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Why essay-writing remains central to leaning history at As Level

Richard Harris
Teaching History
No. 103, PUZZLING HISTORY (June 2001), pp. 13-16
Published by: Historical Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43260400
Page Count: 4
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Abstract

Richard Harris challenges those who play down the essay in their teaching of the new AS Level. He argues that essay-writing embodies historical thinking and that it is therefore an essential tool for developing students' understanding of history as an opinion-forming, judgement-making process. Students need to practise developed, evidential substantiation, otherwise all they offer are ungrounded and unhistorical 'viewpoints'. The extended thinking required by the construction of an essay-shaped argument is fundamental to this. Richard describes how he recently transformed his own practice in the teaching of essay-writing at sixth form level, and explains why he sees this as integral to progression in historical thinking, regardless of whether the examination places emphasis on it or not. His concern is with securing deeply-rooted, enduring improvement in examination performance and argues that this comes about through thorough professional reflection, first, on the nature of history and, second, on the nature of student difficulty. It is not achived by excessive emphasis on predicting and replicating the precise, surface demands of shorter exam answers. Paying tribute to work on writing that is being carried out in the lower secondary years, Richard argues that the history teacher's first duty is to secure progression from this, building upon it, rather than allowing students to drift backwards. This article is also noteworthy for the emphasis placed on reading. Richard discusses the role of critical thinking, classroom discussion and debate during the reading process. He actively develops his students' confidence in more extended reading, early in Year 12.

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