Cross-subject extension in French and History: a brief reflection on practice

By Alastair Dunn.


As I have noted in a previous post, there is no single effective way to deliver extension teaching, especially in the Humanities. One model that has long interested me, as a History teacher, is the potential for cross-subject extension. For many years the debate that has pitted skills against content in teaching and learning has perhaps excluded an even more important issue – the interdependence of academic disciplines. While I am far from uncritical in my view of some university teaching, the tertiary sector (partly impelled by research needs) has for decades been more open than many schools to cross-disciplinary work.

The capacity to frame an argument, to interrogate evidence, to draw together materials, and to derive broader conclusions are, of course, all important skills, but the historian must also be adaptable to operating in the territory of other disciplines.  There is no single discrete and self-contained set of skills for the historian due to the diversity and heterogeneity of the subject. Languages, both modern and ancient, are of critical importance to the work of so many historians. All sixth form history study should include the use of material in a language other than English, and teachers from these subject areas should collaborate to make this happen. Of course, the flow of knowledge can go in many directions, and MFL teachers should make use of historians, art historians and economists to give context to their study of French, Spanish and German, or of any other language.

Over the past year I have been working with a group of sixth form students of French to explore the historical context behind some of their texts, and also to give some general background. This was delivered through four extension sessions on: France’s revolutions, 1789-1958; the Dreyfus case; France under occupation and Vichy Rule; and French politics since 1945.

The sessions were structured as presentations followed by questions and discussions, and the supporting materials such as images and texts were shared via Office 365. In future I would hope to make direct use of original printed sources and examples of material culture during the sessions.

Resourcing the sessions required some creativity but only limited expense. Trawling the brocante (France’s own unique take on the car-boot sale), can – with patient dredging – yield up extraordinary treasures at little cost, including bundles of cheaply priced news magazines such as L’Illustration and Le Miroir, from the two world wars, and even original Second World War documents such as curfew passes signed and stamped by the German police. A second fantastic resource for French-language history, at all levels of difficulty, is the charity Emmaüs, where an entire box of books may only cost a few Euros. However perhaps the finest resource of all is the extraordinary Gallica digitisation project of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF), now in its eighteenth year, and a very well established tool in university teaching and learning.

Laissez-Passer 1

Using original primary sources in Extension teaching – Curfew pass in French and German, issued in Le Mans, 1941

In terms of impact the course was delivered to a fairly small group and so it has not yet been possible to track the input against public exam results or university offers. However if this mini-extension course does result in any of the participants reading History in French beyond the literary set texts, then my objective will have been fulfilled.  I would hope to extend this programme through further sessions, such as on the social and political context of French art at key moments in its history.