Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to work in collaboration with colleagues at the Institute of Education on two exciting Widening Participation projects. In both projects, we wanted to move beyond the ‘parachute’ model of offering an isolated lecture or seminar in a school in favour of a more sustained engagement with teachers and students, with the aim of better integrating widening participation activities into the existing curriculum. That’s not to say that guest lectures and seminars don’t have their place – they do. But, we wondered, what if we tinkered with the formula a little bit? And what does it mean to talk about ‘widening participation’? Sol Gamsu, an urban geographer at King’s College London who works on education and class, has suggested that those of us who work in widening participation need to be more open to alternative models of engaging with schools, less taken with short-term fixes, and less concerned with recruiting the ‘gifted few’. On each count, I think he’s probably right.
The first of my IoE projects, with Dr. Robin Whitburn, took me to Hampstead School in Cricklewood and Saint Aloysius College in Highgate. We worked with two fine History teachers – Abdul Mohamud and Geraldine Rimmer – to plan sessions that would push their students to think in new ways about the material that they studied and, hopefully, about themselves as active historians rather than simply as students of History. Over three sessions Robin and I focused on what it meant to ‘be a historian’. In particular, we were interested in challenging preconceptions about historians looked like and where they came from, as well as the idea that historians are always disinterested tellers of the truth. We wanted to emphasise that the questions that historians asked were always raised by the modern world – by contentious events and issues in the present – and that they were frequently linked to the historians’ own identities and experiences. Students responded really well to this focus and presented in small groups on way that different historians ask questions rooted in their immediate political, social and economic concerns. This was undergraduate-level work, pursued with enthusiasm and great ability by two engaged and switched-on classes of A-level historians.
The second project that I had the good fortune to work on this year involved recording a series of short videos on the history of the civil rights movement for students at St. Thomas More School, Wood Green, and St. George’s Catholic School in Maida Vale. These mapped on to the students’ work at AS-level on the history of the United States in the twentieth century. Working with the IoE’s Dr. Arthur Chapman, we then moderated a collaborative online discussion that encouraged students to think about the way that they structured arguments and employed evidence. In the process of the project we saw students beginning to develop sophisticated skills in positioning their own contributions within ongoing discussions, and in linking topics to make stronger, more well sourced arguments about aspects of the civil rights movement.
Were either of these widening participation interventions useful? Well, it’s hard to say. In each case the students were receptive and – I think – better historians at the end of the process than they were at the beginning. Will this translate into more historians at university? I hope so, though of course it is too early tell. This kind of engagement must, of necessity, be for the long haul. It feels good to have made a start.
Dr David Sim is a Lecturer in US History and is also the department’s Widening Access Officer. Find out about his research and teaching on the UCL History website.