OCR’s reformed History A Level is being taught this term for the first time. To mark Black History Month, OCR spoke to Julie Curtis, Head of History at The Piggott School in Berkshire, who is teaching one of the new topics – on pre-colonial African Kingdoms.
“When we reformed our History A Level, we made our syllabus broader and longer – broader in geography and further back in time,” said OCR’s Head of History, Mike Goddard. “This will help young people to become more sophisticated global citizens with a broader understanding of the world. We kept the favourites such as the Tudors and modern European history, but introduced ten new options including India and Japan. Our oldest topic is the Rise of Islam c 550-750 and our most modern is Britain 1951-1997. And we are the only board offering a ground-breaking new topic on pre-colonial African Kingdoms, developed with the help of experts at Kings College London.”
The new 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.
Q1: What’s new about the Africa Kingdoms topic?
“This course looks so differently at Africa. It gives us the impression of a people more in charge of their lives and not as victims, which is the stereotype. We also are used to seeing Africa as one country, but the truth is very different and this topic challenges that view. In the West we have a preconception as Africa being poor where the people are passive - whether becoming slaves, being colonised or receiving aid.”
Q2: How have you found teaching the topic so far?
"My students are really enjoying this topic and so am I. It is good to be teaching something really different, and something that changes your perceptions. I feel like we are exploring the history of a hidden continent.”
Q3: Have there been any surprises for you or your students?
“Students have been surprised to discover examples of Africans being in charge – for example how advanced the Songhay Kingdom, part of the Mali Empire, was during the 15th and 16th centuries. Parts of Africa were more developed than most of Europe – in fact European scholars travelled to the University of Timbuktu to study. They were even doing cataract operations in the Sahel in that era! We were also surprised to find there was already an internal slave trade in some places, and that the art and culture were very advanced.”
Q4: Why is this a good topic for A Level history?
"The topic's an excellent preparation for higher education. Students taking it will really stand out when they apply for university. There are not many source materials for the period, nor accepted views of the topic to influence them. This puts more onus on students to conduct research and develop their own views."
Q5: What are your highlights?
“One of the most enjoyable moments so far was a discussion about which of the leaders in the Songhay and the Askia Dynasty achieved the most. We had to be led only by the evidence we had in front of us. We have had a lot of lively discussion!”
Q6: Have you encountered any problems?
“One slight drawback is the small amount of source materials. There is a small e-book, but it’s not like the big fat textbooks the students are used to, so it can make them feel a bit insecure. On the other hand, it does make them think more for themselves, so having fewer resources is a double-edged sword.”
Q7: How do you plan for such a varied syllabus?
“We will combine African Kingdoms with the topic on the 1930s and Churchill, to get a good spread of time and place. A few years ago, we studied the First Crusade, which was a very different approach from the usual topics, such as the Russian Revolution and Hitler. This time I wanted to study a completely different time and place.”
Mike Goddard, Head of History at OCR, continued: “Julie's experience with this course so far suggests that it is being successful in three of our main aims: challenging received notions of modernity (recognising the legitimacy and achievements of other civilisations), challenging our understanding of history as a discipline (using other types of sources and evidence), and, importantly, making history fun, interesting and fresh. All of these have been argued for during our consultations with historians. We congratulate Julie for her willingness to take on this challenge, and to learn alongside her learners – that is what good historians, and teachers, do.”
OCR is offering an annual prize for AS Level students taking the pre-colonial African Kingdoms paper. Entries will be jointly judged and awarded by OCR and Kings College London with whom OCR developed the new topic. The prize is open to students taking the paper at AS Level in summer 2016.
An ebook written by Dr Toby Green of Kings College London is available: Download the African Kingdoms ebook
Watch our video about the African Kingdoms topic