A Level Secondary Secondary History

Secondary History – How to argue at A Level

Can you negotiate your hostage’s path to freedom?

But it’s really hard, it’s a big step up Miss’.

This was the slightly hysterical cry of one of my not-quite-so-new Year 12 students last week. Indeed when they come back after the enviably long post-GCSE summer break, students often enter into a very different learning environment (complete with very different uniform!) from whence they left. Whilst I will never lower the expectations I have of what my students can achieve, I sometimes wonder if I need to pay a little more attention to this transitional phase. Not only is there a big step up in the level of historical detail we expect them to master at the beginning of AS, but the pressure to get the course started, mould anywhere between 10 and 20 disparate individuals into a cohesive ‘class’and just get them to talk to each other, all seems to conspire against the relaxed and gentle entry into AS for which the majority of them are begging by the end of week one.

One month in, and still I am faced with a wall of foot-shuffling silence when I try and lead my class of ever-so-slightly more cohesive students towards a discussion. So this year I decided to take definitive discourse-inducing action. Inspired by an episode of The Philosopher’s Arms on Radio 4, I thought about the skills required by a hostage negotiator and how they could be deployed by the argumentative historian.

What we are asking students to do at AS level is to build an analytical argument, sustain it, support it with evidence, and draw it to a close in a substantiated conclusion. The hostage negotiator at the Philosopher’s Arms spoke of how she needed to create and support her argument, and the importance of being able to defend it against attack. Whilst there are many obvious differences between the negotiator and the historian, this focus on presentation of opinion, use of supportive evidence and negotiation towards a successful conclusion gave me an idea…

The Year 12 class were working on an argument in answer to the question:
The revolutions of the 1820s and 1830s failed primarily due to Austrian intervention.’ How far do you agree with this statement?

Students had already decided on four key factors, including the titled statement, which they felt explained the failure of the revolutions. The consequent negotiating activity worked as follows:

  1. Divide the class into teams of 3 (or 5 in a larger class – just as long as they are an uneven number)
  2. Each group then decides which of the agreed factors they consider to be the most significant (e.g. their pro-argument) and begin to gather evidence to support their statement.
  3. They also gather evidence to support the remaining three factors (the counter argument).
  4. At the end of preparation time (I allowed 14 minutes – I never work in multiples of 5!) you pitch two teams against each other. If you have an uneven number of teams you could go for a triad formation.
  5. One team in the pair opts/is chosen to go first, and to select one member of their opposing team to take hostage. Often I found students made a hostage of the one they considered to be the most able negotiator. I both commended their sneakiness and was pleased that shyer or less forward students would therefore be induced to argue.
  6. It is now the role of the hostage’s remaining team-mates to secure his/her release by arguing against the hostage-takers. The hostage’s team are therefore able to state the argument they’ve built around their chosen most significant factor (see step 2) whilst the hostage-taking team are forced to use their arguments for the remaining three factors.
  7. (The hostage is free to be as irritating as they like, bearing in mind their captors could metaphorically silence them at any point…)
  8. At the end of an agreed period of negotiation (I chose 6 minutes but a shorter time span might be appropriate for younger students) the hostage takers must make a decision: if they consider the argument put forward by the hostage’s team to be adequate, they are duty bound to release the hostage. If they consider it inadequate, the hostage forms part of their team (reluctantly or otherwise!).
  9. The next round then begins with teams smaller, larger or unchanged. Should a team that began as 3 fail to negotiate the successful release of their second hostage they cease to exist. Depending on the size of your class, the depth of argument to be made or the number of factors available you can run this either until you have one enormous team left, are simply hearing the same argument on loop, or the bell rings.

My negotiation situations were based on the failure of the 1820s and 1830s revolutions in pre-unification Italy, but since then I have applied them to the February Revolution of 1917, the downfall of the Weimar Republic, and the contribution of President Gorbachev to the end of the Cold War. I’ve also discovered Year 10 can create arguments to rival Year 12!

My year 12 students all said they really enjoyed this activity. The quality of argument I heard listening in to various negotiating teams was far more advanced than I have seen at this stage in the year before, and the consequent essay plans they turned in showed the interlinking of factors and maintained a clear focus on the question. Most importantly for me, every single student made a contribution and showed they could both create and defend an historical argument. And all hostages were eventually safely returned to their teams!

Charlotte Grove
History Teacher, Dame Alice Owen’s School

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