by ringing the church bells! Obviously the earth is not flat!
And we in the present are totally clued in. After all, we’ve invented the internet, we’ve virtually rid the world of terrible diseases like smallpox and polio. We’ve put men and women into space and landed robots on Mars!
But as any History teacher will tell you, things are rarely as simple as that.
Not everyone in the past was a fool
Yes, there were some weird and wacky ideas for avoiding infection and treating patients during the many outbreaks of plague during the middle ages and later periods. But for every patient drinking vinegar or whipping themselves, there were also measures which bear a striking resemblance to what we have been through in 2020.
Sufferers were isolated in their homes or in plague hospitals. Ships were restricted to port to control movement of people and goods. Indeed, in Venice the authorities isolated ships for a period of forty days, hence the word “quarantine” (after the Italian for forty).
And there is no denying that popular opinion had the earth as flat until surprisingly recently. But perhaps based on the reports of Phoenician sailors, Plato was teaching his students in the fourth century BC that the earth was round. And a man in Alexandria called Eratosthenes even calculated the exact circumference of the earth : https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/history/ancient-greeks-proved-earth-round-eratosthenes-alexandria-syene-summer-solstice-a8131376.html
So, let’s not pretend we are the only clever ones. And there is no way we are right about everything, anyway.
What will people laugh at us for in years to come?
So, what mistakes are we making today that our descendants will cringe about in the History lessons of the future?
There are lots of conspiracy theories, of course.
Some say our use of mobile phones is causing unseen health issues. Reports have suggested that they are linked to areas like cancer, damage to fertility and reproduction, DNA damage and the health of our children.
Amplified by social media, the anti-vaccination movement continues to put forward the potential dangers of vaccination as a way of dealing with public health emergencies. You might expect during a global pandemic that vaccination would be overwhelmingly popular. A survey of 1000 New Yorkers in April 2020, however, found that only 59% would take a Covid vaccine and only 53% would give it to their children.
Or maybe it’s what we eat, our consumption of processed foods or our obsession with dieting to lose weight.
The point is that, at the moment, we don’t know. History will ultimately decide.
So, let’s not get complacent. There will be things that we do everyday that people in the future will sit in their classrooms and cafes laughing at us for.
So, my question for current History students, their teachers, and indeed everybody else, is what normal activity have you done today that might prove hilariously stupid to future generations? What do you do regularly that your descendants in the future might laugh at you for?
Leave a comment below and let’s see if we can learn from the past to improve the future.