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Teaching Issues

Using knowledge to make meaning

Night of the Long Knives

The debate whimpers on. Knowledge and direct instruction against progress teaching ideas.

This debate has been going on since the arguments over the birth of GCSE and before.

Historical knowledge is crucially important – lets not forget it.  But so is the ability to use this knowledge well. We have discussed this before.

After all how do you make meaning of a political cartoon without historical knowledge?

Take this brilliant cartoon from the German magazine Kladderdatsch from 1933. I stumbled across it whilst writing some homework quizzes for the Germany AQA and Edexcel courses (more of which later).

Night of the Long KnivesYou cannot make meaning of this without knowledge of the events and intrigue of the Night of the Long Knives.

I would use this cartoon as an oblique hook at the start of an activity – without knowledge. I know this goes against those of you who have read cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham’s book and have taken his words as the gospel about attention grabbers (p80-81).

Come on guys, use some of your own professional judgement based on what works in your own classrooms! We know what works well in history because we have such a rich subject specific pedagogic heritage.

What questions do you have about this strange cartoon class? Lets come up with 7 to 10 really precise questions.

I think it is a really good idea to use hooks like this without knowledge and then keep the cartoon as focus throughout the lesson.

Having listed these questions on the board, I would then teach content / context needed to unlock the meaning and message of the cartoon.

Then I would get individuals to annotate the many different aspects of the cartoon pulling in their historical knowledge about the event.

What does the bomb represent? What about the petroleum? Who is the guy in the suit? What job did he have? Why is he pulling a communist from the box labelled communist programme?

This would then help them work out the origin and purpose of cartoon. Who made it? Why? In this way your students will apply their knowledge to work out for themselves the purpose behind this source.

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About the author
Richard McFahn

Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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