Shattering the Sabbath

Been away from the blog for ages, been helping the offspring with end of term revision.

Sunday 16th November 2014

On this, the Sabbath, let us begin with a psalm

« Out of the mouths of babes and infants » Psalm 8 (the standard English version.) I would like to add to psalm 8, an extra line – « Out of the mouths of teenage daughters » – On this – miserable grey, windswept, rain soaked November Sunday, as I am settling down for a dose of afternoon TV, my daughter creeps into the lounge and utters those traditional Sunday words that send a shudder down my spine, that make my heart sink lower than the Titanic, those words that are guaranteed to shatter a serene sabbath – « dad, will you help me revise my history ? »

When my daughter utters a lame, lengthy ponderous « Da-a-a-a-a-a-a-d ? » It is almost like the bleating of a sheep . I know from this initial ovine oratory that something awful this way cometh.

We are in that dark, dank pit that is mid November. Every commercial break on TV is crammed with Christmas, yet we are still far, very far from the festive blip. Five long weeks away, we are however winding up for Christmas, getting ready to tie up the loose ends of the year. At school it is one long round of tests – teachers trawling in their final marks before the writing of school reports and the long round of parent/teacher evenings. Those unpleasant moments when mum and dad head back to school to meet the teachers and hear the honest truth about the academic performance of their offspring. Ah, those well-worn, time honoured clichés – « must work harder … could do better …  needs support … needs encouragement … is experiencing difficulty …».

So, here we are, ready to sit down and spend a couple of fraught hours revising history for a test.

Were it only a test – the rote learning of people, places, dates, facts and figures to be trotted out in class as a sign of knowledge. We are though revising for a class essay.

Subject – The First World War

Time – Two Hours

Possible titles

Give the causes of the First World War (ok, nice and easy if not a little long and complicated on the facts.)

The First World War was inevitable – Discuss (A bit more complex this one. First we have to try and understand the question. We might have to do a plan. We’ll have to write some kind of half decent conclusion. So, what is the question about ? I guess that we are being asked to discuss the fact that the First World War could not have been avoided. With the sytem of Alliances, the muscle-flexing of the Kaiser, the prevailing nationalism of the time etc etc, some kind of war was going to break out at some point in early 20th century Europe – How do I make this into an essay ?)

Was Germany to blame for the First World War ?  (Hmmm – was it all the fault of the Kaiser and his cronies ? Guess we’ll have to weigh up the pros and cons. It’s actually quite simple. I think we are expected to talk about the system of Alliances between the major European powers that managed to drag everyone into war)

The First World War, a war like no other. Discuss   (Okay, the use of new weapons, gas, tanks, etc. We could talk about how the war of movement gave way to trench warfare. We could talk about mass conscription, the vast loss of life, the employment of women in factories for war work – the idea of total war and war communism.)

Discuss how late nineteenth century industrial and economic changes may have played a part in the outbreak of World War One (OUCH !)


Back in school I wasn’t too bad at history. I got decent enough marks and in my last two years at school I took history as one of my majors for my high school leaving diplôma (A Levels for English readers) but that was when the game changed. History was no longer about regurgitating facts – we suddenly had to write essays and of course, no one taught us how to write essays, teachers just assumed that i twas one of hose educational exercises in which we were all well drilled. I flunked history because I couldn’t write an essay. The teachers said that I never answered the set question. I never wrote what the examiners wanted, but what I thought they wanted. Guess I just didn’t understand the question.

To write a good essay ? I’m still not sure. It must have a beginning a middle and an end. You must come to some kind of conclusion, so always best to write the conclusion before the introduction. In the middle you have to weigh up the pros and cons and within all this, you have to try to answer the question (providing of course that you understand it.)

Revising with my daughter over the years, I have become well-voiced in French essay writing, though incapable of actually writing one. Analysis is more important than facts – thesis an antithesis – the more analysis and the fewer facts the better – more important though is the essay plan – kids have to give in their esay plan with their essay – a planned, logical progression of ideas organised into rigorous sections and subsections. Essay writing must follow the one thirds two thirds pattern. One third of the allotted time to write the plan and two thirds of the time to write the essay, including the first rough draft and the final copy.

So, we are revising – Learning the facts, the events, the details reciting them Parrot fashion and then organising them to learn thematically – it takes hours and as the hands of the clock crawl towards dinner time, and we have finished twenty or so pages of course notes on WW1, my daughter plunges down into the bottom of her school bag and produces a huge sheath of notes on WW2.

« You’ve got to revise both wars ? »

« Yes : the teacher says there will be questions on World war Two or a question on both wars. »

Memories of standard school essays.

The seeds of WW2 were sown in the Treaty of Versailles – Discuss

To what extente were the Von Schlieffen Plan and the Ludendorff Offensives early forms of Blitzkrieg ? 

From the Treaty of Versailles to the Marshall plan. Compare the attitudes of the victors in both wars


Sure, I am still a history buff, but I read history books for pleasure (sound strange ?) I have my favourite historians Anthony Beevor, Richrad Holmes, AJP Taylor – I enjoy reading them because no one is going to ask me to write an essay.

Frankly though is the essay the best way of evaluating knowledge. Should we just be evaluating the facts or should we rather be assessing the student’s ability to use analytical Tools. Probably a bit of both.

It’s like back in school. As little kids we learned all our multiplication tables by heart from two up to thirteen (I had some old teachers) – I could trot them out, reel them off, recite them in my sleep. I still can (more or less) and then came the day we started doing « problems » in maths, and that is where the problem started. It was taken for granted that we would all understand the problems and what mathematical solution to use – but does anyone care that there are two identical buses both carrying fifty people and one bus stops to let ten people off and another stops to let five people off, then three people get off the first bus and get on the second bus – how many people are there on each bus ? I’m not a bus driver. I don’t work in health and safety. I couldn’t give a toss how many people are in each bus. I’m just the poor bastard waiting at the bus stop in the pouring rain, I just want the bus to hurry up and get here and hopefully have enough room left for me to get on board.

Anway, time to get back to the world wars.

Conclusion – Yes, I do have a serious bone of contention about how history is taught in French schools – always thematic with little grasp of facts – it’s always good to start with some facts, though one of my daughter’s history teachers told me that “we can never assume anything is a fact. History is a series of events to which we must bring our own interpretation. Nothing can be taken as fact.”  Gives me a headache