Rethinking the curriculum: how did Yasmin Khan help make teaching the Second World War more meaningful, motivating and empowering? 

     As part of our work looking at how teachers are rethinking their curriculum, the History Team is delighted to share the following from History teachers Zaiba Patel and David Hibbert. Concerned that their history curriculum relied on familiar and oft-repeated narratives of the Second World War, Patel and Hibbert sought a fresh take and a wider view of the war, looking at the contribution of British Empire countries, and India in particular. They embarked on an exciting project, working with historian Yasmin Khan to film an interview which would form a central part of a new enquiry looking at how historians work with historical evidence to reach conclusions about the Second World War.

Rethinking our teaching of the Second World War – where did we start?

We came to work with historian Yasmin Khan having wanted a fresh take on teaching the Second World War. References to the Second World War are widespread in popular culture and occupy an important space in collective national memory in Britain. Despite the obvious significance of the war, we felt bored and jaded with our teaching of it. We lurched from battle to battle, mainly situated on the Western Front, with little opportunity to explore the many ways in which the Second World War has influenced Britain and the wider world. We had not equipped pupils to navigate the often emotive, mythologised and politicised narratives around the war.

In searching for this fresh take, we approached our previous PGCE mentor, the wonderful Dr Jason Todd, at Oxford University. As busy teachers, despite our best efforts, we often lacked the time to get up to date with the latest historiography. We knew Jason would bring the expertise, knowledge and experience we needed – and his recommendation of Yasmin Khan’s book, The Raj at War, proved extremely fruitful.

How The Raj at War offered us a new perspective

Khan’s work shone a light on aspects of the Second World War that had been obscured by various mythologies surrounding the period. Her focus on India provided a different dimension to the narratives we were more familiar with – which usually focused on the Western Front. The larger story she told of the British Empire broadened our contextual lens of the war, giving an often-omitted two-sided perspective on how Britain and its Empire both shaped and were shaped by one another. This added breadth helped to cement the significance of the Second World War, providing scope for us in the classroom to address the ways in which its aftermath shaped contemporary Britain and the world.  

In addition to this, Khan’s work helped us to address the tricky concept of working with historical evidence. We wanted to offer students examples of Khan’s methodology when tackling evidential challenges surrounding Indian experiences in the conflict. We hoped this window into how a historian operated would empower pupils to feel they had the right and the capability to participate in history. We were concerned by research that showed student perception of historians as mainly middle class, white men, and felt that Khan offered a vivid example of a historian conducting ambitious and important work.

So, what next?

Bearing all of this in mind, we settled on an enquiry question, which we broke down into parts to explain our thinking behind each element:

How does the historian, Yasmin Khan, use evidence to reach conclusions about experiences of the Second World War?

The question is specifically on Yasmin Khan and the way that she has engaged with evidence.

The question explicitly connects evidential thinking and historical interpretations.

The question seeks to echo the social focus of Yasmin’s work and to adopt a comparative perspective.

In a joint planning meeting, we decided on a scheme of work, which you can see outlined in the figure below. We decided that the best way for the students to better understand and participate in the evidential thinking was to have Khan speak directly to them about her methods.

With Jason’s knowledge of the University, we were able to approach Yasmin Khan about her work and the prospect of making a film. We provided her with a brief in which we outlined our plans for the scheme of work, the age of students we were targeting, and some questions we wanted her to answer in the film. In order to make the film, we enlisted the help of two Year 12 media students, who were happy to film and edit it for us for some extracurricular credit. While working with our lovely Year 12s was a great success, we’d like to reassure those tech-averse among us that filming a video on a phone, recording a virtual meeting, or having an in-lesson video call has also proved very effective since! No need for any complicated video-editing software.

When filming was complete, we decided that we would situate the film clip halfway through the lesson sequence – after the students had done some detailed work scrutinising popular British narratives about the First World War. This understanding helped students to develop contextual knowledge and make Khan’s alternative perspective on the war more impactful.

We planned the lessons so that the film clip was used to support students in solving evidential problems alongside Khan. In the clip, Khan posed complex questions to the pupils, perhaps about a piece of evidence or argument, allowing them to wrestle with it before seeing her approach. There was a substantial difficulty level involved in these tasks, especially for our year 8 classes. They were asked to contend with the same problems as a historian, decipher complicated fragments of evidence, and read from Khan’s book. We mitigated these issues through careful scaffolding and support. Working in groups, experiencing the excitement of ‘meeting’ a historian who posed challenges to them, and giving plenty of time for discussion and modelling of the thinking, all helped to make the process motivating and doable.

It was also important to consider how the lessons worked in relation to the curriculum as a whole. After a larger structural rethink in David’s school, India now appeared as a substantive thread running throughout the curriculum, ensuring that students did not encounter either India or Yasmin Khan in isolation. Students considered Mughal emperor Akbar when studying the sixteenth century and traversed British India in detail during their unit focusing on the British Empire. The lessons on the Second World War would play a key role in connecting students to a later study of the 1947 partition of India, where we also revisited Khan’s arguments from The Raj at War about the significance of the Second World War through working with her previous book, The Great Partition

What will we take away from this experience?

Working with Khan shaped not only our teaching of the Second World War, but our schemes of work beyond this. Zaiba has since worked with local historians and community organisations to plan her history lessons. We cannot emphasise enough the value in drawing on outside expertise. In doing so, for pupils, lessons have taken on an importance beyond the four walls of our classroom, and they have begun to see history as it functions and shapes society. It has similarly been enriching for us as teachers, extending our subject knowledge and reinvigorating our relationship with history.

The revised scheme of work enabled the students to truly participate in doing history, bettering their understanding of the discipline while engaging vividly and directly with a historian. Calls for diversifying content are incredibly important, but what should simultaneously be emphasised is the pedagogical tools needed to make this learning meaningful. We must consider how to empower pupils to realise that history is not just the unreachable preserve of the elite; we may all be participants in the writing and telling of history. 

Zaiba Patel is a History teacher at a school in Oxford. She is completing a Masters degree at the University of Oxford in learning and teaching. Follow her on Twitter @Zaiba__

David Hibbert is a History teacher and Head of Humanities at a school in Oxford. He also founded the Virtually Teachers podcast. Follow him on Twitter @DavidJHibbert

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