Questions - 7 minute read
Toby Green, Historian of Precolonial Africa at King's College, London and Nick Dennis, Director of Studies at St. Francis' College, Letchworth
In this blog, Toby Green is joined by Nick Dennis an SHP Fellow and Director of Studies at St. Francis’ College, Letchworth, to answer some of the recurring questions that we have received from people interested in and wanting to teach African Kingdoms at A Level.
We strongly believe that the study of underrepresented histories should be encouraged. To that end, following the most recent reforms of the A Level and GCSE qualifications, we introduced a number of new topic options across both levels.
One such topic is pre-colonial African Kingdoms. The African Kingdoms topic covers the kingdoms of Kongo and Benin, and the empires of Songhay, Dahomey and Oyo, all of which had great wealth and power in the 15th century.
This aspect of the specification was written in collaboration with Professor Toby Green, a leading academic in this field. Over the past few months we’ve seen an increasing interest in this course and a number of new centres wishing to start teaching it, some from this September, some from next year.
We’ve also talked to several people who want to use it as focus for coursework. I am reminded of a blog we published several years ago and the words written in it by Dr Bronwen Everill where she stated:
“They will be more sophisticated historians not only because the range and depth of their knowledge will go beyond that of their peers, but because they will have already grappled with the kinds of questions that will come up again and again as they write their application statements, prepare for interviews, and experience their first year coursework.”
Studying early African history is central for any number of reasons.
In the first place, it brings much needed balance to perceptions of the African past which go way beyond slavery. By looking at the achievements of a variety of African civilizations a broader and more balanced sense of African cultural history is created.
Secondly, it helps to create a broader sense of collective histories. By seeing the similarities and of course the differences between the African past and the histories of other parts of the world, a common sense of identity can be built, something which is vital in modern mixed societies.
I would also add that one of the enormous benefits of studying the African past is the range of sources that is used -- from oral history to music, architecture, art and proverbs. This can renew a sense of what History is as a discipline and broaden its appeal for students.
One of the truisms of history teaching is that politics, family, war, money and love, and status play a role in the history of societies across the globe. Human beings are infinitely complex, but also creatures of habit.
Studying the African Kingdoms course provides a wider historical canvas for your students and a richer understanding of procedural concepts they may have already encountered. Assuming ease of understanding within a European context is misplaced.
There are always new concepts to learn, regardless of period, but that is what we enjoy about history as a subject and also what we do as history teachers, which is to make the past connect to the present and to the students.
Students will suffer if you do not do the work (the same as teaching any subject, even with areas you are familiar with) and if you present them with a narrow curriculum, reducing their ability to compare and contrast social and political organisation across continents.
For example, how is it harder than having to introduce the concept of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and then explain that it wasn’t a nation-state, or a territorial state, but an entity that was diverse, had very small political units and had states within it that wanted their own place in the sun? Students find it difficult to grasp that you could have economic union without political union (the Zollverein) and we still find it hard to understand now (the relationship with the EU)!
Short answer: nerves! There is a perception that there are no resources and networks for them to tap into. There are plenty of resources to help (see below) including Zeinab Badawi’s History of Africa series on the BBC and YouTube. It also stems from the fact that most schools are not aware of the unit. This blog is one way to get the message out there!
There's plenty of really accessible information now available, including textbooks, lesson plans, and more. Start with the general introductory textbook written for the history secondary syllabus in West Africa on the West African Senior School Certificate Examination website.
Then you can read the textbook for A level written for the A level option. If you want something more in depth you can try Michael Gomez's African Dominion for Ancient Mali and Songhay, and Toby Green's A Fistful of Shells for West Africa since 1400.
The two online textbooks above are really good places to start to build knowledge. You can then explore the webinars available on the African Kingdoms website for more in depth discussion.
Ready made schemes of work and lesson plans are already available also at africankingdoms.co.uk under the Teaching Aids tab (KS 2, 3, and 5). Resources are being added to all the time on the GoogleDrive too.
The African Kingdoms site has a wealth of resources, including a webinar series by Dr Toby Green and Professor Trevor Getz covering a number of West African kingdoms and also a great range of resources for teaching with, including proverbs and art/architecture.
Teachers have also uploaded the resources they have created to the site and they can be downloaded and used for free. There is a burgeoning network of educators across the country who are passionate about the topic and are sharing ideas, tips and lesson plans so you can tap into this community.
We hope that our article has answered some of your questions. As mentioned, we have a number of new school’s keen on teaching this unit and we’d love to create a network to help with support. If you’re interested in teaching African Kingdoms, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org – we would love to talk to you.
You can submit your comments below or follow us on Twitter @OCR_History. And if you haven’t already, sign up for our email updates.
Nick Dennis is currently Director of Studies at St. Francis’ College, Letchworth and also a Fellow of the School History Project. He presented a series of historical documentary programmes for the World History Project where he also sits on the advisory board. Alongside teaching, Nick has worked with a variety of organisations including Euroclio, Europeana and Apple. Nick has published articles/chapters on history education, diversity, educational research, the use of technology to enhance learning and is a regular book reviewer for the TES magazine.
Toby Green is a historian of precolonial Africa teaching at King's College, London. He is the author of A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution, and was the lead external consultant in the development of OCR's African Kingdoms A level option. He has worked collaboratively with institutions in Angola, Brazil, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and The Gambia. He also enjoys baking bread and trying to fight off cabbage white butterflies on his allotment with his family.